By Kirk Demarais / August 29, 2016
This isn’t a movie review. For those poised at the inevitable crossroads of whether or not to watch 1984’s Ninja III: The Domination, plenty of helpful play-by-plays are out there. Most of them cite the film’s 10-minute opening massacre, its unhinged storyline, and its over-the-top everything as proof of the movie’s overwhelming entertainment value. I want to take a focused look at what may be Ninja III’s most remarkable feat: the way it perfectly captures the period from which it was spawned—the mid-1980s. The movie was tailor-made according to cinematic themes and techniques of the day, and covers a surprising spectrum of American fads, fashions, and philosophies. In fact, it’s so overloaded with up-to-the-minute cultural references that it overshoots general “life in the ‘80s” territory to become an unintentional period piece, as well as an instant caricature of the Reagan Era.
Ninja III is the story of Christie Ryder, who, like many ladies of the ‘80s, has chosen a career-centered life of independence. As if her dual duties as telephone pole technician and aerobics instructor weren’t enough, now she must juggle her new role as bodily host to the spirit of a vengeful ninja. This unfortunate turn is the result of a chance encounter with a dying warrior, and her foolish choice to accept his blade as a gift.
The ‘80s-born facets of Ninja III are legion, and they begin with the film’s DNA. It’s a product of the infamous Cannon Group, which included Cannon Films, arguably the quintessential studio of the era. Run by Menahem Golan and Yorum Globus, the company’s frugal, nimble, and get-it-done approach to filmmaking ensured a minimal turnaround time between green light and opening weekend. Thus, Ninja III was conceived, shot, and released in under a year. Theatergoers saw footage that was practically newsreel-fresh. The styles on-screen still hadn’t left shopping malls.
Ninja III was shot in Arizona, though it feels quite California. The film is dressed in sunshine and palm trees during a time when even plant life could be trendy. Presumably, the story occurs during the year the film came out, 1984—the “high ‘80s,” if you will. By then, the revolt against the earth-toned seventies was complete: styles had evolved to favor color and flash. Things went from kung fu to ninjutsu, from jogging to Jazzercise. With a young, fashion-conscious woman in the leading role, set decorators Dian Perryman and Star Fields had the rare opportunity to lend an action movie a veneer of dazzling contemporary aesthetics.
The fashions and hairstyles are an instant declaration of the time period, while Christie’s studio apartment offers an in-depth checklist of Cold War-era decor. The space is bathed in a palette of mauve, grey, and greens of both the seafoam and hunter variety. Slices of atmospheric light pass through Venetian blinds in keeping with the neo-noir fascination of the decade. Oddly enough, roll-up blinds are applied to the same windows—a double down on window coverage trends. Accessories throughout the room adhere to then-current tastes: tropical plants, a couple of those ceramic carnival masks, rainbow fridge magnets, and extravagantly large waves of fuchsia neon lighting. A grooved aluminum, diner-style breakfast table illustrates the ‘80s revival of 1950s design. Also present are slatted closet doors from the Spielberg school of set making—used in conjunction with mysterious backlighting and fog effects, of course.
Another fruit of Christie’s ambitious work ethic is a full-size video arcade game. It may seem borderline passé in light of the massive video game crash of ‘83. However, it’s justifiably cool for two reasons. First, it turns out to be a dimensional conduit. Second, the Bouncer machine was, in reality, an ultra rare prototype of a game that never made it to mass production. It was provided by Entertainment Sciences as a promotional effort before the would-be game company folded.
A number of design choices parallel Christie’s character while demonstrating her penchant for trend following. Japanese artwork reveals her pre-possession attraction to the ancient culture. A framed print of Sunglasses by Patrick Nagel (who happened to die around the time of production, cementing his work to the decade) mirrors Christie’s modern mix of feminine power and grace. The conspicuous placement of Uriah Heep’s demon-faced Abominog (1982) album seems to refer to her supernatural conundrum. An assortment of industrial elements echo Christie’s blue collar vocation, including a steelwork bed frame, a “trouble light” in lieu of a bedroom lamp, light fixtures with wire guards, a payphone, a roof ventilator, decorative telephone line insulators, retractable security gates serving as a room divider, a giant wooden spool for a table, and what appears to be the slide from a jungle gym.
It’s not just the visuals that are committed to the ways of the ‘80s. In a world predating political correctness, a supernatural grudge is but one of a host of dangers facing young metropolitan women. Christie’s aerobics class, for instance, must endure a constant torrent of lustful stares from an audience of macho weightlifters. After class, neither daylight, nor a crowd of fellow gym members prevent the bodybuilders from attempting a five-on-one sexual assault. Christie violently fends them off using her newfound ninja powers, only to be apprehended by an off duty policeman acting on libido instead of sound law enforcement. She rejects the cop’s advances several times, but is ultimately charmed by him after he kicks her out of his car and throws a tantrum in the street. Christie’s control of the relationship may stand for 80s-style female empowerment; however, that edge is pretty much canceled out by her decision to choose an authority-abusing predator as a love interest.
The soundtrack, too, features an original collection of danceable and romanceable tracks that aspire to the tradition of megahits like Footloose (1984) and Flashdance (1983). Dave Powell, who also contributed to Cannon Films’ Making the Grade (1984) and One More Chance (1983), provides what would be forgettable synth-driven fare were it not for clumsy lyrics that seem oddly appropriate in Ninja III. Take, for example, this passage from the song “Body Shop”:
Are you feeling older because you can’t bend over
And your hair’s falling out left and right?
Is your sex life fiction because you live in the kitchen
And your clothes seem to shrink every night?
The fact that Ninja III is a sequel demonstrates another trend in ‘80s filmmaking. While the concept of the movie sequel was not new, the number of them released in the 1980s roughly quadrupled the output of the previous decade. Technically, however, Ninja III qualifies as part of a ‘“series,” since the story stands alone from its predecessors, Enter the Ninja (1981) and Revenge of the Ninja (1983). The three films have no connection apart from actor Sho Kosugi, the ninjutsu element, and some subtle callbacks like the adage that “only a ninja can stop a ninja.” This follows in the footsteps of franchises like The Pink Panther, Grease, and Halloween, which had already made a practice of cashing in on loosely related sequels by any means necessary.
The home video revolution is another defining aspect of the period, and Ninja III was part of its early eruption. The film’s stint on the big screen wasn’t a financial failure, but it did disappoint compared to the outbreak of Cannon blockbusters at the time. On September 14, 1984, Cannon released Ninja III, as well as Exterminator 2. Both were the highest charting new films of the week, but Ninja debuted in seventh place (and Exterminator 2 in 10th), unable to surpass longstanding summer holdouts including The Karate Kid, Purple Rain, Revenge of the Nerds, and Ghostbusters, which claimed the number one slot that weekend, fifteen weeks after its opening. Ninja III’s theatrical run lasted only four weeks, and it hit the rental shops eight months later, on May 25, 1985, amid the first major boom in the home video market. (VCR ownership tripled between ‘83 and ‘85.) The movie remained on the Top 40 rentals chart for two and a half months, catering to an emerging taste for casual home entertainment that maintains the unfiltered content of the big screen.
In a broader sense, the very nature of Ninja III: The Domination exemplifies the Hollywood mentality of the day. Cannon Films’ assembly line production model enabled them to keep up with the decade’s constantly cycling taste in cinema. Hot genres progressed from slasher to dance to shoot ‘em up action. In fact, Enter the Ninja (1980), the first film in Cannon’s Ninja trilogy, introduced a brand new subgenre to the masses—the Hollywood ninja flick. Somehow, Ninja III manages to combine all of those genres. The different aspects of Christie’s life mimic the sections of a video store. She moves like Jennifer Beals, fights like Chuck Norris, houses demons like Regan MacNeil, and stalks her prey like a cop-hating Michael Myers. The collision of styles is most apparent in a Poltergeist-inspired scene where the ninja ghost attempts to suck Christie into a supernatural realm inside her closet. Her survival instincts prompt her to turn on the stereo and attempt to dance away the evil, perhaps the most ‘80s solution to any problem.
Kirk Demarais is a freelance creator and the author of Mail-Order Mysteries: Real Stuff from Old Comic Book Ads and Life of the Party, a visual history of the S.S. Adams prank and magic company. He also teaches the history of art, advertising, and design at John Brown University.