As the commercial and critical failure of Cowboys & Aliens (2010) demonstrated, it is difficult to successfully blend two disparate genres. You need to have just the right mix – something that the mega-budget studio film didn’t get right. Maybe they should have watched Zone Troopers (1985), a film that got it right and with a lot less money. God bless, B-movie mogul Charles Band for taking a chance on this oddball cinematic mash-up.
Somewhere in Italy circa 1944, a squad of American soldiers is waiting for other squads to show when they’re ambushed by Nazi soldiers. Despite being outnumbered, Sergeant Stone (Tim Thomerson) and his men manage to kill them all leaving only the no-nonsense Stone, eager beaver Joey Verona (Timothy Van Patten), the burly Mittens (Art La Fleur), and war correspondent Charlie Dolan (Biff Manard). They escape into the woods behind enemy lines only to find out that both their radio and compass don’t work. While out hunting for food, Dolan and Mittens stumble across a Nazi camp. Stone and Verona go looking for them and discover a crashed alien spacecraft. From this point on, Zone Troopers is an engaging mash-up of war movie and science fiction tale.
The casting of genre veterans Tim Thomerson (Trancers) and Art La Fleur (Air America) is spot on as they both look like they literally stepped out of a vintage World War II film. Thomerson, in particular, is excellent as the two-fisted sergeant with a reputation for being unkillable. The way he acts and carries himself would’ve made ideal casting for an adaptation of Nick Fury and the Howling Commandoes back in the 1980’s when this film was made. It’s great to see character actor La Fleur get a meaty role playing the amusing nicknamed Mittens and it’s a shame that they didn’t get to reprise their roles in a sequel.
The screenplay by Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo does a good job of replicating the classic World War II movie, right down to the authentic-sounding period dialogue while seamlessly mixing in elements of the 1950’s space alien film. It makes sense that they would go on to adapt The Rocketeer, Dave Stevens’ comic book homage to 1930’s serial adventures, into a film.
The opening gun battle sets the right tone of a vintage World War II B-movie by way of Sam Fuller complete with pulpy period dialogue and a gruff squad leader that almost makes one forget about the cheap production values that, rather than detract from the enjoyment of the film, give it plenty of scrappy charm. As the film progresses, the production values improve in spots, like when Stone and Verona search inside the giant spacecraft.
For a low-budget B-movie, Zone Troopers is refreshingly ambitious with its intentions to blend science fiction with the war movie. What makes it work so well is that the filmmakers are obviously taking it seriously as opposed to poking fun at both genres. They make sure that the actors play it straight as well. That’s not to say the film isn’t without its humorous moments but they are used sparingly. Zone Troopers is an entertaining film that celebrates its pulpy roots.