Matty hunkers down for the night with Nico Mastorakis’ rousing action/horror mash-up.
Ah, the Deliverance (1972) variation: a fertile subgenre with results typically ranging from average to excellent. At the top of the pile sits Peter Carter’s outstanding Canuxploiter, Rituals (1977), with Walter Hill’s brutish bayou ballet, Southern Comfort (1981), Jeff Lieberman’s eerie Just Before Dawn (1981), and Robert Hughes’ savage Hunter’s Blood (1986) occupying the second, third, and fourth spot, respectively. The runt of the litter is Michael Kehoe’s stilted Dominion (1995) — but even that isn’t without charm thanks to the casting of Southern Comfort’s Brion James as another sylvan psycho. Sandwiched neatly between Hunter’s Blood and Dominion in terms of quality, though, and freely pinching bits and bobs from Southern Comfort and Just Before Dawn, is Nico Mastorakis’ THE ZERO BOYS (1986). And despite The Zero Boys being stricken with the same problem as what blunts the overall impact of Dominion — thinly written characters identifiable solely by their hairstyles or, in the case of The Zero Boys, the fact that one of them is Chopping Mall (1986) cutie Kelli Maroney — Mastorakis’ flick succeeds as a quality piece of entertainment.
Technically polished, suspenseful, and sharply paced, The Zero Boys ranks alongside the Greek genre peddler’s subsequent horror/action hybrid, Nightmare at Noon (1988), as perhaps his finest effort, proving once again that Mastorakis is at his best when he’s keeping things moving, spraying a billion rounds of blanks and scaring the proverbial out of us. Indeed, unlike his slovenly preceding opus, the dismally unfunny ‘Porky’s (1981) meets the Cold War’ anti-comedy, Sky High (1985), the key to The Zero Boys is its energy and focus — traits that bled into the film via its ultra-quick creation. Mastorakis’ first Stateside production (not for lack of trying, mind — see: Blind Date (1984)), The Zero Boys was written in two weeks (by Mastorakis and frequent collaborator Fred Perry), cast in one, and in the can eighteen days after that, the three week, mostly night shoot having lensed at a trio of oft used Los Angeles locations: Topanga Canyon, Newhall Ranch, and Valuzat Motion Picture Ranch.
Beginning with a lively opening stretch that finds Mastorakis — a true cinematic bluesman whose originality stems from how he riffs on ideas and images already used by other films and filmmakers — lampooning westerns, WWII romps, ‘Nam movies, and jingoistic actioners a la Invasion USA (1985) in a single, less-than-ten-minute passage, The Zero Boys introduces us to the eponymous paintball team. A gaggle of suspiciously long in the tooth-looking college ‘kids’ led by the noble Steve (Sky High’s Daniel Hirsch) and populated by the more nondescript Larry, Rip, and their girlfriends Sue and Trish (Tom Shell, Jared Moses, Nicole Rio, and Crystal Carson), The Zero Boys are the rock stars/legends of the paint-laced battlefield; a mixture of The Rolling Stones and The Warriors who, following a victory against a rival squad, Mastorakis presents as having such wonderfully absurd clout among their peers that Steve is able to claim the spunky Maroney as his ‘prize’. It’s a delicious auteurist touch on Mastorakis’ part: in his usual gently tongue-in-cheek way he anchors the film somewhere between reality and a world a little stranger and sillier than our own (cf. Island of Death (1976), Nightmare at Noon), in a place where combat, in all its forms, is the ultimate display of intelligence and machismo.
Of course, the real test to The Zero Boys’ mettle is when they retreat to the boonies for a weekend of R&R (read: boozin’ and humpin’). Having previously clocked a frightened young lass clad in floaty white nightwear (a hint towards the surprising gothic sidestep Mastorakis takes in the film’s second act) running through the brush, Steve and the gang happen upon an empty but curiously hospitable cabin. Naturally, being a fundamentally good and level-headed guy, Steve expresses unease at both their trespassing and the oh-so-convenient air of the situation — and quicker than you can say “it’s going to be a long night”, the cabin’s mysterious inhabitants, a pair of snuff movie-making yokels, begin waging a very real war against them…
Unfolding across a single dark and stormy evening, Mastorakis piles on the horror through a mix of old dark house shenanigans and drum tight slasher hijinks as The Zero Boys are watched and stalked, before their subsequent fight back spills into the surrounding woodland in a procession of gunfire, explosions, crossbow arrows, punji pits, and general survival-schlock tomfoolery. Atoning for his and co-scripter Perry’s janky pal-to-pal prattle (The Zero Boys is riddled with the sort of banal dialogue where everyone starts sounding and acting the same by about the half hour mark), Mastorakis relates the thrust of the story at a dizzying clip, bouldering over contrivances and logic leaps with an infectious and satisfying commitment to spectacle. While hardly mould-breaking stuff, the helmer’s simple but stylish visuals are gorgeous, spooky, and impishly mean: a crazed pair of eyes peering out of a crack in the cabin’s ceiling; a ferocious, juggernaut-like zoom into a shadowy, knife-wielding figure; a plastic-wrapped dead body dropping from above; and a flickering TV left in a darkened barn, the VCR its connected to looping a grisly moment of torture and murder.
However, it’s what Mastorakis doesn’t show that’s the film’s strong suit. As rough and tumble as The Zero Boys is, especially during its final third, Mastorakis excels when he keeps the killers (Gary Jochimsen and B-movie demi-god Joe Estevez) off-screen, teasing their omnipresence with prowling camerawork and ambiguous framing that amplifies the tension with stirring precision.