Monday, March 19, 2012

ZONE TROOPERS

During the 1980s, the writing team of Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo wrote a handful of comic book-inspired genre films for B-movie producer Charles Band's production company, Empire Pictures. Among these were the first TRANCERS, THE ELIMINATORS and the outer space boxing flick, ARENA. I like all of these, but my favorite (or at least, tied with TRANCERS) is ZONE TROOPERS (1985), a delightful cinematic homage to the "Weird War" comics of the Fifties and Sixties.

It's 1944, and an American Army unit is ambushed by German troops in the Italian countryside. The survivors of the ambush - gruff grunt Mittens (Art LeFleur, TRANCERS, THE RIG), Joey from Brooklyn (Timothy Van Patten, CLASS OF 1984), war correspondent Dolan (Biff Manard, TRANCERS 1 & 2), and hardboiled Sgt. Stone (Tim Thomerson, TRANCERS, DOLLMAN) - soon find themselves lost behind enemy lines, where they stumble upon a crashed alien rocketship being studied by the Nazis. And if that wasn't trouble enough, sci-fi pulp fan Joey has adopted one of the alien crew members, an ugly little critter the soldiers take to calling "Bug!"

Briskly directed by Bilson on location in Italy, with a smart, witty, surprise-packed script filled with punchy period patter and plenty of WWII action, ZONE TROOPERS is an underrated B-movie gem. The cast, comprised of accomplished character actors, play their parts to perfection, the production design - especially the alien spaceship, which looks like it came right out of a Forties pulp magazine - is spot-on, and the Richard Band score is terrific, with some vintage swing music mixed in for flavor. The only real letdown is John Carl Beuchler's (GHOULIES, JASON OF STAR COMMAND) bulging-eyed alien design, which is stiff, lifeless, and completely lacking in personality. But even that doesn't take away from the movie's multitude of pulpy, tongue-in-cheek charms.

Previously released as a pan & scan VHS release from Media Home Entertainment back in the mid-Eighties, ZONE TROOPERS makes its digital disc debut as a manufactured-on-demand DVD from the MGM Limited Edition Collection. Presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen, TROOPERS looks surprisingly good, with a slightly soft but otherwise attractive transfer from a remarkably clean source. There are virtually no annoying specks, scratches or other distracting print damage, and the colors are bright and stable. The Dolby Digital 2.0 mono soundtrack is clear and devoid of distortion or hiss. Overall, it's a great presentation of a 25+-year old low-budget cult item. The only extra is a trailer, which looks like it was intended for home video, rather than theaters. (Amusingly, the folks at MGM have misspelled the film's title as "ZONE TROPPERS" on the packaging and disc label.)

Bilson and De Meo went on to write the under-appreciated THE ROCKETEER for Disney (which exhibited the same snappy dialogue and obvious affection for 40s pulp culture), and produce THE FLASH, THE SENTINEL and VIPER for television. All of those productions showed a genuine love for genre material and an affection for comic book-styled storytelling, and ZONE TROOPERS is no exception. It's one of my favorite B-movies of the Eighties, and I'm thrilled to finally have a widescreen, high-quality version of the film in my video library.

Highly and enthusiastically recommended.

BUYZone Troopers