NINJA BUSTERS, the unreleased and long-lost opus of DEATH MACHINES' Paul Kyriazi, hits Blu-ray courtesy of new label Garagehouse Pictures.
Chic (co-writer Sid Campbell, HONKY TONK NIGHTS) and Bernie (Eric Lee, RING OF FIRE) are two warehouse workers for Dragon Imports who try to pick up women with the tall tale of being, respectively, Bruce Lee's trainer and top student. After getting their asses handed to them, first by their smuggler boss Santos' (Juan Morales) enforcers and then by biker Jack (Jack Fuller) and his younger cohort Sonny (Frank Navarro, who also scored the film), Chic and Bernie enroll at a martial arts school. The two are at first more interested in picking up the female students than earning their black belts, despite the disciplinary measures of Master (Gerald Okamura, BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA) and Junior Master Romero (Carlos Navarro, THE WEAPONS OF DEATH), until Sonny enrolls and challenges Bernie to a fight once they've earned their black belts. Three years later, the fight ends ROCKY III-style and everyone makes up, Chic is training new student Kathy (Dalia Guiterrez) and Bernie is courting the flexible Tina (Nancy Lee, FAME). When Chic and Bernie follow Santos and his men to a weapons deal with the Liberation Army, they witness a massacre at the hands of Santos' hired ninja. Chic and Bernie escape with their lives, but Santos sends the ninja to eliminate them and any other witnesses.
Although it missed the ninja craze of the early 1980s initiated by THE OCTAGON and Cannon's ENTER THE NINJA by a hair, NINJA BUSTERS (had it been released) would have been comfortable among Troma's 1980s pick-ups if promoted as a spoof rather than a serious action film (even with its comic relief elements, both intentional and not). Statically-shot (although the width and depth of the Panavision framing are well utilized in these long take sequences) and amateurishly-acted, the film remains admirable for its love of the genre, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink plotting (which throws in gangsters, bikers, break-dancers, and Latin musicians) and DIY moxy. The energetic if not always well-choreographed or dynamically-filmed fights move from anonymous junk yards and warehouses to the martial arts school to Romero's nightclub and even a gym full of Spandex-clad 1980s aerobic extras. The lack of nudity or blood might have made this one a hard sell mid-1980s on the grindhouse circuit, but it might have made enjoyable late night TV fare. Kyriazi followed it up with the scarcely released cop thriller ONE WAY OUT and the direct-to-video OMEGA COP. Actor Frank Navarro's synth score is described as John Carpenter-esque in the liner notes, although it really only quotes Carpenter in the CHRISTINE-esque music stings while the rest of the score is flavorless 1980s accompaniment. While not a rediscovered masterpiece, NINJA BUSTERS is highly entertaining as an action comedy where the unintentionally funny elements are more amusing than the wisecracks and pratfalls.
Transferred from a 4K scan of a rare fine grain Fujicolor 35mm answer print discovered by Exhumed Films' Harry Guerro, the 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 2.35:1 encode NINJA BUSTERS looks "pristine" (as touted in the promotional materials) with a reasonably crisp image, strong colors (with occasional blown-out highlights seemingly the fault of the lighting and perhaps the color correction to make the whites in the costumes and set dressing pure), and good detail in the sets' cheap woodwork, the wrinkles of martial arts uniforms, and the blown-out 1980s hair. The LPCM 2.0 track is punchy when it comes to the scoring but the flatness of the dialogue and effects are the fault of the original recording and mixing (with some low levels and clipping that in the dialogue that does not affect the rest of the mix).
The film is accompanied by an audio commentary with director Kyriazi, opening with his remark that the title sequence (with close-ups of the actors turning on a swivel chair) was inspired by the cast introductions of Boris Karloff's THRILLER, and that the production was started in 1981 – as a follow-up to WEAPONS OF DEATH with Campbell and Lee – and staggered over three periods and finishing in 1984. Campbell penned the original script and it was expanded by William C. Martell (VIRTUAL COMBAT) who also authored the book "The Secrets of Action Screenwriting", and that Carlos Navarro and Morales had a karate school in San Francisco that did philanthropic work with local youth. He recalls his cast affectionately, including several of the extras and what they were doing outside of the film, and cites all of the work done by credited and uncredited second unit crew. He credits the 1:1 shooting ratio as much to the budget as to being a fan of Mike Nichols (THE GRADUATE) and provides some interesting tips about making films on a low budget with little production value (including things he learned observing the audiences of his earlier films). The optional introduction by director Paul Kyriazi (2:30) also includes an appearance by Fumiko Takahashi who briefly appears in the film as the Dragon Lady ninja trainer.
Also included is Kyriazi's earlier short film "The Tournament" (48:47) featuring a German fencer, Japanese samurai, an Indian mystic, and others turned away from an "English only" fencing tournament who set out to challenge "The Spaniard" who has become captain of the town guard. The film was shot in Techniscope, a 2-perf format that allowed shooting a widescreen image on spherical lenses (which required less light than early CinemaScope and Panavision lenses) and could capture twice as much footage per reel as 4-perf 35mm. Since the filmmakers ran out of funds after a week of color shooting and came back a year later in monochrome, THE TOURNAMENT may be the only (or at least one of a very few) Techniscope films to be lensed in black and white. As expected, the short length and black and white made the film unreleasable (too bad Sam Sherman didn't pick it up, shoot new scenes, and color tint the black and white). It is baffling, because this was not some student film or home movie. It was lensed in 35mm, processed by Technicolor, had a professional mix by Ryder Sound Services, suggesting a chunk of change for very limited screening opportunities. There is no trailer for the film but the disc also includes "Fan Testimonials" (1:52) from Exhumed Films' Guilty Pleasures II screening. (Eric Cotenas)
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