My Lost Movie Found in Desert Hell Hole
Let’s start with the miracle first. Ninja Busters was shot on 35mm film and released by an independent film distributor in 1984. Because he stole all the money from the six movies he released, including Ninja Busters, he went to prison for six years. Consequently, the only print of Ninja Busters that was struck disappeared along with the distribution company.
In December of 2012, film collector Harry Guerro, of Exhumed Films and Garage House Pictures, was informed of a possible film storage room in California, on the edge of the Mojave desert, where there might be some trashed movies. In a ‘hell-hole of a room’ as Harry calls it, there were 200 movies in rusty film cans. Many of the prints has turned to rust and rusted right out of the metal cans they were in.
However, the print of Ninja Busters was amongst them and in good shape. So Harry loaded up the 200 prints into a rental truck and drove across America to New Jersey, braving some giant snow and ice storms; “The worst I’ve ever seen,” Harry says.
Harry had the Ninja Busters print protected with a special coating under the supervision of film restoration expert Helge Bernhardt. Next, Harry showed Ninja Busters along with many other ‘exploitation movies’, at his Ex-Fest Marathon, a 3 day film festival. The audience howled with laughter as the comedy unreeled onto the screen via the 30 year old print. I received email from fans saying “It was hilarious.” And “I had tears in my eyes from laughing.” People continued talking about the movie throughout the festival, so Harry figured that Ninja Busters was worth a Blu-ray release.
That’s when Harry contacted me about supporting the project and doing an introduction and director’s commentary track on the Blu-ray. Naturally, I was elated to find out that my fourth directed feature film, lost for 30 years, had finally found an audience and would be available for future audiences to enjoy, both on theatrical screens and home screens.
Now about the production. Well known martial arts teacher, Sid Campbell, worked on two of my recent feature films; Death Machines and Weapons of Death, both of which had a wide and popular release. Sid gave me a movie script that he had written for him and martial arts great Eric Lee, known as ‘The King of Kata’ amongst Kung Fu fans. Eric was in those two movies as well.
Sid’s script was a comedy about two well-meaning, but naïve guys, who join a karate school so they can pick up and date the female students that they see training there. “It’ll be like shooting fish in a barrel,” Eric says. “It’ll be like picking girls in a karate school is what it’ll be like,” Sid corrects him.
However, the two funny guys get strict lessons from the two karate teachers at the school; Gerald Okamura and Carlos Navarro; both well know martial artists. Gerald Okamura appeared on many covers of Kung Fu magazine and was known as ‘The Martial Arts Magician’ because of the secret and unusual weapons he designed. Carlos was known in San Francisco as the karate teacher changing young people’s lives in the Mission district. Also in the story, biker, played by Frank Navarro, joins the karate school in order to settle a score with Sid, and especially Eric. Soon the whole school gets involved with gangsters who are using Ninjas as assassins. Therein lies the story.
I immediately liked Sid’s story and agreed to direct it and partner with him to get it made, though the script needed to have some extra scenes and comedy bits added to it.
I got ahold of screen writer William C. Martell (writer of 19 produced films and author of Secrets of Action Screenplay Writing) to expand the script. Then forming a company called Movie Media with Sid, Eric, Carlos and myself, we raised enough money to start filming, though not enough to finish it.
I had done this just a year earlier on Weapons of Death; started with just 30% of the budget and raised the rest while I filmed. On that movie, I never missed a day of payroll or bills during the eight week schedule. I was inspired by film producer Michael Todd who raised the needed money on ‘Around the World in 80 Days’ day-by-day for that production. I got lucky and ‘Michael Todded’ it on ‘Weapons’, but my luck ran out on Ninja Busters, which I’ll get to later.
I’ll never forget the starting date of December 8, 1980 because while filming we were informed that John Lennon had been shot. It was very unsettling to say the least, but we continued with production.
Because we started filming with only a partial budget, I was often out meeting possible investors. To get the initial scenes of our heroes entering the karate school, meeting two attractive students; famous Kung Fu practitioner, Gini Lau and actress Kathy Wong, I had my assistant director Tony Saenz direct those first scenes, as well as part of a scene in a Latin nightclub.
However, despite my efforts to keep the money coming in, not enough did, so we had to close-down the production with only about 12 minutes of screen-time shot.
A year later, when I was tied up in Japan, Carlos Navarro raised enough money to partially film a ninja vs gangsters fight scene that Sid and Eric happen to witness in the story. That was filmed in a car junkyard with actor Bob Ramos (Weapons of Death) as the head gangster. That gave us another six minutes of screen-time.
Finally, in 1984, Carlos asked me how long it would take to get the additional 72 minutes of story and action to complete the movie. I made a carefully planned 14 day schedule, re-wrote the script to incorporate what was already shot. Also because of the fact that we could not get Gini Lau and Kathy Wong back to continue in their roles, as they were both had full-time obligations elsewhere, I had to find two other actresses to play the love-interests for our hapless heroes.
I contacted Weapons of Death heroine Nancy Lee who was happy to be a lead in the movie. For Sid’s love-interest, I spotted a pretty young woman named Dailah Gueteriz who trained at Carlos’ karate school and asked her to join the team. When I showed her the dialogue she’d have to memorize, she hesitated in making a commitment because she never acted before. I told her to just play herself and relate to what’s going on in the scene. So finally said yes. When she saw all the Kung Fu magazine covers of Sid, Eric, Gerald and others, on the wall at Sid’s school, she said, “I feel honored to be in this group.”
Fifty percent of the action of the story was filmed at Sid’s karate school that had two training rooms, a courtyard with a hot tub. Also I used his kitchen and the streets in front of his school for some scenes to be efficient.
Because renting the Latin nightclub again would not be within our budget, we faked a portion of it in Carlos’ basement with tables and dancers in it. We also used his kitchen for a scene with body-builder Nathan LeBlanc (Mr. California) as the quick-draw specialist.
We also had to go back to the junkyard to finish the uncompleted ninja vs gangters fight scene that was shot there, as well as fix a whole in the story, now that another actor could not make the shoot. Juan Morales, a policeman friend of Carlos’, appeared as a limo driver for gangster Bob Ramos in that junkyard scene. However, since Bob was not available to complete his scenes, we faked him getting shot and I changed the story to say that Juan was just pretending to be the limo driver and was really the main boss setting up Bob Ramos to be killed. Wow, that’s ‘writing on your feet’. But it worked with the audiences and made a nice story twist.
The factory that is a front for the gangsters, where Sid and Eric work, was a location in Oakland, a few miles from Sid’s school. It also had a large outdoor yard area that had lots of equipment where ninjas could hide and our heroes could fight on and around. There was even a train boxcar there that stunt team; Harry Mok, Rick Slater and Ramon Neri, as ninja, could make an impressive jump off of.
I had Gerald Okamura also working with my second unit director Alan Gin, filming action scenes in the outdoor yard while I was filming inside the factory. We got all the scenes required for the beginning and ending of the movie in three days. We worked fast, but as Gerald said, when I dropped him off at his hotel after the 2nd day, "That was fun. See you tomorrow." And that was the attitude of the entire cast and crew.
The 14 day shoot went smooth and was fun for all. I worked with editors Garrick Huey and Dan Goodman (also our cameraman) putting the movie together on KEM film editing machines. That was super-fun watching the movie finally come together. We hired actor Kerwin Mathews (The 7th Voyage of Sinbad) to do the opening narration about the history of ninja and how they were now available for hire in America, to set up the story.
Next came the five day sound mix at Fantasy Films in Berkley, owned by Saul Zantz the producer of ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’. There, Ninja Busters really came to life with the sound effects added to it. The music by Frank Navarro, that’s been likened to John Carpenter’s type of film music, made the karate training and action scenes more powerful.
Finally we made a single print and premiered the movie at the Alexandria Theater in San Francisco. Since the movie was more than three years in the making, word had spread about Ninja Busters, so the curious, as well as those involved in the movie showed up at the 10:30 am screening. The manager told me, "I've never seen so many people here in the morning."
The audience laughed and cheered from beginning to end of the movie, but I wondered if it was because most of them where in some way connected to the movie. That was the only public screening I attended as the movie was quickly taken over by the distributor who soon disappeared along with the print of the movie, as I mentioned before. That’s why it’s so gratifying for me to hear that an audience that doesn’t know me or the actors, find the movie so entertaining.
So much fun and creativity has happened for me working with Harry Guerro to get Ninja Busters into Blu-Ray, that I start to think the same type of thoughts when other miracles happen to me; “What if Harry hadn’t found the print of Ninja Busters in that ‘hell-hole’?