The Film: 4/5
Italy, 1944. During the final, most desperate months of World War II's European Theater, a ragtag platoon of battle-hardened American soldiers are trapped ten miles behind enemy lines with the Nazis closing in on them on all sides. Lead by the legendary Iron Sarge (Tim Thomerson), the soldiers incur heavy casualties following a surprise attack. The Sarge and his surviving troops Joey Verona (Timothy Van Patten) and Mittens (Art La Fleur), along with embedded journalist Charlie Dolan (Biff Manard), high-tail it to safety and try to figure out to way to make it home with their asses intact. After being separated, Mittens and Dolan come across a Nazi encampment that houses some strange objects not of this world while the Sarge and Joey find some kind of crashed transport that is also foreign to our planet. Crazy as it sounds, aliens have come to Earth and aren't exactly what sci-fi pulp buff Joey was expecting, but eventually these unusual visitors from beyond the stars are uniting with the fighting men of the good ol' U.S. of A to battle a common enemy....the Judean People's Front! No wait, I meant the Nazis. Together they may be outnumbered by a substantial margin, but our little space friends have some pretty sweet intergalactic hardware that just might turn the tide of this relentless battle (bloodlessly of course - this movie is rated PG after all).
Let us now raises our glasses, whatever they may be filled with, in a salute to Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo, two underrated geek gods who were at least a decade or two ahead of their time. They started out as writers for Charles Band's Empire Pictures in the early 1980's, penning the scripts for such completely bonkers sci-fi action hybrids as the original Trancers (Band's first major low-budget franchise), the ridiculous Eliminators, and the too sweet for words Arena. The year after the release of Trancers, Band decided to give Bilson his first shot at directing with another adventure script with otherworldly elements that he and De Meo concocted, Zone Troopers. It was to be the first production Band had filmed in studio space he acquired in Rome and most of Empire's output until its doors closed by the end of the decade were also filmed in the Italian studio, including Stuart Gordon's Dolls and From Beyond.
Zone Troopers strikes me as one of those movies that was began with just the title, a poster, or perhaps both. Obviously designed to cash in on the blockbuster success of the Star Wars movies, Alien, and E.T., Troopers manages to stand out from such uninspired dreck by welding its science fiction elements to a narrative framework inspired by the "no guts, no glory" patriotic war movies of the 1940's and 50's. You could possibly describe Troopers as what would happen if Sam Fuller's The Steel Helmet took a wrong turn and ran right smack into a dollar bin remake of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, except our alien visitors just happen to make first contact with a small group of dogged army men instead of a contingent of the scientific community. At a time when war movies were becoming more brutal and realistic, particularly the ones centered on the Vietnam War, Zone Troopers is a pleasingly old-fashioned throwback to the efficient studio filmmaking of Hollywood's golden age that transcends its budgetary limitations with spirited performances and plenty of pulp excitement.
Bilson employed a great many members of Empire's in-house production team to help put his movie together. The late Swedish cinematographer Mac Ahlberg, whose work graced many a beloved cult film and popular weekend video store rental in the 80's as well as the occasional big-budget studio feature (including Beverly Hills Cop III and both Brady Bunch movies), gives Troopers a gritty and colorful look that also benefits from the authentic landscapes of the Italian countryside. The score composed by Richard Band recalls not just John Williams' iconic soundtracks for the original Star Wars trilogy but also James Horner's scores for the second and third Star Trek movies, but he manages to blend those familiar orchestral motifs effectively with his own ideas to create the ideal music to underscore the comic book shenanigans and fist-pumping heroism of Zone Troopers. Editor Ted Nicolaou, a director in his own right (Terrorvision, the Subspecies series), keeps the action tight, the jokes flowing, and the running time at a lean 86 minutes. Production designer Giovanni Natalucci (Robot Jox) uses what little money he had to create some plausible locations, the most elaborate being the crashed alien spacecraft and the Nazi's encampment. John Carl Buechler was responsible for the alien makeup effects including the main insect-like creature played by William Paulson. Other extraterrestrials come into play later in the third act, but they're just actors with their faces painted a light blue. Regardless, Buechler's creations are solid and they add to the movie's playful tone instead of acting as a distraction.
Bilson's direction captures the energetic flair of the war movies and alien invasion flicks that inspired Zone Troopers, and the script he and De Meo crafted is loaded with action and hilarious one-liners. They had both previously worked with actors Thomerson, Manard, and La Fleur on Trancers and would reteam with all three on the warmhearted - yet surprisingly violent - comedy The Wrong Guys (a daily HBO fixture of my childhood). Van Patten would also make an appearance in the latter movie, and both Thomerson and Manard would work with Bilson and De Meo again on the short-lived CBS series The Flash, based on the classic DC Comics character which was recently rebooted to great success on the CW, with Thomerson appearing in the pilot episode and Manard playing the recurring character of Officer Michael Murphy. Both actors had worked early in their careers as stand-up comedians during the 1970's.
The four stars are definitely the cast standouts. Thomerson could never be miscast as a tougher-than-leather man's man, so he's in his element playing the war-weary Iron Sarge who has become a figure of mythic proportions to his fellow grunts in the U.S. military but is in reality just another soldier doing his job and wanting to put a boot to the throat of the Axis Powers. He could gruff but lovable in his sleep and the script hands him some of the most important lines of dialogue. Thomerson even gets to improvise a line or two, as he explains the supplemental interview on this Blu-ray. La Fleur, Van Patten, and Manard provide the bulk of the comic relief in Zone Troopers, but they're pretty convincing enough as soldiers. La Fleur ably supports Thomerson's toughness with a lot of his own and is rewarded for his efforts by getting to deck that miserable psycho Hitler right on the jaw in a manner that would make Captain America grin like a little kid. Manard is excellent as the opportunistic newspaperman who embraces the camaraderie of the Iron Sarge and his troops and eventually gets to fight alongside them and the aliens in a final battle with the Nazis that is light on blood but high on folks getting laser zapped out of existence.
Best known as the remorseless teen sociopath Stegman in the cult classic Class of 1984, Van Patten plays the unit's requisite handsome joker from Jersey and does a swell job in the process. Joey Verona is the film's wide-eyed, geeky soul, the perfect audience surrogate for those of us who preferred to bury our noses in classic sci-fi comics and literature and spend our weekends watching The Empire Strikes Back at the local multiplex over and over instead of getting into sports but could also be counted on to back up his friends in their most desperate hour and never run away from a fight. In short, he's the living embodiment of Bilson and De Meo's mission statement with Zone Troopers, a movie that is vastly more fun and adventurous than you might expect it to be.
Zone Troopers was filmed in the 1.85:1 widescreen aspect ratio and Kino Lorber has preserved its correct framing for their MPEG-4 AVC-encoded Blu-ray transfer. Sourced from a high-definition transfer prepared by MGM for recent cable broadcasts, Kino has upgraded the picture in 1080p resolution. The results are about as good as you can expect from an HD transfer for a mid-80's Empire Pictures release. Color reproduction is accurate and strong; the spaceship interiors are particularly vibrant and the military uniforms retain their olive green authenticity. The video quality tends to suffer from a lack of sharpness at times, but that could be attributed to the production's low budget and the softness in Ahlberg's cinematography (which may have been intentional in order to reproduce the look of the vintage war movies that inspired Zone). Grain structure is solid and consistent. The image is mostly free of defect, but small traces of print damage remain though they never distract. Overall the transfer isn't a winner, but it's better than could ever be expected given the condition of the source materials used for the restoration and the picture quality is far better than previous VHS and DVD releases. The English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 track fares much better. Dialogue is clean and audible, the heroic Richard Band score comes through with great volume but never overwhelms everything else, and there doesn't appear to be any permanent damage done to the mono sound mix. Gunshots and explosions pack as much punch as they can. No subtitles have been included.
Bilson and De Meo team up for an excellent new commentary track that provides a fine overview of the production, from the story's inspirations to shooting it in Rome to the reception to the finished film and everything in-between. Unfortunately this track suffers from too much dead air. Their leading man Thomerson takes center stage in the interview featurette "The Iron Sarge" (11 minutes), where he recounts the time he spent filming Zone Troopers, working with the director and fellow actors, the family atmosphere created by having several of actors and crew members' closest relatives join them in Italy, and taking cues from performances in war movies to shape his portrayal of the Sarge. Closing out the extras is the original theatrical trailer, presented in standard-definition (2 minutes). For some reason, Empire used the music from the John Carpenter's The Thing trailer here, which must have given audiences at the time the impression that Zone was far more scarier and intense than it ultimately turned out to be.
Zone Troopers may not have had a lot of cash in the bank to fulfill its lofty ambitions, but it has enough corny humor, pulpy thrills, and chest-puffing chutzpah to make it one of the more memorable offerings from the short-lived Empire Pictures. A jaunty B-movie gem that kids and adults can both groove on, and Kino Lorber has given it some fine new bonus features to make this Blu-ray definitely worth the sale price.