If genre cycles have roughly three phases, passing from sincerity, to imitation, to parody, The Zero Boys, released in 1986, is a key film for charting the progression from phase two to phase three within the slasher cycle that runs from roughly 1978, beginning with Halloween, to 1996, ending with Scream. Equal parts Friday the 13th, The Evil Dead, and Videodrome, director Nico Mastorakis’s gorefest unfolds with an inward eye regarding its own construction as a knowing product of several predecessors, while resigning itself to inhabiting typical genre thrills by its final third. Neither wholly reflexive nor an outright rip-off, the film features a sextet of twentysomethings on a weekend getaway whose fun is cut short by a band of backwoods no-names with a taste for sex, torture, and videotape.
Mastorakis structures confrontation around building suspense instead of characters, so that the titular band of bros, whose name derives from their ineptitude at playing simulated survival games, are stock masculine types who are into booze, chicks, and ammo. In the opening sequence, as the guys prepare for battle, one of them ogles a pin-up of Sylvester Stallone as Rambo and touches it for good luck. In a nice choice, Mastorakis has the guy place the picture on the wall not with a tack, but chewed-up bubble gum, epitomizing the film’s pop sensibility as a self-knowing mashup of cultural icons.
The mash-up strategy initially pays dividends, especially as presented by Steven Shaw’s handheld cinematography, which lends otherwise typical dialogue scenes a mobility that drums up tension from its fidgety, back-and-forth movements. When Jamie (Kelli Maroney), one of the girls along for the trip, tries to convince Steve (Daniel Hirsch) that the phone in their cabin isn’t working, Mastorakis stages the interaction around the threshold between the kitchen and dining room, with Shaw’s camera vacillating in and out as the characters move from one location to the other. It’s a seemingly innocuous moment, but it maintains a sense of real-time spatial orientation, making the possibility of a sudden change in the mise-en-scène all the more terrifying. In the film’s best scene, the boys head out to the barn, where they stumble upon recording equipment and a television broadcasting a woman being tortured. Their find is once again amplified by Shaw’s nimble camera, which keeps moving even as the boys stand still, surveying their surroundings.
Though The Zero Boys peddles as many stock scenes of false alarms as genuinely frightening moments of home invasion, most notably when a body wrapped in plastic comes plunging through the roof, the film’s first hour maintains a high-energy pace that also speaks to its sugar-rush intentions as both a wink to genre and an iteration of it. However, the last half hour curiously abandons this dynamic and degenerates into a motive-less procession of combat sequences, with the villains revealed to be underwhelming, stereotypical hillbillies plucked straight from the sub-Deliverance handbook. Suddenly, the film’s genre stakes have been abdicated in favor pure exploitation fodder, like wondering which baddie will get impaled first.
It’s doubly unfortunate since the script, which is originally precise at introducing hints of terror and later paying them off, undermines its own strengths by settling for thoughtless mano-a-mano shtick. Moreover, the aforementioned scene, where a body falls through the roof, eventually renders itself innocuous by negating the potential for an Alien-style moment of Trojan-horse infiltration. In a sometimes canny way, The Zero Boys interrogates the thin wall separating us versus them, which doubles as a commentary on the plastic divider between being a genre plagiarist and remix artist. Pity that Mastorakis ultimately doesn’t seem convicted of his own abilities as the latter.
Part of the thrill with Arrow Video’s releases is seeing films that were once doomed to VHS obscurity reemerge in gorgeous high-definition transfers. In the case of The Zero Boys, that pleasure is compounded by a staggering 4K restoration that reveals Steven Shaw’s nimble and precise handheld cinematography, which would surely have been lost on a pan-and-scan tape. Greens and reds have been restored to full saturation, while the fast-moving action scenes are consistently stable and free of ghosting effects. The soundtrack is equally strong, with Stanley Myers and Hanz Zimmer’s music strumming through the 2.0 stereo track with impressive range and depth. Even Foley effects, like the creaking of a door, sound like they’re opening from one side of the frame and crossing over to the other. It’s hard to imagine a more impressive presentation.
Usually a feature commentary and an interview with the director are crown jewels in any home-video release, but the pair featured on this Blu-ray are unfortunately thin and irritating. Critic Chris Alexander accompanies actress Kelli Maroney on the commentary and the exchanges largely reveal the sorts of behind-the-scenes information and perspective that welcomes die-hards only. The track is mostly filled with memory-based anecdotes instead of more substantive insights derived from a significance-based production history. Equally shortsighted is an interview with director Nico Mastorakis conducted by...Nico Mastorakis. It’s a largely insufferable gag prolonged to nearly half an hour, with the interview’s first five minutes being essentially just winks to the fact that it’s Mastorakis in both roles. "I am flattered when people tell me that I look like you," says the interviewer. Mastorakis replies: "Don’t be ridiculous. We are very dissimilar." Otherwise, there are a pair of short interviews with Maroney and actress Nicole Rio, the theatrical trailer, a stills gallery, and an essay by critic James Oliver.
Arrow Video tells you to drop that hero and get with the zero—The Zero Boys that is, with their fantastic new Blu-ray transfer of Nico Mastorakis’s uneven film.