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The Zoo Gang
(1985)

Director: John Watson & Pan Densham   
Cast:
Jackie Earle Haley, Eric Gurry, Tiffany Helm


When I look far back, at my life when I was a young 'un, I realize that I had a childhood that was much more fortunate than what many other people around the world experienced when they were young. There was a roof over my head, three square meals a day, and I got to go to school so I could better myself for eventual adulthood. There were also pleasant bonuses along the way such as family vacations, television, and computers/video games. But when I look back at those years, I see that even while I was getting all of that stuff and more, part of me was still not satisfied. I wanted more. Now, before you label me as greedy, I think I should point out that probably you, dear reader, as a child wanted a lot more than what you were getting, no matter how rosy your childhood was. It's human nature to desire to have the best life possible. Anyway, I think I better explain the kind of stuff I really desired while growing up, starting first with the years before I was a teenager. During that period when I was growing up, I watched a lot of television, and shows that focused on youths like Happy Days made an impact on me. When I was not wondering why the Fonz was spending all that time hanging around teenagers instead of people that were closer to his age, I observed Richie and his friends frequently doing stuff out of the house, like hanging out at Arnold's. Comic books made an impact on me as well, specifically Archie comic books. Those youths in the comics did a lot of stuff out of their houses, like hanging out at Pop's or shopping downtown.

Why was I jealous of these youths I observed on TV or in comic books? Because they were all able to get out of the house and go to places (without parents) to amuse themselves. I was not so lucky as a child. I lived in what must have been the most boring neighborhood in North America. There were no kids my age to hang out with in my neighborhood, for one thing. Plus, the house that I lived in was far, far away from anything that would amuse me, too far away even for my bicycle. Forget about taking the bus to town - our area didn't get a bus system until I was a teenager. More often than not when I was not in school, I had to hang out with my parents, and I would have to do stuff with them. And often their idea of fun was going further into the wilderness on hikes and stuff. On these hikes, I tried to amuse myself by asking them questions like, "Dad, back in England and in certain boarding schools, the younger students would act as the servants for the older students. What did the older students call the younger servant students?" (And in a tired voice, my dad would answer, "They were called..." ...well, read Roald Dahl's autobiography Boy for the unprintable answer.) As I got older, I did get into some extra-curricular activities out of the house, like the Cub Scouts and judo, but these were all adult-run things, nothing like the adult-free activities youths and teenagers always seemed to be getting into in all of the comics and television shows I would devour.

When a bus service finally came to the area where I grew up, it did help my situation... though only slightly. Though I could get out of my neighborhood and into town, once I got into town I still had to face the fact that even there, there was little for a youth to do. The town was geared towards The Zoo Gangseniors and retirees. Now that you know my youth was deprived in one area, maybe you can understand why I picked up The Zoo Gang, not just because it was made in the era when I grew up. It focuses on youths having fun out of the house away from parents. Here's the plot description that was on the back of the box: "Tired of having nowhere to go for fun, 15-year-old Kate, her brother Ricky, and friends Bobbi, Danny and Val lease a dilapidated nightclub called The Zoo from a crotchety old drunk named Leatherface (Ben Vereen). The Zoo becomes their home away from home AND an overnight success... that is, until the Donnelly Clan catches wind of it.... Little Joe Donnelly and his brawny but dimwitted twin brothers are a walking, talking trio of nuisance - where they go, trouble is sure to follow. And when they enter The Zoo ripe for a fight... a fight is just what they get. They have pushed The Zoo Gang too far and the battle for The Zoo is on!... Thumbtacks, oil, marbles, and even a daring guerrilla raid on the Donnelly's old school bus fuel The Zoo Gang's cause as all-out warfare is waged throughout the streets of the town. But time is running out. Will Kate and the rest of The Zoo Gang be able to save their newfound nightclub from the greedy hands of the Donnelly Clan?"

I was really glad that I was given that above plot description on the back of The Zoo Gang's video box. For one thing, it gave me the opportunity to not have to slave over having to write my own plot description from my recollections of the movie, and it helped to fill out the bulk of the above paragraph. But the main reason why I was glad to get that plot description was that I was seriously confused by the first part of the movie when I actually watched it. Let me explain. You are probably thinking that the movie starts by introducing us to its young characters, showing they are frustrated by living in a boring town with nothing to call their own. Then after a little bit, they meet the homeless drunk Leatherface, and not long after that he reveals to them the abandoned nightclub that he says he owns. This would spark the teens' imagination, and they get the idea to fix the place up and make it a nightclub for people their age, leading to a montage of them cleaning and fixing up the place, then opening it to great success, and then the problems with the Donnelly clan start. That's what I thought would more or less happen before I actually watched the movie, but to my surprise (and not a pleasant surprise), this is not what happens. Believe it or not, when the movie starts, it starts with the grand opening of the nightclub! That's right, we don't get a proper introduction of the main youthful characters, the viewer is left in the dark for a long time as to how they got this nightclub, and we don't find out how they fixed up the nightclub on their own (or, for that matter, find out how they passed their county's various building and business laws.)

Between writing the above paragraph and starting to write this one, I spent some time thinking about the movie's abrupt and confusing beginning, and I came to a conclusion. That being that the movie (currently running about 96 minutes long) was originally a lot longer, with a beginning that was more or less like the one I thought I was going to get, but that got cut out during the editing stage when the movie threatened to run too long. This would certainly explain why the the movie (especially the first part) bordered on incoherent at times. Oh, I suppose there's a chance that the writers (four screenwriters are credited) and the two credited directors may have felt that starting the movie in the way I thought it was going to start would have been too clichéd, and decided to start with the movie's conflict early on. Actually, though I complain a lot about clichés in my reviews, I should say I only hate clichés that are done badly; I can accept clichés if they are at least executed well, and maybe done with a little freshness added to them. But the more familiar elements in The Zoo Gang - and there are a lot of them - are very tired and unimaginative. Take the bad guys in the movie, the Donnelly clan. The patriarch of the clan is a cowboy hat-wearing older gentleman who reminded me of the "Rich Texan" character in The Simpsons, without the cartoon's humorous approach. "Goose", the main muscle of the family, is a bald, bearded big guy who shrugs off any blows people punch at him. There are also two identical twin men, also acting as muscle, who never say a word during the course of the movie (well, hardly a word.)

The member of the Donnelly clan who is most prominent and does most of the work is played by Jackie Earle Haley, child star of The Bad News Bears movies (and more recently with movies such as The Watchmen.) Based on his lackluster performance here, and the fact that he sports a hideous platinum blonde hairstyle, it probably explains why he has distanced himself from this movie for these reasons by often sporting a bald look in public in recent years. There's not much positive to say about any of the other acting to be found in the movie. Ben Vereen (whose character is confusingly called by three different names over the course of the movie) sometimes shows a little spark, but more often seems to have taken his character's alcoholism a little too close to heart. As for the actors who play the central youthful characters, while I praise the filmmakers for casting actors who actually look like they are under eighteen years of age, as well as also being actors who show some sign of talent, it's obvious that they felt defeated in their circumstances and ended up not standing out, at least in a positive way (the actor who plays Kate's little brother Ricky is especially annoying.) With half of the plot out of the door, much of the time is spent with the characters doing absolutely nothing to advance the story. This movie just spins its wheels since it has absolutely no idea to give us anything new. The end results are pathetic. How pathetic does it get? Well, for one thing, when it came to arranging for product placement shots, all they could get was second-rate brands like Domino's Pizza and Royal Crown cola.

Check for availability on Amazon (VHS)

See also: Daredreamer, My Man Adam, Pink Nights

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