Saturday, May 7, 2016

Retro Review: THE ZERO BOYS (1986)

(US - 1986)

Directed by Nico Mastorakis. Written by Nico Mastorakis and Fred C. Perry. Cast: Daniel Hirsch, Kelli Maroney, Nicole Rio, Tom Shell, Jared Moses, Crystal Carson, Joe Phelan (Joe Estevez), Gary Jochimson, John Michaels, Elise Turner, T.K. Webb, Steve Shaw. (Unrated, 89 mins)

If his Wikipedia page is to be believed, the life of Greek exploitation filmmaker Nico Mastorakis has been filled with many strange twists and turns that would make a hell of a movie. A journalist, media personality, and pop music impresario who counted the likes of Aristotle and Jackie Onassis and John Lennon among his close friends and helped establish the career of CHARIOTS OF FIRE theme composer Vangelis. Mastorakis parlayed his notoriety into becoming a star on television, hitting it big in 1972 with Greece's version of CANDID CAMERA. Deciding to enter the world of trash movies and becoming a Greek precursor to Uwe Boll, Mastorakis made his filmmaking debut in 1976 with the notorious, crudely-made, and frequently banned ISLAND OF DEATH, which is probably his best known work in cult movie circles. He quickly followed that with the same year's giallo-sounding Greek thriller DEATH HAS BLUE EYES before scoring his most high-profile gig, scripting an early draft of director J. Lee Thompson's 1978 Onassis biopic THE GREEK TYCOON, with Anthony Quinn and Jacqueline Bisset. Mastorakis only ended up with a "Story by" credit by the time it was released, but it was his first and thus far last brush with an A-list, major studio project. He instead opted to go the independent route, writing and producing the 1982 Greek horror film BLOOD TIDE, starring vacationing celebrities James Earl Jones and Jose Ferrer. 1984 saw the beginning of a furiously productive run for Mastorakis, who took full advantage of the product demand in the burgeoning home video industry by becoming a B-movie, DIY mini-mogul of sorts with his Omega Entertainment, writing, producing, and directing over a dozen genre titles over the next eight years, first in his native Greece and eventually, by 1987, he moved his base of operation to Los Angeles. 1984's Athens-shot suspense thriller BLIND DATE offered an early starring role for Kirstie Alley, and Mastorakis had enough cash flow to hire recognizable names who weren't exactly at the peak of their careers, like Joseph Bottoms (BLIND DATE), Keir Dullea (BLIND DATE and 1984's THE NEXT ONE, aka THE TIME TRAVELLER), Adrienne Barbeau (THE NEXT ONE), and David McCallum, Robert Morley, and Steve Railsback, all of whom appeared in Mastorakis' 1987 horror film THE WIND with perennial B-listers Meg Foster and Wings Hauser.

In 1986, Mastorakis directed his first American film, the survivalist-slasher movie THE ZERO BOYS, featuring a little part SOUTHERN COMFORT and RITUALS and a lot of FRIDAY THE 13TH. The story centers on a trio of paintball-fixated L.A. dudebros--Steve (Daniel Hirsch), Larry (Tom Shell), and Rip (Jared Moses)--who call themselves "The Zero Boys," even sporting a personalized license plate reading "ZEROBOYS" on their pickup truck. Besting his chief rival Casey (John Michaels) in their latest combat match-up, Steve's prize is a weekend with Casey's feisty, sexually-liberated psych-major girlfriend Jamie (Kelli Maroney, who had FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH and NIGHT OF THE COMET to her credit and was the closest thing to a "name" present), and along with Larry's and Rip's respective girlfriends Sue (Nicole Rio) and Trish (Crystal Carson), head to the woods on a camping trip before crashing at an abandoned Cabin in the Woods for games of both the weekend warrior and between-the-sheets variety. Those plans are derailed with the appearance of a trio of machete and crossbow-wielding psychos (led by Martin Sheen's brother Joe Estevez, though he's credited as "Joe Phelan") who have already disposed of a handful of victims and are eager to pick off these new intruders. Of course, The Zero Boys put their paintball, war-game skills to use in an attempt to survive the night.

THE ZERO BOYS is a bit of a slow-burner, sometimes too slow for its own good, and considering Mastorakis' skeezy past with ISLAND OF DEATH, it's pretty tame for an unrated '80s horror movie. Where THE ZERO BOYS works best is with the sudden appearances of the trio of killers, often shown silhouetted and surrounded by light behind them or pouring rain, dark figures with weapons ready for the kill. These shots involving the killers are the highlights of the film, pulled off in a vividly eerie fashion by cinematographer Steve Shaw, who probably picked up some of those skills during his time as an assistant cameraman on E.T.: THE EXTRA TERRESTRIAL. Like a less-talented Roger Corman, Mastorakis surrounded himself with veteran talent he could afford and younger talent he could mentor: the synthy and exceedingly 1986-style score was co-written by Stanley Myers (THE DEER HUNTER) and a young Hans Zimmer, who would eventually nab ten Oscar nominations to date (for films like RAIN MAN, GLADIATOR, and INTERSTELLAR), winning one for his work on the 1994 Disney classic THE LION KING. Also buried in the closing credits are a pair of names who would go on to much bigger things in the '90s: production coordinator Marianne Maddalena would later become Wes Craven's producing partner from 1989 to the end of his career, and credited as one of three assistant art directors is future SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION and GREEN MILE director Frank Darabont, a year before his big break, landing a co-writing credit with Craven on 1987's A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 3: DREAM WARRIORS.

Mastorakis kept going throughout the rest of the '80s with films like 1987's TERMINAL EXPOSURE (with John Vernon, Andy Sidaris regular Hope Marie Carlton, and THE LOVE BOAT's Ted Lange), 1988's NIGHTMARE AT NOON (with George Kennedy, Bo Hopkins, and Wings Hauser), the 1989 spoof NINJA ACADEMY, 1990's HIRED TO KILL (with Kennedy, Jose Ferrer, and Oliver Reed), and 1991's NC-17-rated erotic thriller IN THE COLD OF THE NIGHT (an all-star affair with the likes of Shannon Tweed, Marc Singer, David Soul, John Beck, and Tippi Hedren). Mastorakis' Hollywood career came to a temporary close with the 1992 comedy THE NAKED TRUTH, where he somehow managed to corral a once-in-a-lifetime cast that reads like the IT'S A MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD WORLD of early '90s straight-to-video: Tweed, Vernon, Lange, Erik Estrada, Lou Ferrigno, David Birney, Billy Barty, Alex Cord, Yvonne DeCarlo, Norman Fell, Bubba Smith, Herb Edelman, Camilla Sparv, M. Emmet Walsh, Dick Gautier, Zsa Zsa Gabor, and Little Richard. Mastorakis returned to Greece for the rest of the '90s, relaunching the Greek incarnation of CANDID CAMERA and some other TV shows before returning to Hollywood in a one-off attempt to recapture his '80s magic in the world of straight-to-DVD with the 2003 cyber-horror thriller .COM FOR MURDER. Sporting the dubious tag line "In cyberspace, no one can year you scream," the film was a blatant attempt at fooling video store customers into thinking it was the previous year's thoroughly forgettable FEAR DOT COM, and featured another typically inexplicable cast that included Nastassja Kinski, Roger Daltrey, Nicollette Sheridan, Melinda Clarke, Julie Strain, and Huey Lewis. .COM FOR MURDER is the final film to date for the now 75-year-old Mastorakis, who appears in an interview on the bonus features for Arrow's new extras-packed Blu-ray/DVD release of THE ZERO BOYS. The two-disc set also has interviews with Rio as well as Maroney, who went on to appear in a few Roger Corman productions (CHOPPING MALL, BIG BAD MAMA II) and is now a regular on the convention circuit thanks primarily to the ongoing cult following of NIGHT OF THE COMET, and Maroney also joins former Fangoria editor Chris Alexander for an audio commentary.

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