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Hipster Holy Grail: The Zero Boys (1986)

The Hipster Holy Grail is a weekly experiment where I try to find and review a movie that's at least 10 years old and has less than 5,000 ratings on IMDb. I always hope to discover something amazing. Sometimes I don't.  This week, I watched....

The Short Bit for People Who Don't Like to Read Reviews

The Zero Boys sits on the fence between preposterously stupid funny-bad and classic B horror with some legitimately creepy moments.  It's a textbook example of a film that needs to go just a little farther in one direction or the other in order to be memorable enough to recommend.  It's compelling enough that I'd tell you to go for it if you're into non-slasher '80s horror, but otherwise you're not missing a ton if you pass it by.

My Rating: 3 / 5

The Plot Summary

The film opens in what appears to be the abandoned remains of a frontier town plagued by zombies and/or Nazis and/or zombie Nazis.  A tiny military-ish squadron of soldiers lays in wait, then springs an attack and opens fire.  They take out the baddies handily, and after a dramatic pause, we hear thunderous applause.

Surprise!  Turns out it's not actually a post-apocalyptic wasteland after all.  It's just some kids playing in an unbelievably well-funded and well-attended paintball tournament.

All of this was meant to be nothing more than a throwaway introduction to our heroes, the titular Zero Boys (that's the name of their paintball team), but even though the movie glosses right over the paintball match and gets to the plot, I can't let it go.  I'm so fascinated by the inner workings and logistics of their hobby.  Who built the town that they're playing in?  Who replaces the fake glass whenever they break it?  Or is it not fake glass - is it real glass, and they have no problem with shooting it out or knocking each other through it?  What are their medical bills like?  Do they have to sign extensive waivers before they play?

Why is one team dressed up as Nazis?  Did they lose a bet?  Is each match in the tournament a chapter of an extended role playing game, and it was just their turn to be the Nazis this time?  Or were the outfits their choice and they're just huge assholes?

When the Zero Boys win, a friendly old-timer comes to congratulate them.  Who the hell is that guy?  Does he own the place where they play the games?  How much does he charge for each round?  Where did the audience come from, and how big a deal is paintball in this community?

I was under the assumption that paintball arenas were basically just big dirt pits stacked with old tires and maybe some repurposed jungle gyms.  How much of life have I missed out on by not playing paintball in my youth?

I guess what I'm saying is, I'd really rather watch a movie that gets into the paintball league.  Maybe turn it into a slobs-vs-snobs sports story about the Zero Boys and the Gestapo Six.

But that's not what this movie is.  Instead, the paintball game is meant to be character exposition for the Zero Boys, a trio of gun nuts made up of Steve, the leader, Rip, the Goofy Guy, and Larry, the Boring Guy.  After winning the tournament, they're gathering in Steve's truck so they can go off for a weekend of camping in the woods.  Accompanying them will be Goofy Guy's girlfriend, Sue, and Boring Guy's girlfriend, Trish.  Steve doesn't have a female counterpart, though.  Unless....

Say, did Steve and the leader of the Nazi guys make an incredibly misogynistic and unbelievably backward bet in which the winner of the tournament got to keep Nazi guy's girlfriend, Jamie, for the weekend?  Oh, they did?  Perfect!  Now Steve won't be alone.

To be fair, The Zero Boys does pay some lip service to the inherent grossness of this bet by having Jamie react to it with rancor, as she rightly should.  But instead of having her punch her boyfriend and say, "Uh, no, fuck you, I'm not property you can bet with.  I'm going back to my dorm room and you can lose my number forever, asshole," she goes, "Oh, you know what?  Fine.  I'm going on that camping trip with him to prove a point."

The movie treats it like just some minor character conflict for them to work past for the sake of the narrative.  Practically speaking, this is Steve and Jamie's meet cute, like it'll be a silly story they tell to their kids some day - "Yeah, she was kinda mad with me at first because I thought of her as something of a warm trophy I could put my dick inside, but then she decided to revenge fuck me and, well, the rest is history."

You know how you make this way less gross?  You don't have Steve try to collect on it.  The only reason we even get to this point is because Steve goes to Nazi guy and says, "Now, about that bet...." and Nazi guy growls and goes, "Oh, fine!  Here's my girlfriend, and here's the keys.  You better give her back with a full tank, asshole!"  Steve would be so much more likable if he never mentioned it at all and dismissed the bet as just a bad joke.

But, no, Steve's a piece of shit and our movie's about to begin.  So.

The Zero Boys and their girlfriends / winnings get into Steve's truck and they drive out to the woods.  There's some tense moments between Steve and Jamie, but otherwise nothing much happens until Jamie hears a woman screaming.  They get into the truck and try to find the source of the noise, which leads them to a seemingly abandoned cabin.

And here's where the Zero Boys again prove to be a bunch of monsters.  They almost immediately forget that they tracked down the cabin while trying to figure out who was screaming, and then Goofy Guy goes, "Hey!  Free cabin!  Let's party!!!!!" and invites himself inside.  To his credit, Steve thinks it's a bad idea at first and warns his brothers-in-fake-arms that they're trespassing, but Goofy Guy finds a post-it note somewhere that says, "Make yourselves at home," and deduces that clearly this was meant for a group of six rando assholes and not the friends of the owner.  So, they all hang out and party.

It's basically the same premise as Spookies, but where that movie made up for its stupidity with charm and hugely entertaining monster effects, The Zero Boys seems to be hoping it will win you over purely through the high of Goofy Guy's antics.  They miscalculated.  Goofy Guy is obnoxious and I can't wait for him to die.

While partying, they whip a birthday cake out of nowhere for Goofy Guy to celebrate his birthday.  He concludes the festivities by grabbing Sue and announcing loudly that he's going upstairs to have sex with her.  His friends find this hilarious because... I don't know.  I guess they're probably all virgins?  I'm trying to think of what other possible circumstances that would lead you to A) be comfortable with your friend making eye contact with you and explaining that he is about to unload semen into another human being to his left, and B) laugh sincerely at the suggestion instead of either cringing in embarrassment or just calmly saying, "Uh... okay?  Have fun, I guess?"

The '80s were a weird time, is what I'm saying.

So, now that a couple of characters are attempting intercourse, it's time for the movie to turn into horror mode and get weird.  As soon as Goofy Guy and Sue are in bed, she hears creepy sounds and thinks she sees somebody looking at them through a hole in the roof.  She freaks out and Goofy Guy, feeling more inconvenienced than scared, relays the news to the others.  The Zero Boys start investigating and eventually track down a creepy shed next to the cabin, which appears to be a torture dungeon with a video camera and some tapes of possible snuff films.

This would be the right time to pack up and leave, but it starts raining and nobody wants to get wet while riding in the truck, so they decide to stay in for the night.  Seriously.  That's the plot element that keeps them in place.

You kidding me, Zero Boys?  Who gives a shit if your clothes get wet?  They react to finding a cache of snuff films like they just realized they forgot to bring a change of underwear.  This isn't where you say, "looks like an awkward night," it's "run for your life because holy shit."

Needless to say, things go south pretty quickly.  An unknown assailant abducts Trish while she's isolated from the group and takes her to the torture shed.  The guys are about to go track her down, but first they stop to grab some automatic weapons they just happened to bring with them.  This leads to one of the dumbest exchanges in the movie, paraphrased below:

"Why do you have uzis in your truck?" Jamie asks, reasonably concerned.

"We use them to practice for paintball," says Boring Guy.

"Yeah.  It's legal," reminds Steve, who is still looking for any possible avenue to highlight the reasons why he's not a complete piece of trash.

What nobody says in response to this is, "Wouldn't actual guns and bullets be more expensive and dangerous without any real increase in your skills compared to just buying more paintballs?", but I guess now isn't the time or place to argue about that.

Fully armed, the Boys check out that shed again.  The door is locked and Trish is tied to a chair inside.  They shoot the lock off, but by the time they get the door open, Trish has disappeared again.  All that remains is a fresh video tape of her struggling to breathe with a plastic bag over her head.

This moment begins the best part of the movie, which is a genuinely creepy and gut-wrenching sequence that lasts about five minutes, wherein Trish is missing and the Boys are stumped about what to do next.  They come back to the cabin empty-handed and reflect for a moment about how screwed they are.  Then a trap door suddenly opens in the roof above them and a body bag is tossed inside the cabin, suspended upside-down by a rope, while the anonymous assailants vanish into the night.  The Boys untie the bag and rip it open to reveal Trish, seemingly dead.

Then she comes back to life again and the tension is over.  Ho-hum.  It's not that I want Trish to die - to be honest, she kinda ends up being the best character - but the movie actually feels a little scary and unpredictable during her victimization.  Once she's back to life, it's a return to form, and that's not necessarily a good thing.

Anyway, now that there's definitely somebody after them (they weren't sure before), they decide that it's finally time to leave.  Oh, and the storm's over, anyway, so no need to worry about getting wet.  The Boys and their girlfriends / property get into the truck and speed away, but get held up halfway down the road when one of the anonymous creeps topples a tree into their path.

Then Goofy Guy gets shot in the back with a crossbow.  He dies and the others scramble into the woods.

Here the movie just kinda devolves into slasher territory.  The bad guys - a couple of creepy hillbillies who never speak - chase the teens around the woods and keep putting them in perilous situations.  It becomes a little bit episodic and boils down to basically three setpieces, which start strong and get weaker as they go:

1) Sue falls into a trap in the forest and narrowly avoids getting impaled on a bunch of punji sticks. Steve, Jamie, and Boring Guy form a human chain to hold onto a nearby tree and act as a rope to pull Sue out.  Trish, who was previously injured by her abduction and can't serve in the chain, waits on the sidelines.  Then one of the creeps sneaks up on them with a crossbow and shoots at Steve, but keeps missing.  Trish picks up a spare Uzi and lays waste to him, which knocks him into the pit, where he get stabbed almost to death.  He briefly comes back to life, so Trish shoots him to shit again.  This is honestly kind of a cool sequence that I liked.

2) Trish, Sue, and Boring Guy break off into their own group where they get trapped in a boathouse of some sort and hide from another creep.  They try to keep quiet while a snake squirms over them.  The creep tries stabbing at them, but after drawing no blood, concludes that the boathouse is empty.  He leaves, and Boring Guy throws the snake away.

3) Steve and Jamie get caught in a net, then break free before any harm comes to them.  The creep from Episode 2 above chases them toward a swamp and they fight a little bit.  Then Jamie points a stun gun into the swamp and it partially electrocutes the creep long enough for Steve to shoot and kill him.

Then the camera pans right to reveal that there's a third creep hanging out in a tree, and the movie ends here because I guess everybody on set got bored.

What I Liked / Didn't Like

The Zero Boys has its moments, I'll give it that.  There are at least three solid horror sequences that stand out, with Trish's abduction and later revenge-killing being high points.  I also liked that the movie (probably unintentionally) subverted expectations about the survival odds of the characters: in a movie like this, you expect that only Steve and Jamie will make it to the end.  Instead, Goofy Guy is the only one who dies and the first female victim ends up getting one of the only two kills.

There's also a lot of really fun stupid moments.  I just can't get over the fact that the Zero Boys have uzis and live rounds laying around in their truck.  Even if I can buy into the premise that real guns make for better training experiences (for a fucking paintball tournament, for Christ's sake), why would you bring that shit on a camping trip?  There must be some parts of America I just don't understand.

Because it waffles between genuinely good and stupid good, it has a terribly uneven tone and never wins you over one way or the other.  To be honest, it makes total sense that it was made by a wealthy European who resettled in America in the '80s: so much of it is full of those weird little moments where the people are speaking English and doing things that approximate what it means to be an American ("Whoo! I'ma buy me an Uzi! Whoo!"), but it's all just slightly off.

There's one line in particular that stands out to me as a good example of this.  When they all get to the cabin and they first start snooping, they find a bunch of survivalist gear and magazines and stuff like that.  And somebody says, "Who are these people?"  To which Jamie answers, "Probably just a bunch of f****ts living in the woods."

Now, here's the deal.  Casual homophobia was par for the course in the '80s and you hear that word all the time in movies from the era, so I'm not that shocked when they drop it.  But what gets me is the context.  In what corner of America would anyone have ever assumed that survivalist gear belonged to gay men?  Even in the "you best not be lookin' at mah dick!" Reagan Era, people with survivalist gear were stereotyped as "separatist militia types that you probably don't want to mess with."  It was the exact opposite of what you'd peg as "gay."

The line uses everybody's favorite word of that year, but doesn't actually sound like a real person is saying it.  That's pretty much sums up the movie, except that occasionally the person making it had a genuinely good idea for a setpiece.

How Much Hipster Cred Is It Worth?

It's produced by Omega Entertainment, a purveyor of schlock whose most-rated movie on IMDb is .com for Murder, and it was directed by Nico Mastorakis, auteur of previous HHG entries Ninja Academy and Blood Tide.  So it's got a good pedigree from the get-go.

Unfortunately, since it appears to be one of Mastorakis's more popular works and it's actually halfway competent, that hurts its cred.  Something like Ninja Academy is slightly more obscure and infinitely stupider, so I'm retroactively awarding it 30 points.  Therefore, based on my arbitrary math, The Zero Boys is worth 20 Hipster Cred out of a possible 100.

Where You Can Watch

If you go before it gets pulled for copyright violations, you can watch this for free on Youtube.

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