Dean: Ninja power?

For months, a rumor that Howard Dean played a minor role in a 1980s slasher flick has captivated supporters and political junkies. Here's a clip of the movie -- and the back story.

Published January 8, 2004 9:16PM (EST)

It's 1984. Dr. Howard Dean has an internal medicine practice in Vermont, and fifth-graders everywhere love ninjas. Meanwhile, "Ninja III: The Domination" is in theaters. In one scene, a hooded warrior is wreaking his trademark havoc on a golf course, plying the ancient mystical art of making patrol cars fly into lakes in slow motion.

And that's when, in a gruff tone some might associate with a guy taking the Democratic Leadership Council to task, a cop in a descending helicopter barks into his walkie-talkie. He warns all units to be on the alert. Too late: The ninja jumps onboard from a palm tree and hurls stunt doubles out the hatch.

Recently, reports that that the cop was portrayed by Howard Dean, Democratic forerunner, bubbled up onto the liberal blogs Daily Kos, Eschaton and Pandagon, where Dems were urged to run out to the video store. Murmurs had persisted since late 2003, when someone noticed that the Internet Movie Database listing for "Howard Dean," which mentions the former Vermont governor's turn on last fall's "K Street," also credits "Howard Dean" with playing a policeman on "Ninja III."

So Dean fans sought copies of the silver-boxed ninja epic shot in Arizona (originally released by legendary '80 schlock outfit Cannon Films). Arizona State University student Tony Cani threw a "Ninja III" party to see if the cop was Dean. "Roughly 8 minutes into the movie a police officer in a helicopter LOOKS AND SOUNDS LIKE HOWARD DEAN," he posted on the blog Fear Itself. The use later of a much more dashing stunt double left him undeterred: "For now though -- the 15 of us in the room are willing to say tentatively... IT IS HOWARD DEAN."

[To view a clip of "Howard Dean," click here. He's the one saying, "Proceed with caution!"]

Dean, unfortunately, says it's not him. Jay Carson, a Dean spokesman, told Salon he asked Dean "point-blank" -- and the Democratic front-runner said he was in no way associated with "The Domination," the story (from producers Yoram Globus and Menahem Golan) of a beautiful '80s aerobics practitioner possessed by the spirit of a ninja slain on a golf course. (It's the kind of movie where the heroine, having gone to a psychologist for help, is told that there doesn't seem to be anything wrong with her, "aside from your exceptional extrasensory perception and your preoccupation with Japanese culture. No harm in that.")

But as with WMDs, belief dies hard, especially when a wily ninja is such a promising metaphor for, say, Karl Rove. The mind invents explanations: Is it so hard to imagine that Dr. Howard Dean, admittedly stuck in Vermont most of 1983, might have spent a weekend in Arizona with a buddy from med school ... and then, finding the local links closed down for a movie shoot, stumbled upon some B-movie filmmakers who were short one helicopter cop...?

Cani, the ASU student, upon being informed by a reporter that Dean denies being in "Ninja III," is nevertheless pleased with the movie as a recruitment tool. "I will tell you," Cani says, "a handful of people are [Dean] supporters now -- not so much because of the movie but because it is a safe place for people to start talking about politics from. Cheesy ninja movies: Everyone loves them."

By John Gorenfeld

John Gorenfeld is a freelance writer in San Francisco.

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