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What Zone Were the Writers of 'Zone Troopers' In?

This banal imitation of WWII B-movies is a perplexing and tedious film that never fully commits to the genre blending that could have elevated it to B-movie standards.

Zone Troopers

Director: Danny Bilson
Cast: Tim Thomerson, Timothy Van Patten, Art LaFleur, Biff Manard, William Paulson
Length: 88
Studio: Empire
Year: 1985
Distributor: Kino Lorber
MPAA Rating:
US Release Date: 2015-07-28

World War II and aliens seem like a perfect combination for a science fiction B-movie from the mid-'80s, but while the premise of Zone Troopers sounds good in theory, the end result is a slow, clichéd war film that largely ignores the sci-fi elements that could have made it great. Instead of wasting 88 minutes of one’s life, one need only watch the wordless theatrical trailer, which abruptly cuts back and forth between what seems like two entirely separate films, to understand the dissonance between the two genres and Zone Troopers’ failure to live up to its potential to merge into one wonderfully horrible low-budget film.

While marketed as a sci-fi film that “takes war to another dimension”, Zone Troopers is, for all intents and purposes, a WWII action flick. The plot follows a ragtag crew of four archetypal American soldiers -- the tough sarge, the wide-eyed kid, the lovable lout, and the cynic -- caught behind enemy lines and their conflict with the Nazi forces, who just so happen to have captured an alien from a crash-landed rocket ship. Yet even with this apparent emphasis on battles and brawls, the lackluster action sequences are few and far between, and poorly executed when they do appear. While the Italian filming locations led to easy access to actual WWII uniforms and realistic settings, lending some authenticity to the film’s visual quality, the dull special effects are underwhelming, even for a B-movie, and are instead reminiscent of films produced decades earlier.

The dialogue is stale, as stereotypical WWII-era expressions are used ad nauseam, to the point where supposed protagonist young Joey Verona’s (Timothy Van Patten) incessant exclamations of “golly gee” and “gee whiz” make him too trite, too predictable, and too boring to successfully uphold the role of the hero. Van Patten attempts to exude a youthful innocence and naiveté in his performance, but instead of appearing genuine his forced, artificial delivery turns Joey into a caricature, and the supporting roles follow suit.

The sci-fi elements that do appear, such as the brief glimpses of rubbery, scaly (or maybe furry?), claw-like hands reaching around trees, momentary Predator-like first-person shots through a red filter, and a charred alien corpse found in the crashed aircraft are only minimal, and are crowded out by the dominant war story. In fact, the first clear shot of an alien we get, depicting one bursting out of a peculiar egg, does not occur until over halfway through the film. While the emerging alien is momentarily off-putting, erupting through the sticky goo of its strange shell, repulsion quickly gives way to affection as the creature reaches toward a friendly face for help.

The suspicion of an alien threat is therefore quickly dispelled, and the focus promptly shifts back to the real villains of the story as the Führer himself makes a surprise appearance. Hitler’s face, however, is never seen; he is shot from behind, concealed by a screen, or blurred by the out-of-focus perspective of an awakening soldier. The reason for this stylistic choice is unclear; perhaps it's intended to create a sense of mystery and malevolence around this already clearly villainous character, so instead it comes across as a hokey, sloppily executed gag. Similarly, the Nazis’ nefarious schemes are made more ominous by their exclusive use of German without subtitles, reflecting the protagonists’ inability to understand what they overhear of their foes’ plotting, but it also provides a convenient excuse to not develop these antagonists’ motivations beyond those of stock baddies.

Thematically, there seem to be some false starts, with conspicuously recurrent commentary on the madness and psychological strain of war during the exposition, which is inexplicably absent for the remainder of the film. A conversation by firelight, in which two soldiers discuss shell shock and Joey’s fears that he is “going crackers” after seeing a strange, alien figure in the dark, is one of the few to add some depth to the characters and their situation. Later, in the only outright attempt to connect the two divergent plots, Joey briefly elevates the film’s commentary by arguing for the personhood of his new alien friend, identifying with him (or, as it turns out, her) as someone who is “scared, a million miles from home, lost in a strange land, doesn’t speak the language, people trying to kill him”, yet the discussion ends there.

The Sarge’s mysterious invulnerability also had potential to give Zone Troopers a greater sense of cohesion, but is never fully capitalized. Thomerson’s rendition of the quintessential hardened commander verges into the realm of absurdity when he astonishingly survives a direct shot to the back, brushing it off as though it were a mosquito bite, and experiencing no ill-effects for the remainder of the campaign. He also miraculously appears, seemingly out of thin air, in an iconic gun-slinging, cigarette-smoking power stance when his comrades had left him for dead after he successfully blew up the enemy with a hand-delivered grenade. Yet this imperviousness is never questioned nor explained, ignoring the potential for a convenient link to be made to some alien physiological or technological explanation.

The DVD’s bonus features are scant, but the feature-length commentary does serve to explain some of the film’s perplexing incongruities. Co-writers Danny Bilson and Paul de Meo, the film’s director and co-producer, respectively, spend the majority of the movie commiserating about the constraints of their low budget, complaining about Empire’s interference with their homage to WWII films, and lauding the authenticity of the locations and wardrobe while degrading the “ten-cent props” they were forced to cobble together themselves for the sci-fi element. They flat-out admit that “it was an excuse to do a WWII homage rather than a science fiction homage,” and it was never their intention to let the sci-fi elements they were forced to include because “that’s what [Empire’s] trade was” dilute their pure tribute to '40s-era war movies.

It’s not quite clear why Zone Troopers would be unearthed after 30 years in blissful obscurity. It’s a perplexing and tedious film that never fully commits to the genre blending that could have elevated it to at least average B-movie standards. The writers’ insistent and indulgent prioritizing of WWII movie tropes leads it to fail to live up to its potential and instead is a banal imitation. Zone Troopers isn’t even bad in the entertaining way, it’s just plain bad.


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