What if characters in a slasher film actually make smart decisions? Better yet, what if they are also a trained paintball/airsoft team armed with submachine guns? Writer/director Nico Mastorakis and his co-writers Robert Gilliam and Fred Perry use this as the premise for The Zero Boys, their mashup of mid-1980’s slasher and action films. In it, a top ranked paintball/airsoft team and their girlfriends do battle against a couple of slashers/killer rednecks in the proverbial cabin in the woods. Combining tropes from both genres, the filmmakers deliver an experience that feels at once both fresh and familiar.
The Zero Boys introduces us to its eponymous team by showcasing their skills in a paintball/airsoft battle against another team in a mock western town. The Zero Boys consists of three college age guys: the apparent leader Steve (Daniel Hirsch) and his two buddies Larry (Tom Shell) and Rip (Jared Moses). After soundly beating their rivals, they are joined by Larry and Rip’s girlfriends Trish (Crystal Carson) and Sue (Nicole Rio) as well by Jamie (Kelli Maroney), the former girlfriend of the leader of the rival team. The six of them head off to the woods for a weekend of relaxing and target practice (using real guns – including submachine guns). Coming across what appears to be a recently vacated upscale cabin/house in the woods, the group makes themselves at home. Only Steve seems to be bothered by the fact that the house was left unlocked with the lights on and dinner dishes still on the table. After Trish thinks she sees someone spying on her and Larry, the gang realizes that they might not be alone. Once they discover a disturbing videotape along with assorted human remains, they realize they are up against one or more killers. Unlike most characters in slasher films, the crew makes the smart choice and quickly run to the car as soon as they notice something is up. Unfortunately, the killers have already disabled the vehicle. Good thing The Zero Boys have their trunk of real weapons with them.
When we first meet The Zero Boys, they are full of themselves after having just beaten their rivals in a survival game. Steve, Larry, and Rip come across as arrogant frat boys who border on douchey. When they come across an rather nicely appointed cabin the woods, they walk in as if entitled to it. They think nothing of taking it over with no regard to that fact that they do not even know who’s house it is. As the film progresses, the group’s arrogance is tempered as they are faced with the danger presented by the killers. Instead of cracking under the stress, it helps mature them and bring them together as a group. While Larry, Sue, Rip, and Trish do show some growth, it is the the two leads, Steve and Jamie who have the more realized character arcs. Steve makes increasingly mature decisions as the night gets more dangerous. He goes from being a leader of a survival game team to a true leader, doing his best to guide the group to safety. Jamie keeps her head together for the most part, as well. She and Steve together become the guiding force for the group. All six members of the group work together, further helping the viewer to care for them.
While influenced by slasher films, The Zero Boys does not fully embrace the slasher aesthetic. One of The Zero Boys actually jokingly calls out “Hello Jason” when they enter the house, but the killers themselves have more in common with the killer rednecks of Deliverance than supernatural killers such as Jason or Michael Myers. No backstory is provided for the antagonists, but that works fine for the film. They are simply nameless killers, almost forces of nature. Killer (or Killer #1) is played by Joe Estevez, who is mostly famous for being Martin Sheen’s younger brother. He looks a little out of place, stalking after the group while wearing his blue collared shirt and a white v-neck cardigan, but he somehow makes it work for his character. His blank stare makes it so that one could almost see him as the survivor of an earlier attack, now deranged to the point of becoming a killer himself. Killer #2 (Gary Jochimsen) is a menacing hulk, mostly relegated to the shadows. Instead of jumping right into the action with early kills, the film takes its time introducing its characters and setting and slowly building the air of menace. The gore, while more subdued than one would expect from a slasher, is still effective. The overall body count is far less than most films of the genre, but then again, the protagonists do have submachine goes to with which to defend themselves.
Mastorakis is a bit more familiar with the action genre than slasher films, which could explain why The Zero Boys has a stronger 80’s b-action feel than slasher feel. The personalities of the characters are more akin to action heros than slasher victioms. The team members show the typical machismo of action heros of the time; one has to have a bit of bravado to be willing to take on psychotic killers on their own territory. This fits, as a majority of the fighting is the small-squad style often seen in action films as opposed to the run-away-a-scream “action” typical of slashers. As the film progresses, Jamie (Kelli Maroney) becomes not so much a slasher-style “final girl” but more an 80’s action heroine. The score, by Stanley Myers and future Academy Award Winner Hans Zimmer, also gives more of an action-film vibe than a slasher one for most of the film, though it can get creepy enough when need be.
I am surprised that The Zero Boys is not more widely known. With its unusual hybrid of 80’s action and slasher tropes, it deserves to at least have a larger cult following. The balance between the two genres may be a bit uneven, with Mastorakis’ preference for action films showing through, but it has enough of a horror feel to it that it is still a successful mix. Smart characters that show some actual growth also help to set it apart from the usual posturing heros and empty headed machete fodder that populate the two genres. The Zero Boys makes for fun and satisfying viewing for genre fans.
The Zero Boys (3 / 5)