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Zone Troopers

      "Pinch me, Dolan ... Did I just K.O. Hitler?"

-- Cpl. "Mittens" Mittinski    

 

     

Reviews:

Gonzoid Cinema

 

 

Buzzkillers!

"Bllzzkrrktakaitzzz!"

Translation:

 "Screw the Prime Directive! Eat my death-ray, you friggin' Nazi scumbags!

 

Watch it!

AMAZON

DVD

 
Sights &
Sounds:
Zone
Troopers
(1985)
 Director:
  Danny Bilson
 Screenplay:
  Danny Bilson
  Paul De Meo
 Producer:
  Charles Band
  Roberto Bessi
 Empire
 Pictures

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Our film opens with some Glenn Miller-fueled boogie-woogie that gets us pumped-up and "In the Mood" for the events to follow, as the credits pan over the latest issue of Fantastic Action -- an old sci-fi pulp comic, and they conclude by telling us weíre somewhere in Italy, circa 1944. Now, those of you who paid attention in your remedial history class will remember that damn near the whole planet was involved in a minor skirmish at that time, better known as World War II, which is why we zero in on a platoon of American GIís bivouacked near an abandoned villa, and then eventually center in on a Private Verona (Vincent Van Patten), who is currently thumbing through the very same issue of Fantastic Action while haggling a trade with Corporal "Mittens" Mittinsky (Art La Fleur) for some smokes.

As these two argue, famed war correspondent Charlie Dolan (Biff Maynard) snaps a picture of them. His reputation preceding him, Dolan is eagerly welcomed by the troops and has to show off the cigarette lighter that General Patton gave him (-- you know, George C. Scott; and I wonder if Dolan knows Ernie Pyle?). Apparently, Dolan has joined this particular platoon to do a story about one of their squad leaders -- a Sgt. Stone. Having gained a reputation for cheating death -- on more than one occasion, Stone has earned himself a nickname, The Iron Sarge. But not one for publicity, and having enough problems with his green Lieutenant, Stone (Tim Thomerson) deals with the reporter by basically ignoring him. Besides, he's more concerned as to why they canít raise anyone on the radio. In fact, all the radio can pick up are some strange, unearthly noises. (Plot point! Plot point! Plot Point!) And to top off that mystery, no oneís compass is working either.

Hmmmmnnn, he typed ominously ... Magnetic interference? Radio disruption? Iím not quite positive as to whatís going on, but Iíve got a pretty good idea.

Unfortunately, there's no time to crack these conundrums as the Wermacht launches an attack. And while most of the platoon is overrun and massacred, Stone, Dolan, Verona and Mittens manage to find some cover and return fire. Then, moving swiftly, Stone manages to outflank the enemy, turns the tables, and wipes them out with his trusty Thompson sub-machine gun. Alas, turns out one of those Germans wasnít quite dead, and appears to shoot the Iron Sarge square in the back. Fearing heís lost his story, Dolan watches, dumbfounded, as Stone gets back up, apparently unharmed, and finishes the last Kraut off.

Verona, thinking Stone was a goner for sure that time, quickly gets an an ass-chewing over that "Iron Sarge" crap. Told it's nothing but a load of bullshit dreamt up by the likes of Dolan, the Private is reminded that itís not luck, or magic, or no guardian angel, just good old GI steel and a steady head in combat that has kept Stone alive since North Africa. With that, the survivors retreat deeper into the woods, where Stone rechecks his compass. It still doesnít work, and when Verona wonders aloud if it isn't some kind of new Nazi weapon, perhaps a magnetic ray, Stone tells him to stop reading those comics and there has to be a rational explanation for it.

But, as the soldiers move on, something -- stress on the thing, watches them from a distance. And as we switch to a red-tinted POV shot, witness a furry, three-fingered claw stroking a tree, and hear some strange gibberish, I think we can chuck both the idea of rational explanations and the Nazis for those radio and compass problems right out the freakin' window. For, when the retreating GI's come under a heavy mortar attack, they are saved by whatever's attached to that claw, which fires some kind of disintegrator doodad that vaporizes the shells before they can hit, leaving us to conclude that, perhaps, the Iron Sarge has some kind of guardian angel after all...

I first got the notion to review this film over at the B-Movie Message Board, where a topic came up asking for a list of your favorite Full Moon Videos. And even though Zone Troopers has all the earmarks of a Full Moon Video, and the credits are polluted with several Full Moon regulars, this one came out earlier, when prolific schlock producer Charles Band was the head honcho of  Empire Pictures. And it was when the Italian financed Empire went belly-up in the early 90's, after a couple of big-budgeted sci-fi epics -- Robot Jox and Arena -- underperformed at the box-office, that forced Band to start over and form Full Moon Video, where he still provides plenty of Bulgarian shot B-Movie fodder today. But none of it can match the work he did for Empire. I mean, there's no comparison between the likes of Creepazoids and The Eliminators to Subspecies and Demonic Toys, am I right? 

Born into a showbiz family, Charles' father, Albert, was also a Hollywood jack-of-all-trades back in the 1950's, whose earliest credits include writing the screenplay for John Huston's adaptation of The Red Badge of Courage, and then took the plunge into producing and directing with the morbidly interesting I Bury the Living -- interesting, that is, until it turns into a big steaming pile of poop for the denouement. For most of the 1960's, Albert pulled up stakes and moved to Italy, where he helmed several spaghetti westerns [Massacro al Grande Canyon] and a couple sword and sandal epics [La Leggenda di Enea] before moving back to the States in the '70s, where he helped shepherd his son into the business by co-producing the likes of Zoltan: Dracula's Dog, Mansion of the Doomed and a soft-core version of Cinderella for the fledgling Charles Band Productions. On his own, Charles was also behind the offbeat slasher Tourist Trap, the wonky E.T.-fueled revenge flick Laserblast, and the completely inexplicable Crash!. Then, after teaming up again for Metalstorm: The Destruction of Jared-Syn, which mashed-up every popular sci-fi and fantasy genre at the time -- a post-apocalyptic setting, sword and sorcery, and dime-store sci-fi conventions -- into a whole can of 3-D awesomeness, the elder Band used his contacts back in Italy to set up the financing for what was to become Empire Pictures, which provided fodder for USA's Up All Night and TNT's Monstervision for a glorious five year run.

Zone Troopers was part of the first wave of Empire productions, which included their most successful theatrical releases, Re-Animator and Ghoulies. Slapped together by the writing and directing tandem of Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo, these two were also responsible for the first Trancers film, The Flash TV series, and the criminally underrated big-screen adaptation of Dave Stevens' The Rocketeer. Here, Bilson and De Meo deserve big kudos for a clever script that is genuinely funny and, dare I say, charming, with plenty of action and frugal intrigue to keep even the most jaded viewer entertained.

Even this far in it's rather easy to see that the budget wasn't all that huge for Zone Troopers; but it appears that every red cent there was to spend was spent, and spent well, and shows up effectively on the screen. And it's films like this and the original Critters that show if you have an intelligent script, good characters, tight direction, solid set designs, passable F/X, and a little ingenuity, you can overcompensate for a terminal lack of budget and produce something highly entertaining. For, if a film is entertaining enough, folks donít spend a lot of time noticing the glue and duct tape holding things together.

Anyways, as we catch back up with our rag-tag quartet they find refuge in an abandoned barn. Taking the first watch, Verona hears the alien gibberish nearby and, thinking it's just Mittens playing tricks on him, traces the sound to a large, broken egg -- or maybe a cocoon, and then spots what hatched out of it! (Our brief glimpse of the creature in the dark shows us a cross between Chewbacca and a Tsetse Fly.) Shaken by the sight, Verona rushes back inside and immediately burns all of his comics.

The next morning, fearing that he's cracking up, when Verona confesses to Dolan what he saw the reporter convinces the impressionable youth that it was probably just a moose. (Yeah, a moose ... Uhm, that was a dang funny looking moose.) Meanwhile, Mittens returns from his watch and says he spotted a deer grazing nearby. And after Dolan swears that he can drop the animal with one shot -- as anymore would allow the Nazis to pinpoint their location -- it's decided that they'll have some real meat for breakfast. The two leave without waking Stone, but instead of bagging some venison the hunting party stumbles upon a German encampment. Recognizing it as an elite SS outfit, Dolan figures something big must be up if theyíre this close to the front lines. He also wants to take a closer look, but since Mittens wonít let him the reporter uses the old "gotta take a leak" gag and sneaks his way into the camp, which, aside from a couple radio-men, is completely deserted. Making his way into the command tent, once inside, Dolan makes a startling discovery: all kinds of strange pictures showing a huge, unearthly air-ship that's severely damaged and on its way down. Figuring itís some kind of new Nazi secret weapon, and the SS is out field-testing it, Dolan lingers too long and is caught. But, Mittens saves him, albeit temporarily, when the rest of the Germans pick that time to come back and spoil their escape. Caught and stripped of their weapons, these new P.O.W.'s are summarily tossed into the dog kennels to cool their heels.

Meanwhile, Stone finally wakes up, finds Verona alone, playing with his baseball cards, and becomes enraged on learning that Dolan and Mittens were stupid enough to go on a safari behind enemy lines. Ordering Verona to mount up, as they start to search for their missing comrades, the duo comes upon several large chunks of debris strewn throughout the forest that is inexplicably cold to the touch. Then, following the trail of wreckage, Stone and Verona find signs that something big crashed through the treetops. Sending the motor-mouthed Verona and his wild theories to scout ahead so he can think in peace, Stone watches as the boy from Jersey (-- at least he ainít from Brooklyn --) crests the next hill, stops dead in his tracks, and then calls for the Sarge to come up and take a look because heíll definitely want to see what's on the other side: a crashed spaceship, augured deep into the ground -- the same ship in Dolanís pictures.

As they cautiously approach the wreck Stone thinks it must be some kind of Nazi super-zeppelin, but Verona has a hunch that it isnít local at all -- and the only way to find out for sure is to get inside. They find a hatch, manage to pry it open, and, despite all protests, Verona jumps in. Stone quickly goes in after him, and after several harrowing turns, the two become more convinced that the ship is extraterrestrial in origin. This is confirmed when they find the cockpit and the corpse of one of the pilots (-- and one notes that it looks just like the moose Verona saw the night before). Perhaps not in the wisest of moves, Verona starts pushing buttons, and though he manages to get the lights on he also accidentally trips the doors, sealing them inside the cockpit! Stone takes over, and as he fiddles with the controls to hopefully open the hatch, Verona manages to sneak some doohickey off the alien corpse. (Man, thatís just rude.) Finding something that looks like a periscope Stone spots a caravan of SS troops closing in on the crash site. And as the Germans secure the area and move toward the hatch, trapped inside like a couple of sitting ducks, Stone locks and loads, preparing for a firefight. But Verona starts thinking like a Martian and finds an escape hatch, allowing the two GIís to slide outside to safety. Just in time, too, as they overhear that Dolan and Mittens have been captured. Meantime, not wanting the alien ship -- or whatever it is, to fall into German hands, Stone drops a grenade down one of the engine's exhaust ports. The ship explodes, taking all the Germans with it.

Night falls, and back at the German camp, the SS troops that weren't blown up have managed to catch and cage Verona's alien moose. In the command tent, Mittens, despite getting his face pounded in by a large Nazi thug, refuses to talk. Dolan, meanwhile, wonít talk either. Aware of who he is, the German commander takes Dolan to see the space critter. Though the reporter denies any knowledge of the alien's origins, the Germans donít believe him. (Here, we finally get a good look at the critter, and frankly, itís kinda cute.) Outside, a heavily escorted caravan arrives, and a very short -- and very familiar, mustachioed Nazi gets out of the main car and orders them to -- (my German is a little rusty, but the gist of it is) -- take the monster back to Berlin, immediately. He also inspects the prisoner's dog tags, and, as he makes fun of the captive's Polish heritage, Mittens picks this time to wake up and clocks the little German right in the face. 

Leading to the films funniest line -- although I have a feeling Mittens would have been shot on the spot for popping der FŁhrer right in der FŁhrer's face.

After the little Nazi and his entourage depart, the remaining SS start to break camp. Dolan and Mittens are tossed back into the kennels and watch as the alien is loaded into a truck. When a guard approaches them we realize it's Verona in disguise. But then the big Kraut who beat up Mittens checks on the prisoners and grills Verona, in German, about his shabby appearance. (Veronaís answer to everything is "Ja" -- the only German he knows, which leads to high comedy. Man, Tarantino so ripped this off!) Of course, with this conversation going nowhere fast Verona makes his move and knocks the thug out. Releasing the others he tells them to head for the truck the alien's on, which Stone has already commandeered. And while Dolan and Verona climb in back and toss out the German scientists, Mittens climbs in front and starts blasting with a machine gun as Stone circles the camp until its reduced to rubble. But, before they can get clear, a German bazooka man draws a bead on them. Seeing this, the alien grabs the doohickey Verona stole from the corpse and turns it on, creating a force field, and the projectile bounces off harmlessly. 

Eventually, the GI's abandon the truck and head into the woods, where they find a cave and hole up for the night. Asking Dolan to take a walk with him, Stone is curious about the reporter's timely arrival coinciding with the discovery of the spaceship, and thinks SHAEF, Ike and Roosevelt has to know what's happening here. But Dolan swears by- and sticks to the Iron Sarge story. Back inside the cave Verona and Mittens discover that Bug -- the alien's new pet name -- likes to eat cigarettes, so they trade their last smokes for a device that projects mental images. And after Verona projects a stunning brunette and starts to make out with her, not wanting to be left out, Mittens takes the doohickey, tries to think up a blonde, but overloads it, causing the other illusion to disappear. When Dolan and Stone come back they see that Bug has Veronaís gun. Told by the Sarge that they should restrain the creature somehow, Verona wonít let him, saying Bug is just scared; itís far from home, and in a strange place, where everyoneís trying to kill him. Sound familiar, he asks the others. They all read it, loud and clear. That said, the group settles down for the night.

The next morning, they find Bug's hibernation cocoon empty and the alien gone. Figuring it couldnít have gotten far, they gear up and go looking for it. And they donít go very far before spotting another alien ship that landed safely -- I assume the other was shot down by the Germans, but it appears to be empty. From out of the woods, Bug and four other, taller aliens, masked in large metal helmets, emerge and approach the squad. As Stone cautiously asks what army they're with Bug tells the other aliens to lower their weapons, and the soldiers do the same. Then, the other aliens remove their helmets and, aside from the powder blue skin and white hair, appear almost human. (I knew the Blue Man Group wasnít from around here.) When one of them sticks a gizmo in his ear Verona figures it must be a translator. But when he asks where theyíre from the alien rescue party just ignores them all and start to board the retrieval ship. Undaunted, Mittens asks if they have any female Martians with them. Told, in surprisingly good English, that Bug -- a Thrackian -- is a female, Mittens and Verona stare at her dumbfounded. Stone, meanwhile, asks if the aliens can fly them back to friendly lines only to be given the old Prime Directive excuse. (We canít interfere, blah, blah blah ... Hell, it never stopped Captain Kirk.) Almost on cue, as the aliens strap themselves in, a Panzer rumbles into view. When Stone orders everyone to to take cover, all the aliens bail off except for Bug, who is too frightened to move. Leaping to her rescue just as the tank fires, Bug survives the shell's impact but Verona does not.

After the blue-aliens disintegrate the tank they turn their attention back on the ship. And while they work to repair it, Stone and Mittens bury Verona. Keeping watch nearby, Dolan spies an entire platoon of SS troops headed their way. Once more Stone asks the aliens for some assistance, but they refuse to help the humans kill each other despite Mittens' best efforts to show that there's a big difference between the Allies and the Axis. Despite their refusal to help, Stone still doesn't want the aliens or their technology to fall into German hands and promises to hold them off for as long as they can -- hopefully long enough for the visitors to get airborne. After the Earthlings leave to face the rapidly approaching enemy, Bug starts to plead with the other aliens.

Low on ammo, Stone and the others set up their ambush and wait until the enemy gets real close before opening up; and though they make a good accounting of themselves, the trio is quickly down to their last grenade. Fortunately, Stone has one more trick up his sleeve ... He offers to surrenders if the German commander will palaver with him. When he agrees, Stone leaves his weapon and ammo belt behind and puts his hands behind his head -- where he cradles the last grenade. Promised safe passage back to their lines if they take them to the alien, Stone says the Germans have a deal and wants to shake on it. But instead of shaking, he stuffs the live grenade down the Nazi's coat, causing the Kraut commander to blow up, and blow up real good. Unfortunately, the Sarge is caught in the explosion and falls dead. And when the enraged enemy closes in on Dolan and Mittens, it appears to be the end for all of them -- but suddenly, the attacking Germans start disintegrating in flashes of blue light. 

From out of nowhere, Bug rushes to their side and hands out a bunch of atomic death-ray guns. Quickly figuring out how to fire them, the Earthlings start blasting away. The tide turned, the Nazis quickly discover that they are the ones who are surrounded as the other aliens close the pocket and annihilate them ... After the smoke clears and things settle down, the aliens mount their ship and prepare to leave. Before they launch, when Mittens nudges Dolan and points to the tail fin, the reporter laughs at the "Killroy Was Here" doodle. After the ship launches and the aliens safely get away, Mittens implores Dolan to write about what happened. But Dolan says he canít because there's no evidence -- and no one will ever believe them; and fearing a Section-8 for his new friend, he also warns Mittens not to tell anyone about punching-out Hitler. Regardless, Mittens still thinks the story should be told, to honor his fallen comrades, and when he suggests that Dolan should sell the story to one of Veronaís sci-fi comics Dolan thinks that sounds like a swell idea.

Sometime later, as the two survivors head down a lonely road -- hopefully toward their own lines, when a shadowy figure appears in front of them Mittens quickly recognizes the familiar silhouette. Itís the Sarge! Alive and kicking, and dying for a cigarette. (Man, those things will kill you.) Then, the big band swing kicks up again as we fade to the latest issue of Fantastic Action, whose cover shows a familiar ship, alien, and soldiers, and a feature story by Charlie Dolan titled Zone Troopers.

The End

Well, not quite:

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Available in the lobby of this theater.

The End

Man, do I love this movie. Ranking about an eleven out of ten on the old fun-o-meter, Zone Troopers is affectionately known as Saving Private Chewbacca in my household. Now, a film that combines two of my favorite genres -- the gonzoidal alien invasion flicks and the gung-ho war movie -- had a long walk off a short pier to win me over, but the film does this deftly, and surprisingly well, and I didn't even have to get wet. I know that doesn't make any sense -- and I don't care! That's how gob-smackingly much I love this here movie.

I also really, really dug the retro-styled production design Philip Foreman and Giovanni Natalucci used for the aliens and their tech to match the vintage sci-fi pulp comics of that era. (Foreman would go on to kick more ass in the same design vein with Killer Klowns from Outer Space two years later.) The ships are big, multi-colored monstrosities that are aesthetically pleasing but scientifically impossible. The death-ray guns are shiny and just as clunky, and the aliens wear those huge honking helmets. The other F/X hold up pretty well, too -- even the critter costume is first rate. And there are no real big gaffs in the military department, either. The Germans fire German guns, and the GIís fire GI guns. The uniforms are authentic, and the combat sequences, while not spectacular, arenít embarrassing either.

I'll also use a quick aside to point out that there are a couple of great sight gags in this film, too, but the best has to be when Stone and Verona find the initial crash site. It appears to be a forced perspective shot with a scale model, but as Verona and Stone run toward it --  and keep going and going and going -- you realize they built the mock-up to full scale!

The film also stars two of my favorite character actors of all time: Tim Thomerson and Art La Fleur. If either of those guys are in a film, I'll watch it. Back in the day, Thomerson was kind of a poor man's Bruce Campbell, and he always had that look of bewildered befuddlement that endeared me to him. La Fleur, meanwhile, is one of those guys that's in everything, and you recognize his familiar mug but you can never remember his name; a kind of actor I like to affectionately call "That Guy."

Hollywood can definitely learn a lesson here. It takes a lot more than sensory overloading, computer-generated F/X shots that drown out the fact that you're overcompensating for a lousy script to make a good sci-fi movie. These old gonzoidal movies had a sense of fun and adventure, and they had heart; something sorely lacking in most sci-fi and fantasy films today. And somebody needs to give this damn thing, and a lot of other early Empire flicks, a DVD release, like, yesterday.

Originally Posted: 09/06/01 :: Rehashed: 07/20/2010

Knuckled-out by Chad Plambeck: misspeller of words, butcher of all things grammatical, and king of the run on sentence. Copy and paste at your own legal risk. Questions? Comments? Shoot us an e-mail.
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