The press information for “Ninjas Vs Zombies” explains the concept and strategy behind this indie horror film. Screenwriter and director Justin Timpane “spent an afternoon in a Blockbuster looking for ‘the film they haven’t made yet.’ … By studying the small but fierce fanbases of Joss Whedon and Kevin Smith, we realized that a smartly told, violent but funny, surprising film with (and this is important) a high ‘quotability’ factor would elevate the film beyond that impulse rental to the ‘you have to see this’ status.”
The information goes on to say that their second strategy was to create a “human interest story.” They cite “El Mariachi,” “Clerks,” “Blair Witch,” and “Evil Dead” as examples of this. I’ve quoted these passages to highlight the main problem with “Ninjas Vs Zombies” – it seems too calculated and formulaic. Rather than reflect the screenwriter’s authentic voice, it tries very hard to ape the voice of others – Smith in particular. In the end, it feels like a parody, a pastiche or worse.
The film begins with Randall (Dan Guy) dressed in a hooded cloak and incanting a spell to bring his brother, Eric (PJ Megaw), back from the dead. He succeeds, only Eric is now a soul-sucking “evil” and nearly omnipotent being who transforms others into zombies. About midway through the film, Randall and his friends Fitz (Daniel Mascarello), Cole (Cory Eskridge Okouchi), and Kyle (Daniel Ross) are themselves transformed into ninjas, and they battle ad nauseum with the zombies. In between fights, they gather with other friends, including Eric’s girlfriend Lily (Carla Okouchi), Ann (Melissa McConnell) and Kara (Tara Moore), and try to sound as if they just stepped out of the first draft of a Kevin Smith script. (For some reason that isn’t particularly germane to whole ninja vs zombies scenario, Cole goes to a job interview, and while there begins muttering on about “Star Wars.” Between Smith, “Family Guy” and “Robot Chicken,” I think we’ve heard about enough about “Star Wars.”) For good measure, we even have a scene – a pointless one but a scene none-the-less – in which Kara shows Lily her new underwear, turning around to reveal her thong-enhanced buttocks. Apparently women sit around in bedrooms doing this. Or was this just another calculated way to get the 14-year-old viewers excited?
I am always ambivalent when it comes to reviewing an independent film, such as “Ninjas Vs Zombies.” In general, no one is getting paid. The actors do it, hoping to become famous or they just want the work. The director and producers often pay for the film out of their own pocket, typically by maxing out credit cards or wearing out their welcome at family gatherings. They are making the film, because it fulfills a childhood dream. Most of the time, they are too close to the product to truly evaluate its “worth,” for lack of a better word, so they release it to the world, thinking that their joy and passion will translate to a stellar product. Sadly, in most cases, their films are seriously flawed; usually cringe-inducing. The acting is typically uneven with the really bad actors ruining the memory of any good acting. The writing is hackneyed, and the jokes funny probably only to the person who wrote them. And the make-up and stage combat are poorly executed. Now let’s bring this “in general” discussion back to “Ninjas Vs Zombies.” Almost everything I said applies.
On the plus side, there are some good performances. Guy and Ross feel the most natural in their roles. Ross is maniac in a Jack Black way, and he made me laugh at least one time. Not surprisingly, his short bio reveals that he’s the most experienced of the actors, having done voice over work. For a first feature film, “Ninjas Vs Zombies” is well filmed and edited. That said a lot of scenes could have been excised. The film was almost schizophrenic in the way it careened from quasi-horror (nothing is scary, disturbing or horrific) to fantasy to martial arts. I have no problem with mixing genres, but if you’re going to do it, do it well. Don’t just have a Harry Potter moment, followed by one out of “Dawn of the Dead,” followed by another from a Shaw Brothers film.
I don’t know how readily available “Ninjas Vs Zombies” is going to be, but I doubt that a major distributor will pick it up. The result is pretty much what you would expect to get when a group of amateur filmmaking friends come together and make a film. Will anyone rent this movie – if that option is ever available – based on its title? Probably. Will anyone like it? Undoubtedly. (I’m still stupefied to this day that Eli Roth has a career. Some people actually liked “Cabin Fever.” Amazing.) Who might enjoy it? People who think “Clerks” is the funniest film in the world. Maybe them. As for me, I might not have been a fan, but I certainly admire the tenacity of the filmmakers and everyone involved. At least they can say that they made a film.
Justin Timpane (director) / Justin Timpane (screenplay)
CAST: Daniel Ross … Kyle
Cory Okouchi … Cole
Carla Okouchi … Lily
P.J. Megaw … Eric
Dan Guy … Randall
Daniel Mascarello … Fitz
Melissa McConnell … Anne