Zoo Radio

Director: M. Jay Roach (see UPDATE 2)        
John Martin, Doug Mears, Jennifer Dorian

In my constant search for unknown movies that begin with letters that I haven't already covered - and to possibly scoop Stomp Tokyo before its next "Month of Z" comes along - I recently looked at the "Z" movies in the various genre sections at my neighbourhood video store, finding Zoo Radio in the comedy section. Hmm - I'd never heard of this movie before, and none of the actors listed in the credits on the box seemed familiar to me. However, the director...could it be...? I checked, and found out that M. Jay Roach is the same director now known as Jay Roach - the director of the two Austin Powers movies. Ah, this should be an interesting movie to review, I thought, though I was puzzled that the IMDB listed the name of the producer as the director. All I can assume is that maybe Mr. Roach is trying to suppress the fact that he directed it - that's because Zoo Radio is one awful movie, bad in every filmmaking aspect that you can think of. What is worse is that although this movie was a 1990 production, its attitude, style, and sense of fashion is pure '80s. That may not be bad by itself, but all of these aren't taken from the cooler or even amusingly campier parts of the decade. Instead, this movie chose the aspects that make people embarrassed about the decade, resulting in the movie becoming instantly dated. It's hard watching this movie through a '90s perspective, though it would have been almost as hard in the '80s.

Believe it or not, this movie seems to have taken its inspiration from the previous year's Weird Al Yankovic movie, UHF. Now, I'm a fan of Al, and I did enjoy that movie, though I found it sloppy and quite uneven at times. It's not exactly the kind of movie you'd think would be imitated by a low budget studio. Anyway, the plot: In Los Angeles, two brothers are running separate radio stations owned by their father. KWIN station is doing the best, having high ratings as well as beautiful WASPish people in its big building. The other radio station, KLST, is not having anywhere that amount of success, working in a cramped building with not-so-beautiful people, and lousy radio shows to boot. When the father of the men dies, they go to his will reading, where they discover their father left them a challenge. The two stations are to compete during a time period, and the station at the end of the period that has the highest ad revenue will not only get the father's multi-million dollar fortune, but ownership of both radio stations. KLST, as you can imagine, is low in morale, and doesn't think they can win. But when they put Billy (Martin), their new DJ, on the air, ratings soar and the ad revenue starts coming in. Naturally the snots at KWIN don't take this lightly, and make plans to fight dirty.

Quoting from one of Robert Reed's infamous memos(*), "It's been done a thousand times, and if well written, could probably work again, at least in a dated sense." - even UHF wasn't the first to follow the basic premise. That's true, but Reed should have also added that it should also be well made - and Zoo Radio isn't. I wouldn't be that surprised if I learned the backers of this movie raised the budget by making several visits to the blood bank during the week, then they afterwards called all their friends that Friday night to ask them to help them make a movie that weekend. The unbelievable crudeness of the movie makes it a chore just to look at. There's a headache-inducing redness in every shot that makes it look like a colored filter was slapped on the camera lens. The microphone poked itself into the top part of the frame about every five minutes. During one of the uncountable sequences where the camera shows us people on the street supposedly listening to the radio station (with some dubbing by the DJs -  an easy way to extend the movie's running time), a reflection of the cameraman sitting in the back of a pickup truck is clearly seen in a passing store window. Almost all of the movie is shot in two or three small rooms in the radio station, which have been set dressed in dusty and beat-up electronic equipment. One of these rooms looks suspiciously like the area on a sound stage found behind the walls of the set on-stage. When the camera goes outside, it usually doesn't venture beyond the surrounding area. One time it does venture further away is when the camera is taken to the surrounding hills, to get a shot of the burning radio station after it blows up. Actually, it's clear this shot isn't faked - it's apparent that the director lucked out by getting to shoot a building that was actually burning down during the shooting of the movie. (I think this can be considered a new kind of exploitation.) There's also the scene where two people go party it up at a nightclub, which is accomplished by showing a long montage of close-up Polaroid photos of the two characters supposedly partying it up at this high-class nightclub (which isn't seen, due to the dark backgrounds of the photos.) I've only covered the tip of the iceberg when describing the technical helplessness here.

If Zoo Radio had a script with a story that was complete, coherent, and funny, it might have been enough to compensate for its Neanderthal producing. Sadly, it doesn't, and it's what really dooms this movie. When (finally) the movie returns to the plot, you'll be frequently asking yourself just what the hell is going on, since the dialogue is incomprehensible. Though you'd think that the plot should mainly concern itself with the KLST dealing with various kind of attacks from their rivals, surprisingly, the bad guys only make two moves against KLST in the entire movie. The bulk of this movie is consisted of long sequences of Billy and his fellow radio show hosts making "wacky" and "hilarious" hijinks for both their listeners and each other. None of this is the least bit funny, especially Billy's character, who does some of the worst celebrity impersonations I've ever heard. I also don't understand why during these scenes, Billy and his fellow hosts dress up in goofy costumes and cook food during cooking shows, when no one in their audience could possibly see these wacky antics.

Speaking of these characters, they are hopelessly written. They are written in a way that makes them all seem like clichés, even if there haven't been characters like them in movies before. For example, there's a blind DJ, "Chester Drawer", who has a problem with stuttering, especially when he's on the air. You can't just settle for a character like this to screw up on air and smash into objects when walking, or have another character eating corn flakes soaked in beer; anyone watching can do these things. You need characters that have some kind of personality, some sort of history in them, to make these things funny. It's not the situation that makes something funny, but how it is done. Billy comes off the street with no past, nor any situation that shows what his character is like. He's constantly a slick dude who is supposed to be funny because he is slick. He may have a "how" with his slick attitude, but he has nothing play off it, because of his empty character, and subsequently his empty character can only come up with bland dialogue that no slick delivery could pull off.

All the actors do show a little talent, though they are ill served by this movie, to say the least. The actors seem greatly demoralized by being in this movie, and subsequently place no heart in their performances. As well, none of these actors seem capable of carrying lead performances like the ones they have here; they seem they would be best suited for minor roles. The one exception is Ron E. Dickinson, who plays the role of Otto, the John Belushi-inspired beer drinking and burping tubby guy who hangs around the station (his role is never clearly defined.) In, sadly, his only role to date, he puts what little life there is in the movie, somehow making his crude character surprisingly likable despite his burps and crude remarks. His scenes are the better ones in the movie, and that's maybe why he, and not Martin, is pictured on the video box. Also, his character is wisely the one chosen to narrate and make jokes in several segments in-between the actual movie. I noticed that in one of these segments, a woman sharing the screen with the Otto character screwed up, calling him Ron, instead of his character's name.

There's another funny thing about these segments; Otto is see sitting in a director's chair that clearly reads the title of the movie, Zoo Radio. But in the outtakes that run during the end credits, the director's clapboard states the movie is called KLST. There's only one plausible explanation for this; Dickinson was called back some time after the main shoot had passed to participate in shooting some new material - material that might possibly cover some gaps in the story. And looking at those outtakes explains perhaps why there were some problems with the story; there are a few bloopers seen, but we mostly see clips from a number of scenes that never made it to the final cut. The movie isn't playing with a full deck, so you shouldn't expect a fair play from putting this into your VCR. It is one of the saddest excuses for a movie, and everyone involved should be embarrassed - no wonder you altered your name, (M.) Jay Roach. But come back, Ron E. Dickinson - all is forgiven.

UPDATE: I received this very interesting letter from Craig Saavedra:

"I stumbled upon your terrific site quite by accident and have had a blast reading your insightful reviews. I particularly enjoyed your spot-on comments regarding Zoo Radio, a film in which I (sadly) participated.  Yes, Jay Roach is the same director of Austin Powers, and we've all been running and hiding from Zoo Radio since it was made in 1989 for under $100,000.  It was indeed originally called KLST, as you noticed in the outtakes.  Even though I was one of the producers (and reluctant actor due to no funds to pay a real actor), I've never seen the completed film out of embarrassment.  (I was told that I was revoiced by someone else due to lost soundtracks in two scenes!)

"I was surprised to hear outtakes were run over the end credits, as I would have guessed the mistakes far outnumbered the actual running time of the film itself.  (Perhaps 5 minutes of story and 85 minutes of outtakes would have been more enjoyable!)

"I just wanted to say that Jay was not to blame on the film.  He's obviously a gifted director.  I think we both wish this thing called video was more forgiving and allowed really bad movies like this to die a fast, and quiet death.

"Jay knew the script stunk, as did I, but when I brought him on board we both agreed to try and make it rise above itself.  Well, it didn't.  It went the other way! Oh well.

"I'm not sure what's happened to Ron.  The thing is, that wasn't his real name.  Most of the cast changed their names (to protect them from SAG, if not shame), and I can't even remember his real name."

UPDATE 2: To my surprise, I received an e-mail from Jay Roach himself! Here's what he had to say about his experience with the movie:

"Noticed your site during a credits search. You are a messiah to lost films, bringing them back to life.

"As you accurately point out, there is one I wish remained dead. Zoo Radio

"I directed parts of Zoo Radio, but I would never call myself "the director."  I tried to sue to get my name off, and because I had no money at the time, I failed (I wasn't in the DGA, so "Alan Smithee" wasn't an option).  I was never finally paid for my work on the project, I have no signed contract with the company that made it,  I did not get to finish the film, and I had nothing to do with the way it was edited.   As far as I know, it never came out on film.  The producer, "Jesse Wells," wrote the script, directed the final shooting and did all the editing. He is the closest thing to "the director" of the film.

"I started the project because I'd worked in college radio and "Jesse Wells" (he uses more than one name) promised me a chance at rewriting what was a horrible Animal House rip-off.   Just before production, he yanked that permission.  But I had already persuaded several crew member friends and actor friends to join the project.   I felt obligated to continue since I had brought everyone in, so the cast and I improvised the scenes each day before  Jesse showed up.  When he arrived, the extras and crew were laughing, so he felt he had to let us shoot the scenes as improvised (he was raised in the Middle East, had some oil money but little familiarity with American comedies -- people were laughing on our set, so he thought the scenes were funny and let us keep shooting).

"He fired me when he finally figured out I wasn't shooting and editing to his script.  After I was gone, he completely re-cut the film and shot large chunks of the movie himself, including all the scenes with Ron Dickenson in the director's chair with the women in swim suits, which I caught on USA cable years after thinking the project had disappeared (notice that he was 30 pounds lighter in the director's chair than in the rest of the movie?).

"There were some hilarious moments in the original footage, which were mostly invented by John Martin and Ron and Paul Fieg and Danny Vilareal and others, but Jesse thoroughly undermined each one in the editing, in my humble opinion.  Please credit him with directing this film. That is the only accurate way to describe its creation."

UPDATE 3: Yet another letter from someone who worked on the movie!

"It is me, Ron E. Dickinson from Zoo Radio fame! I too, have stumbled upon your site by suggestion from a friend while looking for credits. Whew! I seem to be the only actor that escaped your review unscathed! Truly a horrible movie, Zoo Radio was my second film of the late 80's, the first being Slaughterhouse Rock with Tony Basil. Blink during that one and you'll miss me!

"I'm still around, doing a ton of local L.A. theatre, ( I'm a proud member of Pacific Resident Theatre in Venice) I have a few commercials under my belt and I'm still doing the auditioning grind as Jay Roach has not called and put me in any of his films. (I think he wanted to forget about the whole thing!)

"Despite the film being a disaster, I actually had a great time doing Zoo Radio. I was in my mid 20's living in Hollywood and having a blast, I think I was only making a $100.00 a day, but Jay Roach and the rest of the cast & crew made it fun to just be there and create.

"I agree with Jay when he said most of the actors performances were undermined by the film's producer (Jesse Wells). I still see a few of the actors from Zoo Radio working on T.V. & films, and that makes me smile."

UPDATE 4: John Abramson sent me this:

"Hi. I just noticed that during Jay Roach's response to your review of this film he mentions Paul Feig; this may be the same man who directed this year's Bridesmaids, with Kristen Wiig and Maya Rudolph (both Saturday Night Live people). Did a Google search on "Paul Feig" and "Zoo Radio" and got a few hits so it appears it's the same guy. Just thought you might be interested..."

* Robert Reed - "Mike Brady" on The Brady Bunch - loathed the writing on the show, and was constantly fighting with the producers. During his battles, he wrote a series of scathing memos that are hilarious to read. You can read three of them in the Barry Williams book Growing Up Brady.

Check for availability on Amazon (VHS)

See also: Big Man On Campus, Fire Sale, Flush