It’s American GIs versus aliens and Nazis in the early Empire Pictures schlocker ZONE TROOPERS, another unearthed from the vaults by MGM for their manufactured-on-demand program.
A unit of American WWII soldiers stationed at a remote farm “Somewhere in Italy” is ambushed by German soldiers, leaving only four survivors ten miles behind enemy lines: the iron “Sarge” (Tim Thomerson, in G.I. Joe mode), gritty Mittens (Art LeFleur, COBRA), comic book-reading Joey (Timothy Van Patten, CLASS OF 1984), and combat photographer Donan (Biff Manard, SHANKS). Unbeknownst to them, an alien presence has saved them from a German mortar attack in the woods; although, the alien seems anything but friendly when Joey stumbles upon one of its eggs while on guard around the derelict barn in which the soldiers have taken shelter. Joey is convinced that he’s cracking up, but Mittens and Dolan become convinced that something strange is going on in the woods when they go hunting for food and discover a deserted SS unit encampment. Against Mittens’ orders, Dolan sneaks into the camp and discovers photographs of an alien ship (although he believes that it is a secret Nazi weapon). Mittens goes to recover Dolan and they are both captured by the Nazis. Meanwhile, Sarge and Joey go looking for Mittens and Dolan and stumble across the still-smoking wreck of the alien ship. They explore the interior and discover the remains of the alien pilot; however, the co-pilot’s seat is empty and Joey surmises that the alien he saw the night before is lurking somewhere in the woods. That’s not the worst of it, since Sarge sees through one eye of the alien periscope (which is too widely spaced for a human head) that the Germans are closing in on the ship. As the Nazis explore the inside of the ship, Joey discovers a vent that allows he and the Sarge to escape. They overhear that Dolan and Mittens have been nabbed. They blow the ship with several of the Nazis inside and head towards the SS camp to rescue Mittens and Dolan. They bust their buddies out and make off in a truck carrying an alien egg which has hatched into an adorable, furry, bug-eyed alien, and the Nazis will stop at nothing to get their hands on alien technology.
ZONE TROOPERS is an early Empire Pictures production – it was preceded by THE ALCHEMIST, GHOULIES, and TRANCERS, and a couple distribution pick-ups like WHITE SLAVE/AMAZONIA and SAVAGE ISLAND (the Linda Blair-augmented U.S. version of the Italian WIP film HOTEL PARADISE, which was also released to some European markets with hardcore scenes) – and the first one shot in Italy (and one of the few actually set in Italy). It’s also PG fare, so the emphasis is on comedy (Mittens gets to K.O. “Der Fuhrer” – making a cameo with his face mostly averted from camera – and Sarge completely demolishes the SS camp trying to maneuver a truck with a sticking gearshift) and cuteness (Empire Pictures regular John Carl Buechler’s man-in-a-suit alien compares poorly to his ghoulies and trolls, but is cute enough to eek out audience sympathy). Thankfully, the film’s heroic quartet are the film’s strong point (the rapport between LaFleur and Manard is particularly engaging). Ahlberg’s photography is slick and features some nice lighting in the ship interior and the heroes' various campfire-lit shelters (he had already shot GHOULIES, TRANCERS, and the Empire Pictures-distributed anthology THE DUNGEONMASTER, and he would shoot several other Charles Band Empire and Full Moon productions in later years). The opening and end title sequences are scored with Joe Garland’s “In the Mood,” and most of Richard Band’s score quotes big band motifs of the era (the score was released on a limited edition CD soundtrack paired with his score for Charles Band’s THE ALCHEMIST).
Director Danny Bilson and producer Paul DiMeo followed up ZONE TROOPERS with the comedy THE WRONG GUYS – which reunited Van Patten, LaFleur, and Manard – and returned to Empire Pictures with ARENA (also shot in Italy). Bilson and DiMeo collaborated again on television with the series THE FLASH, VIPER and THE SENTINEL. Bilson is the father of model/actress Rachel Bilson, and his sister Julie – credited here as production coordinator – was married to the film’s cinematographer Mac Ahlberg (Bilson had previously served as Ahlberg’s second assistant camera on the memorable WIP film CHAINED HEAT and on GHOULIES). Editor Ted Nicolau went on to direct all four SUBSPECIES films – as well as the related VAMPIRE JOURNALS – for Band’s subsequent company Full Moon Entertainment. Production designer Philip Dean Foreman handled the art direction for all four CRITTERS films, as well as KILLER KLOWNS FROM OUTER SPACE. Foreman’s art director was Giovanni Natalucci, whose design career went all the way back to CLEOPATRA and also included CALIGULA and ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA. Following ZONE TROOPERS, Natalucci would work as production designer on a number of Empire Pictures (DOLLS, TROLLS, FROM BEYOND) and later Full Moon productions such as PIT AND THE PENDULUM and MERIDIAN. The optical effects were the work of Tony Alderson (KILLER KLOWNS FROM OUTER SPACE) and Frank Isaacs (GALAXY OF TERROR).
Van Patten would return to Italy for another Empire Pictures production in 1988 as the protagonist of David Schmoeller’s underrated CATACOMBS (released on VHS and laserdisc in the US as CURSE IV: THE ULTIMATE SACRIFICE). He has since moved behind the scenes, directing episodes of THE SOPRANOS, GAME OF THRONES, and BOARDWALK EMPIRE among others. Thomerson already had a healthy CV of TV and film appearances – including Vernon Zimmerman’s cult film FADE TO BLACK – and had already appeared in Charles Band’s METALSTORM: THE DESTRUCTION OF JARED SYN, but he entered cult stardom in another 1985 Empire Pictures production: TRANCERS, directed by Empire executive producer Charles Band (and written by ZONE TROOPERS’ producer Paul DiMeo and director Danny Bilson). Between 1991 and 1994, he appeared in four sequels produced by Band’s Full Moon Entertainment. Art LaFleur may not be a familiar name, but it is highly unlikely viewers have not seen his memorable face in commercials or typecast as various military types in both film and television. He also appeared in the first two TRANCERS films and AIR AMERICA with Thomerson and ZONE TROOPERS’ co-star Manard (who appeared in the disaster drama ST. HELENS with Thomerson). Thomerson and LaFleur are two of the character actors appearing in the upcoming comedy BRING ME THE HEAD OF LANCE HENRIKSEN.
Released on tape in the US by Lightning Video, ZONE TROOPERS was one of the few Empire Pictures titles that MGM remastered, and their manufactured-on-demand disc features an attractive single-layer, progressive, anamorphic 1.85:1 widescreen transfer. The Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo track is also in fine condition, with emphasis on explosions, gunfire, lasers, and Band’s score. The only extra is a trailer (1:31) that appears to be unfinished as it has no dialogue or narration (other than the intoning of the title at the end); however, it does offer some untinted creature POV shots. MGM has also packed their disc with cover art suggestive of a 1950s sci-fi movie (which is an improvement over the US poster and video Uncle Sam parody artwork). (Eric Cotenas)
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