Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Review: Return to Nuke 'Em High Vol. 1

by Patrick Bromley
Toxic goo, melting boobs, three-foot penises and duck rape. Yep, it's a Troma movie.

I am a lifelong Troma fan. I can remember being very young and my dad -- who has always had a predilection for schlock -- telling me about a movie he had watched the night before called The Toxic Avenger. He described how children were run over in the streets so that drivers could score points. He said it was the grossest movie he had ever seen. By the time he was going into detail about how a guy gets his head put under a milkshake maker that gets turned on and turns his face into a pool of mushy goo, I was a goner. I could think only one thing:


A Troma fan was born. I spent my youth tracking the movies down (often on USA Up All Night) and recording them to be played back over and over, trying to show them to my friends and convince them that behind all the nudity, gore and silliness, there was real art. My friends were only interested in the nudity and gore. I guess I can't blame them.

As I grew up, so did Troma. Theirs were among the first DVDs I bought when I first got my player in 1998 (Troma were early adopters, understanding the potential for loading their releases with bonus content). I read Troma president Lloyd Kaufman's books multiple times. I listened to the commentaries and watched the epic behind-the-scenes documentaries, which remain some of the very best and most honest depictions of low-budget filmmaking I have ever seen and should be required viewing in film schools across the country.

And the movies improved. From the mid-'90s forward, Troma's movies became more political, more ambitious, more Tromatic. Tromeo & Juliet adapted Shakespeare with a script written that retained the Bard's iambic pentameter. Terror Firmer transformed Kaufman's memoir Everything I Need to Know About Filmmaking I Learned From the Toxic Avenger into a demented and brilliant murder mystery set on a film production. Kaufman's last movie, Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead, was a savage satire of consumerism and fast food culture AND was filled with wall-to-wall original songs. The most independent of movie studios continues to step up its game.
Which brings me to Kaufman's latest, Return to Nuke 'Em High Vol. 1, Troma's most ambitious production to date and a movie so epic and huge that it had to be split into two parts. A sequel/remake/reboot of sorts to 1986's Class of Nuke 'Em High -- still one of the biggest and most beloved titles in Troma's catalog --  the film finds the students of Tromaville High exposed to toxic green goo being dumped by Tromorganic, another in a long line of evil corporations depicted in a Troma movie. After the school geek ignites and explodes on Taco Tuesday, the glee club is transformed in Cretins -- mutant punks right out of some combination of Saved by the Bell and The Road Warrior -- who go about terrorizing the student body and wreaking destruction on all of Tromaville.

At the center of all this is the relationship between militant tough girl Chrissy (Asta Paredes), who writes her own activist blog about the evils of Tromorganic, and sweet, demure Lauren (Catherine Corcoran), the new girl in school who just happens to be very wealthy. Chrissy has a boyfriend, Eugene (Clay von Carlowitz), but knows that something is missing and will make up any excuse not to sleep with him. Lauren's only relationship is with her pet duck (Kevin the Wonder Duck). Though they begin as combative opposites -- Chrissy can't stand what she perceives as Lauren's weakness and sense of entitlement (but mostly envies a life that seems easier) -- it's not long before they are connecting as kindred spirits and a romance develops.

This is the movie's masterstroke, and not for the reasons you might think (you think it's girls kissing).

Troma movies have always been sexually liberal, and have often flaunted lesbian acts in a pubescent, "isn't this naughty?" kind of way. But there's nothing gratuitous or exploitative about the same sex romance in Return to Nuke 'Em High Vol. 1. With the exception of one line of dialogue about a character wishing to remain "closeted," there's nothing even really gender-specific about it -- it is a love story between two people. And it's a beautiful one at that. That's because the chemistry between Paredes and Corcoran is electric. Both are tremendous finds, able to be funny and sexy, tough and vulnerable all in the span of a single scene. Troma has a long history of finding terrific female Gyno-American actors, from Phoebe Legere to Debbie Rochon to Allyson Sereboff to Kate Graham to Jane Jensen, but Paredes and Corcoran are the best yet. Despite being written as possible "types" in the script, both actors inhabit their roles with honesty, finding the insecurities and, as a result, the humanity in the characters.

There is a scene in which they dance together at a party -- the moment they realize they are falling in love with one another -- that is sexy and beautiful in its abandon. The band plays a song about making the most of the moment because it's the last night of being alive. It is, too; the old Chrissy and the old Lauren die off the moment the girls kiss and are reborn as something different, something more confident, something happier. Something with the power of love on their side. It's one of my favorite scenes in a movie this year.
In many ways, Return to Nuke 'Em High Vol. 1 is business as usual for Troma -- which, coming from a fan, should be taken as a compliment. There's plenty of skin on display of both the male and female variety. The practical effects are goopy and glorious, as much about creating a convincing illusion as they are about being special effects. There are several "guest star" appearances from the likes of Stan Lee, Judah Friedlander and director Mark Neveldine and a bunch of cameos from Troma stars past: Rick Collins from Troma's WAR and The Last Temptation of Toxie, Debbie Rochon from Tromeo & Juliet and Terror Firmer, Dan Snow from the Toxic Avenger series and even Robert Prichard from the original Class of Nuke 'Em High.

But there are a lot of improvements made, too. This is the best-looking Troma movie to date. The sets feel bigger and more open without losing that lived-in Tromaville feel. Justin Duval's cinematography is bright and bold, with saturated colors that pop -- the images have the splashy, comic book-y feel of Romero's original Dawn of the Dead. The supporting players, usually comprised of amateur and inexperienced actors, are unusually solid too, making for one of the best casts the studio has ever worked with. Stefan Dezil has a funny turn as the token black friend (he's identified as such on a title card) who, as always in these sorts of things, is the voice of reason. von Carlowitz makes Eugene a very entertaining douchebag, playing the part at the big, stylized pitch we've come to associate with Troma. Within seconds, we can identify him as THAT GUY, but by the time the film ends he has become more than that. There are jokes made at the expense of his sexuality that aren't just cheap laughs, but actually tie into the larger themes of the movie. Eugene, stooge that we may think he is, turns out to be just another misfit looking for a place to belong. No matter where that may be, the movie never judges. It's one of the things that is unique and wonderful about the Tromaverse. Everyone has a place.

Not every joke lands. The Cretin Glee Club singing public domain a cappella music each time they attack is kind of funny once (if only because they're such better singers as mutants, suggesting that a cappella music can only be sung by people who are evil), but the joke gets repeated again and again without ever really changing. Kaufman's approach to comedy has always emphasized quantity over  quality, though, meaning every corner of the every frame is packed with a kind of comic anarchy that makes MAD magazine read like Highlights for Children. Random fart sounds pepper the soundtrack. Penises get ripped off of melting bodies. The sociopolitical commentary is less focused than in the past; the movie is less a guided missile than a dirty bomb. There's the usual anti-corporation stuff, as well as the environmental rape that has been a concern of Kaufman's since the '80s. The Tromaville High School principal (Babette Bombshell) is clearly a parody of Rush Limbaugh. The humor splits off in all directions, embracing the "anything goes" spirit that has been a hallmark of Troma for 40 years. No subject is off limits for Kaufman, meaning there are casual references to school shootings and the murder of Trayvon Martin. Like in all his movies, there is an edge and a genuine anger to the humor that makes it feel dangerous in a good way.
If Return to Nuke 'Em High Vol. 1 frustrates at all, it's in the "Volume 1" aspect. Large swaths of the movie appear to have been taken out and pasted over in the editing (particularly near the end), so we get screens of text attempting to explain the jumps in time and continuity. I wouldn't mind it so much if I didn't know that the movie has been split into two already; with another movie's worth of running time, why not just leave that stuff in? Once upon a time, Kaufman overstuffed his first Toxic Avenger sequel and needed to split it into both The Toxic Avenger Part II and The Toxic Avenger Part III: The Last Temptation of Toxie. While there is some carryover in those two, they actually work as separate distinct movies.

The marketplace has changed since then, though, so now we get Kill Bill broken up into two parts, as well as the final movies in series like Harry Potter, Twilight and The Hunger Games. While Troma has never been one to follow any kind of Hollywood trends (Kaufman might barf being mentioned in the same sentence as a few of those movies), the fact that this kind of release model is now marketable allows Kaufman to retain the size and scope of the movie as he originally intended. The ending is awfully abrupt -- it doesn't wrap up in any way so much as just STOP mid-scene. Return to Nuke 'Em High is only half of a movie. It's an entertaining half of a movie, but half a movie nonetheless. It still worked for me,  because by the time the credits rolled I was ready for Vol. 2 to begin immediately. After all, I've gotta see how that shower ends.

There has been an explosion in the popularity of genre movies in the last 10 years. Most of the big studio tentpole pictures (from comic book adaptations to sci-fi adventure serials) are glorified genre movies, but there is also a whole class of lower-budget efforts that have come out in the wake of Grindhouse that know the words but never the music. They are soulless collections of style and references, about little more than the movies that came before them (if anyone tries to argue with me that Machete Kills isn't soulless garbage, I will call that person a liar and tell him or her to fuck off). Return to Nuke 'Em High may be vulgar and silly. It may be goofy and gross. It is never soulless. It has too much energy, too much passion, too much intelligence and, yes, too much humanity to be soulless. The ultimate misfit movie studio has made a movie about misfits who find love. It's a movie that loves its misfits. I love the love story. I love the misfits.

I love that fucking duck.


  1. The documentary on the Citizen Toxie disc should be shown in every film class in the world.

    Can't wait to see this one.

  2. I want to see this movie NOW!!!

  3. I have yet to see the finished project. In full disclosure, it's my quartet singing those public domain numbers, save one (if it's still in the final edit): "Did It Hurt When You Fell Down From Heaven" was written by me.

    1. I haven't yet seen the finished project either, but I worked on the movie & also had a small part in it. As far as I know, they still used your quartet's singing in the final cut of the movie. "Did It Hurt When You Fell Down From Heaven" plays a big part in one of(what I can only assume as I have yet to see the final cut of either film like I said) the final scenes in Vol. 2. It's the scene we referred to while filming as the new "Blue Velvet"