One of the best and most exciting things about being a horror fan to me is the act of discovery. The deeper you delve into the genre, the more you will find all those precious hidden gems sprinkled within each subgenre. The 80s slasher subgenre encompasses dozens of films, many of which I love, and by now I thought I had seen all the good ones. I was wrong. There is one film out there from 1986 that I think is an almost criminally underrated addition to the genre, and is one that I had never even heard of until recently. So I think it’s time to show some appreciation for the truly unique 80s slasher, The Zero Boys.
I am honestly shocked that this title has never come across my radar before. I have not seen even a casual mention of it in any of those top ten lists of lesser known horror films or slasher films, even though there is a cult following behind it. There are many movies out there, especially from this era, but this is one that really should be moved closer to the forefront. The Zero Boys boasts some great acting from the entire cast, puts a few new spins on the typical tropes of the slasher subgenre, and is just a generally well-made movie that takes itself seriously and is executed accordingly. It effortlessly blends together different styles of movies, and is a precursor to the kinds of films that are being made now.
Admittedly, the opening scenes of The Zero Boys don’t do much to instill hope in the viewer that there are better things to come, especially if you’re expecting a slasher film. The opening titles alone are very deceptive. The font for the credits is militaristic, with the music accompanying it being upbeat and almost patriotic. The “O” in “Zero” is the crosshairs of a sniper scope, and the title slowly zooms in on this as the movie starts. It’s all more in line with a cheesy action flick rather than a horror movie.
The first scene is the titular Zero Boys, the name of a Weekend Warrior paintball team, playing a game against another team. It is filmed and edited together in a way to make the audience think that this is a bunch of guys actually killing each other in an abandoned town in Mexico or something, with even more cheeseball elements to it. One guy walks around with a giant snake draped over his shoulders. Another is wearing full Nazi regalia. One of the main characters, Steve, uses gum to stick a picture of Rambo to a wall as inspiration, and even does a Sly Stallone impression as he “kills” one opponent. While this is a somewhat strange way to start a horror movie, it’s also kind of brilliant because it makes the shift in tone quite surprising.
The real story kicks off when the Zero Boys and their three female companions head out for a weekend of celebration. They see a girl running through the woods screaming, go off to investigate, find a secluded house where no one seems to be home, and decide to stay there and party. Of course, this ends up being the wrong house to trespass upon, as the owners are sadistic killers. This is where I can’t give the characters any credit for their decision making. It’s pretty stupid to just go into somebody else’s house and party and have sex in their beds. But this turns out to be exactly where the killers want our characters, as they turn the tables on the Zero Boys to play some games of their own. This is kind of the idea of the movie, that the guys have to use their Weekend Warrior skills to fight for real.
Though it may sound like it, this is not your typical slasher film with kids running around the woods getting killed. Yes, this does happen, and there are even references to Friday the 13th. One killer uses a machete for a weapon, and a character makes jokes about Jason possibly being out there in the woods. But The Zero Boys is a bit more inventive than that. In a way, The Zero Boys is a prototype for some of the more elaborate films featuring torture that came in the early 2000s. The killers taunt and tease their victims. They enjoy messing with their heads, and slowly hunt them down rather than just quickly killing them and moving on.
At one point the characters venture into the barn on the killers’ property, where they have a torture chamber setup complete with video equipment to film their exploits, and further mess with our characters. One pretty disturbing scene shows a character tied to the torture chair, fighting for breath with a plastic bag over her head. The killers have also set up booby traps in the woods around the house. Another disturbing and surprising comes when a body falls from a trapdoor in the ceiling of the house. But director Nico Mastorakis does the opposite of what was probably expected of him and makes the film relatively bloodless. It then becomes all about suspense and survival with bits of action thrown in there to make the resulting film a really delicious blend.
One thing I always find myself judging the success of some of these 80s flicks on is the acting. Misspoken lines of dialogue or unbelievable reactions often take me out of a movie. That is not the case here. The acting by all the cast in The Zero Boys is incredibly genuine. Watch the faces of the performers in the background when something terrifying happens. See the real concern and fear that the guys show when things get serious, even the goofball with the skunk hair, Rip. The actress playing Trish, Crystal Carson, has a shining moment when she has to act traumatized after being briefly kidnapped by the killers. Giving a good and believable scream is hard for anyone to do, and the girls all do it wonderfully. Mastorakis even says in an extra on the Blu-ray that this is something he wanted his actors to get right–he didn’t want them to overact or “over-scare” themselves, and the focus on succeeding at this definitely shows. Daniel Hirsch as Steve is a great leader who keeps playing that role as best he can even when he is visibly afraid and outmatched by the killers. Kelli Maroney as Jamie plays the final-girl-but-not-really role with the kind of sass and confidence that I really love to see portrayed in these kinds of films.
When one of the bad guys makes his first onscreen appearance, the thought that will probably immediately go through your head is, “Wait, is that Martin Sheen?!” Well, no, it’s not. It’s actually Sheen’s younger brother Joe Estevez (credited here as Joe Phelan) who happens to have a scary resemblance to his sibling. This is actually an example of another reason that The Zero Boys is a movie of note. Along with the appearance of a member of the Estevez clan, the film has a couple other people involved in front of the camera and behind the scenes that are well-known in film. Kelli Maroney was also in Night of the Comet and Chopping Mall. Blink, and you’ll miss the name Hans Zimmer in the opening credits as one of the film’s composers. Frank Darabont was an assistant art director. The long-time producing partner of Wes Craven, Marianne Maddalena, was a production coordinator. I can’t help but love a movie like this all the more when this is the kind of talent that made it happen.
I really have to give props and appreciation to Arrow Video for introducing me to The Zero Boys via the great release they put out back in April. If you read this and decide to seek out the movie for yourself (which you should definitely do), the Arrow Blu-ray is the best way to watch it. The 2k restoration of the film looks perfect, with great audio and subtitle options. Most of the background information I mentioned above comes courtesy of a hilarious interview with writer/director Nico Mastorakis where he is literally interviewing himself. There are also new interviews with Maroney and Nicole Rio (who plays Sue), and a commentary with Maroney and Chris Alexander.
It is well past the time to give The Zero Boys the love that it deserves. It’s important to highlight those genre films that really manage to get everything right, and I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that The Zero Boys does this in spades. From the seamless way it transitions from an action movie to a horror movie, to the dedicated acting by all six principles, to Martin Sheen’s brother being totally creepy and awesome, this is definitely a new favorite of mine. The boys may call themselves zeros, but I would say that this movie is practically a perfect “10.”