7/21/10

Zone Troopers (1985): Victory on E.T.-Day

Recently I was going through a box of VHS tapes at a flea market pushing aside the numerous copies of Beverly Hills Ninja and Urban Legend II when I pulled out a particularly ragged looking copy of Empire Pictures’ Zone Troopers. The cover was partially ripped, it had an odor one doesn’t usually expect from video tapes, and it felt like the set in mildew might latch onto my hand. The actual tape however looked pretty nice, and I knew that the sci-fi WWII tale had long been out of print, and so tattered, smelly, nasty cover, and all; I brought it home with me. I’m so glad I did. Zone Troopers is a true VHS classic. After a short, and extremely limited, theatrical run in 1985, the tape was released by Lightning Video, the same fine folks who brought Hands of Steel, Manhattan Baby, and Massacre in Dinosaur Valley to video store shelves, and I could not help but love watching this long out of print gem in its prime format.

Zone Troopers starts out with a few familiar faces to anyone familiar with Charles Band’s productions, Tim Thomerson, Art LaFleur, and Biff Maynard, who all also appeared in Trancers together. Joining them is Timothy Van Patten, Dick’s half brother, and the foursome make up the core of an American combat unit that we are told is “somewhere in Italy”. Caught behind enemy lines after a series of mysterious events, the squad stumble across a downed UFO and its pilot, a bug eyed alien. When the Nazi’s catch wind of the discovery, they bring their full force down to capture all the evidence as well as eliminate the U.S. forces. From there you get all the laser blastin’, fuhrer punchin’, World War II action that you can handle until it leads up to all out battle where the aliens will decide the fate of the war.

There are a couple of things that Zone Troopers really has going for it. The sheer pulpiness of the story combined with the performances from Thomerson, LaFleur, Maynard, and Van Patten really sell the whole film. Thomerson especially stands out as The Sarge. His character and performance seem inspired by actors like Lee Marvin and Gene Evans in Sam Fuller’s war movies. The tough guy bravado definitely works for Thomerson, and while the story doesn’t revolve around him, the action scenes certainly do. Van Patten has some of the film’s most memorable scenes that display his character’s naivety without resorting to stock situations. His Joey is still quite the kid, acting out the World Series with baseball cards and worrying that he’d cracked up when he discovers the alien.  He makes the character sweet without ever turning saccharine. The other actors get their own high points with Maynard as a war correspondent who gets a little too close to the action, and I can't forget LaFleur’s character Mittens, the scene where he clocks Adolph Hitler is cause enough for repeated viewings of Zone Troopers.

This was director Danny Bilson’s first film, but he knew several of the cast members from when he had penned the script for Trancers. While nothing in the film is shot with mind blowing skill, Zone Troopers is a solid film that uses its low budget to its advantage. Bilson keeps things small, and the only outlandishly bad effects come via the aliens. Yeah, the lasers look shoddy and the alien makeup (other than for Bug Eye) is just a light glaze that makes them look bluish (funny, they don’t look it). Keeping it simple fir entirely with the pulpy feel of Zone Troopers and definitely added to my enjoyment of the film. Bilson would go on to write films like 1989’s alien gladiator film Arena as well as 1991’s The Rocketeer. He also produced and directed some episodes of The Flash TV series, penned a few of the most recent James Bond video games, and was a consulting producer for the videogame The Sims. His film career never took off past his second film, the 1989 comedy The Wrong Guys starring Richard Belzer, Louie Anderson, and Richard Lewis as former Cub scouts on a reunion camping trip, but if he never did anything other than Zone Troopers he’d be OK by me.

Sitting down to Zone Troopers is not like sitting down to an episode of Masterpiece Theater, meaning you won’t be bored to tears and want to claw out your eyes, but for a cross between Critters and The Big Red One, it’s not bad at all. This is a film so strange it is tailor made for cult film status, now if MGM, who owns the rights to the film, would get off their ass and release it to DVD, it might just get there. The trouble with Zone Troopers now is that I would love to tell you all to go out there and grab it, but if you don’t want to get a VHS or track down a grey market copy, then you’re out of luck. However it is worth the effort, and taking a bit if inspiration from the cover, 'I Want You' to check Zone Troopers out.

Bugg Rating

8 comments:

  1. Thank you! I've loved this movie since I saw it back in the day - though I'll disagree that VHS is its ideal format - its ideal format is a Saturday Matinee in 1943.

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  2. If memory serves, didn't Bilson go on to write the screenplay for THE ROCKETEER. Not too shabby!


    I love Tim Thomerson, esp. the in the TRANCERS films but I have not seen this one yet. Thanks for the heads up.

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  3. When I was a kid, the cover of Zone Troopers scared me and I never had the courage to rent it. This actually sounds pretty good. Maybe now I'm brave enough to check this one out.

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  4. Ive been dying to check this one out, its one of those out of print movies that should have made its way into MGM's Midnite Movies thing...glad you reviewed it. I was tortured when I saw the trailers on YouTUbe, I love watching movies like this one.

    That poster sort of reminds me of the poster for the first TROLL film.

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  5. I remember constantly seeing the cover for this on our local Family Video shelves back in the day; never would'a guessed it had anything to do w/ WWII. Cool pick, man.

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  6. As much as I dig Thomerson, Trancers and would love to see a mini-Trancers reunion, I first saw this two weeks ago on a local cable channel. Never did any follow up research on it, but it definitely had an "Arena" feel to it...which you mentioned the writer would go on to write that as well. And The Sims? That's pretty interesting. Cool flick I agree and I wished I had watched it sooner.

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  7. simon zinc trumpet-harrisJuly 28, 2010 at 6:59 PM

    Its always great and cultish when they mix up the genres as here with "war" and "science-fiction" its something they should do more often.

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  8. Just saw this for the first time recently and loved it. I nails the pulp feel with the WWII era and the aliens.

    I love the VHS cover and I always wanted to rent it as a kid but never did.

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