Zero Boys, The (1986)

Author: Brett Gallman
Submitted by: Brett Gallman   Date : 2016-05-01 20:00

The Zero Boys (1986)
Studio: Arrow Video
Release date: April 26th, 2016

Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)

The movie:

It’s easy to detect what Nico Mastorakis might have been up to with The Zero Boys. With the slasher genre’s peak years already behind it by 1986, the Greek provocateur seemingly set out to imagine what your average Friday the 13th sequel (or knock-off) may have looked like if Jason’s victims weren’t just a bunch of oversexed, nigh-incompetent teenagers. Instead, what if they were hyper-competent survivalist badasses? Even though Mastorakis doesn’t provide the most compelling response, The Zero Boys at least makes for an amusing and oddly well-made outlier from this era. Calling it a “slasher” might even be a bit of a stretch since it sometimes strays from the genre's typical signposts.

Mastorakis’s playfulness is quickly obvious: where many slashers begin with a predictable, almost obligatory opening death scene, The Zero Boys opens on what looks to be an Old West studio backlot. Here, a colorful cast of characters—including a dude draped in SS garb—have gathered for some kind of death match. Among them is Steve (Daniel Hirsch), a grim-faced guy who affixes a picture of Rambo to a wall before dedicating the match to Sly himself. In a remarkably choreographed sequence, Mastorakis’s camera prowls through this dusty set, capturing the sort of outlandish, over-the-top carnage usually reserved for this era’s muscle-headed action flicks. The men blast away at each other as Han Zimmer’s (!) bombastic score bellows, signaling what should the opening scene of a Cannon Extravaganza—you might find yourself wondering if you’ve accidentally grabbed the wrong disc from your shelf.

It turns out to be an elaborate fake-out, at least in the sense that this is just a really intricate and ultra-competitive paintball game. Steve emerges victorious, much to the chagrin of a rival who put his own girlfriend (Kelli Maroney) on the line as a reward to the winner. Naturally, she’s disgusted, but not so much so that she won’t actually take off with Steve and join him for a celebratory retreat into the woods with his buddies, a ragtag bunch of survivalists who call themselves “The Zero Boys.” During the course of their trip, they happen upon an abandoned cabin that they can’t help but investigate. It ends up being sort of like “Goldilocks and the Three Bears,” only Goldilocks is a group of rugged horndogs (you can’t subvert every part of the formula) and the bears are a psychopathic presence lurking in the nearby woods.

It’s at this point the film becomes a half-assed rendition of a Friday the 13th sequel, complete with goofball antics and bullshit banter. Some moments feel as though they could have only been beamed into and from the 80s, such as an exchange that has Maroney’s character casually dropping homophobic slurs to describe another group of characters. Actual character development is (unsurprisingly) sparse, but you may be surprised to discover that the body count is similarly low. The Zero Boys departs from its slasher contemporaries in this respect, as Mastorakis eschews constant splatter in favor of building an uneasy suspense.

This obviously makes for a different sort of slasher, one that embraces and thrives on its backwoods atmosphere—this group is a long way from the comforts of the Hollywood Hills to which they’re accustomed, surrounded by a savage wilderness teeming with human remains and hunted prey. Quietly disturbing moments—such as the glimpse of a woman off in the distance, fleeing in terror from an unseen assailant—graduate to more ghastly discoveries, such as a shed full of torture implements and recording equipment. Literal torture porn is on display, resulting in its own brand of queasiness: rather than take a blunt force trauma approach and spill guts everywhere, the maniac here enjoys toying with his prey, going so far as to kidnap one member of the group before returning her. For a brief moment, The Zero Boys becomes a small-scale siege movie, with the survivors barricading themselves inside the cabin, bracing for an assault.

In many ways, this approach feels more grounded, a far cry from the almost cartoonish tenor of many slasher movies. Forgetting for a moment just how silly the setup is, this stretch is genuinely grim in a snuffy depiction of violence that’s somewhat startling. Mastorakis is nothing if not patient as his camera slinks and lurks through the cabin and the nearby woods, with occasional overhead shots lending a god’s-eye-view to the proceedings that suggests either a righteously pissed-off or indifferent deity that allows these horrors to unfold. The Zero Boys exhibits a level of craft that’s almost unbefitting the umpteenth riff on this well-worn genre.

Oddly enough, this is both encouraging and disappointing all at once, as it soon becomes clear that Mastorakis doesn’t have a story that continues to separate The Zero Boys from the pack, especially once it degenerates into a typical stalk-and-slash scenario. While it’s true that this pack of victims is of a different, more capable sort than the usual survivors of slashers, the script hardly takes advantage of this. What’s more, save for a couple of inspired bursts, the death scenes are hardly memorable. Mastorakis does reserve quite a jolt for the climax, but the rest of the film is disappointingly dry, even if his attempt to craft a suspense-based slasher is commendable.

This is not to say The Zero Boys is a complete dud—it’s just that I spent much of the second half waiting for it to kick into another gear to match the weird, off-kilter energy of its opening scene. It’s admittedly something of a paradoxical struggle: on the one hand, it’s nice to see a sturdily-crafted slasher take both itself and its suspense seriously, but, on the other, come on—this sucker opens with a deranged spaghetti western paintball scene that features at least one apparent Neo-Nazi. Considering that it also hails from Mastorakis—whose reputation certainly precedes him—it feels like The Zero Boys should absolutely be a little more disreputable and outrageous than it is. Granted, this probably says more about me than it does about the film itself, but this one isn’t exactly a hidden gem in the rough of 80s slashers.

The disc:

Of course, this is isn’t going to stop Arrow Video from treating The Zero Boys as if it were a holy slasher grail. After languishing in out-of-print obscurity for several years, the film returns for a high-definition upgrade and a host of new extras, including an audio commentary with Maroney moderated by Chris Alexander. Mastorakis also appears for a newly-produced 25-minute retrospective on the making of the film, while Maroney and fellow star Nicole Rio each appear in separate interviews. Promotional materials include a music video, a trailer, and a stills gallery, with the disc itself arriving in a package alongside liner notes and reversible cover art.

Even if The Zero Boys isn’t exactly my speed, hopefully this release still signals Arrow’s commitment to releasing more from Mastorakis, a consistently interesting director whose work is ripe to be rediscovered by trash cinema connoisseurs. It would appear this is the plan since Hired to Kill is due in a couple of weeks, so hopefully the likes of The Wind and Nightmare at Noon are in the cards.
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