Ninja Busters – A Crap-Cinema Masterpiece Nearly Lost to the Sands of Time
Art, literature, invention – the entire human endeavor is staggering in its simultaneous vastness and impermanence. For every Michelangelo’s David there are incalculable numbers of marble masterpieces that have crumbled to nothing – not even a footnote or a memory. If Emily Dickenson’s kid sister Lavinia hadn’t discovered her secret cache of over 1800 poems, who knows if the dozen or so poems published during her short lifetime would’ve been sufficient to earn her a portrait on this novelty coffee mug. What about the reclusive weirdoes whose siblings couldn’t care less? What of their mad scribblings? And film – the loss of film may be the most heartbreaking. Film is our best estimation of a captured present – true moments recreated in shadows and light. But the use of highly flammable nitrate film, followed by the inevitably vinegaring safety film, has allowed so much of our film history to fall into a void of disrepair, decay and oblivion. 90% of America’s silent film made before 1929 and 50% of sound film before 1950 is gone – just gone.
So much of preservation is about proper storage, but does every strip of film make it into the climate-controlled vault? Hardly! Only what the contemporary experts think is worthy of keeping around – the good stuff. It gives us a false sense of history to have only the sanctioned ‘best’ stand the test of time. It skews the ratio of good to bad art and makes the present look terrible by comparison. It infects people with rose-colored nostalgia and an anti-progressive longing for the good old days. A chamber pot is just a nasty old chamber post until is crosses the invisible threshold and becomes a fancy antique chamber pot. A poorly executed B movie is just something to shit on until it becomes an invaluable snapshot into a bygone era and a bottomless well of perspective.
There are heroes in this tragic tale of the high cost of deterioration, real-life Indiana Joneses that are willing to scour the harshest corners of the globe in search of rusted out film cans that may hold the equivalent of the crap-cinema Holy Grail. Enter our swashbuckling cinematic archeologist, Harry Guerro of Garagehouse Films. As a dedicated film collector and crap-cinephile, he has made it his personal mission to find, restore, and distribute the best of the worst-of-the-worst. It was on one fateful day that he braved his way into a warehouse on the edge of the Mojave Desert and stumbled upon the Nag Hammadi of truly bizarre movies including Chris Robinson’s The Intruder (1975), Zoltan G. Spencer’s The Satanist (1968), and the pièce de résistance, Paul Kyriazi’s Ninja Busters (1984).
Ninja Busters is the Rosetta Stone of garbage ninja movies. If you really study it, cross-referencing the blatant misogyny with the casual but well-intentioned racism with the demoded charm of the fitted corduroy pant, you unlock a new level of understanding of the naiveté of the 1980s.
On the surface, Ninja Busters is a film about two best friends, Chic (Sid Campbell) and Bernie (Eric Lee), who can’t get laid so they try to join a women’s martial arts class in order to ogle and woo ad nauseam. It’s also a film about that under the surface. The wisdom of the Sensei (Gerald Okamura) eventually penetrates their thick skulls, and through a series of montages accompanied by jazz flute, they become Kung Fu masters. They stumble upon an arms deal between the leader of the Latin gangers, Santos (Juan Morales) and the unnamed, animal print pajama clad power-to-the-people gang. Their Kung Fu school is forced to face Santos’ mercenary army of ninja bodyguards – hence the ninja busting.
The bulk of the charm of Ninja Busters rests squarely on the shoulders of our two leading lotharios, Sid Campbell and Eric Lee, and, as far as I’m concerned, their performance is a revelation – proof positive that acting talent and charisma are two entirely independent attributes. Their acting is inarguably atrocious, awkward and unnatural, but they are nonetheless irresistibly entertaining. It’s like watching the Puppy Bowl – who cares if they puppies can’t play football, y’know? For Sid Campbell, this was clearly a labor of love. He was one of the co-writers of the script, and delivers the lines with the confidence of the man who believes in the material, the nuance of a man who has little to no acting experience or talent, and the un-sureness of a man who has no idea what to do with his arms. The result is a performance style that is not unlike Mike Nesmith in season one of The Monkees without that sweet White Out fortune to fall back on. Eric Lee is obviously the more experienced actor of the two, with several acting credits already under his belt by the time Ninja Busters rolled around, granted most of the roles were ‘Thug in Alley,’ ‘Kung Fu Fighter,’ ‘Asian Thug,’ etcetera. The imbalance of experience gives their scenes a tilted chemistry, like Eric is showing Sid the ropes. In one scene, Sid excitedly steps on one of Eric’s lines and Eric quiets him with a gesture and finishes his speech, then Sid jumps back in, restarting the line with the exact same intonation and enthusiasm. The fact that this lightly botched take made the final cut is adorable, and makes you wonder what was left on the cutting room floor.
Maybe the ladies of the Kung Fu school not swooning after Chic and Bernie’s pathetic come-ons was considered feminist by 1984 crap-cinema standards. They rebuffed Chic’s catcalls while they were in the hot tub, smacked Bernie when he attempted to talk dirty to them, and gave them the number to the police department instead of their personal numbers when propositioned - all evidence of a semblance of self-esteem. But for all the time they spent at the school, they never really seemed to get any better at Kung Fu. Once Chic and Bernie are honored with Kung Fu master status, they do earn the company of two of their female classmates – Cathy (Dalia Guiterrez) and Tina (Nancy Lee - ‘Oriental Student’ in Fame). Cathy is a beginner student, whom Sensei entrusted to Chic to teach her the basics. Tina was one of the classmates from the beginning of the film who has presumably been at the school longer than our protagonists, but as far as I can tell her skills are limited to receiving leg massages and walking on the Sensei’s back. When all hell breaks loose with the ninja situation, they manage to take part in the ancient art of cowering and getting kidnapped. The scene where they get nabbed happens to take part in an aerobics school. Our champions have escaped a nightclub where the ninjas had them surrounded, and ran right into a Jazzercise class where leotard clad women are getting their sweat on. Kung Fu vs. ninja fights break out everywhere – the classroom, the workout room, the locker room with sauna – and the walls are lined with shrieking women wearing legwarmers. It is shrill and spectacular.
For what Sid Campbell and Eric Lee lack in acting ability, they do make up for in martial arts skills. They had worked together on another one of Paul Kyriazi’s marital arts films, The Weapons of Death. Eric was the star and Sid was the fight choreographer. They nun-chuck their way through the jazzy montages of Ninja Busters with relative ease. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem like they could get many of their martial arts friends on set. When the ninja army finally steps out of the shadows at the junkyard where Santos’ arms deal was going down, it is indisputable that they were making up for quality with quantity. There are plenty of black-clad ninjas darting around the dilapidated cars and getting in fisticuffs, but they are not so hot at the ninja-ing. They run gracelessly and attempt to somersault over car hoods, but the result is laughable. The climax of the film takes place at a Santos’ warehouse – a final show down of Kung Fu school and the local biker gang (don’t ask) vs. Santos and his hired ninjas. The direction was probably, “have at it boys!” and the final scene is a joyous romp of sloppy martial arts that you have to see to believe.
When I imagine Harry Guerro retrieving the film cans containing the reels of Ninja Busters from the warehouse on the edge of the desert, I imagine them on a booby-trapped pedestal like the fertility idol in Raiders of the Lost Ark, but instead of replacing them with a bag of sand, the bullwhip wielding Guerro exchanges them with an enormous pair of brass balls. All of the time and effort that was put into restoring a craptastic film like Ninja Busters for the 2015 blu-ray release is ridiculous and miraculous. Those blu-rays, unfortunately, have become scarce and the film is not streaming anywhere and the dark shadow of obsolescence looms once again. I had the good fortune of seeing this movie at a house party of film enthusiasts to whom I am forever indebted. If you can find a couple of fellow film freaks to go in on a $100 copy of the blu-ray, I promise you it will be money well spent and time well shared. I don’t want to live in a present where films like Ninja Busters are lost forever, the stuff of myth and legend.