Tuesday, June 3, 2014

10 Essential Troma Movies

Greetings from Tromaville!

Launched in 1974 by Lloyd Kaufman and Michael Herz, Troma is the longest-running truly independent studio in moviemaking today. Their movies are like no other, full of sex and gore and cartoonish acting and comedy that's both totally childish and sharply satirical. I first fell in love with Troma as a kid and have never stopped. They exist in their own universe. There is the world, and then there is Tromaville.

Though the studio has distributed over 1,000 titles, most of those are pick-ups -- independently made and financed films that are sold to the studio, who then gives them a small release or puts the movies out on DVD. Though they sport the Troma label and oftentimes have a similar sensibility, I don't consider those true "Troma movies" the way I do the ones directed in-house by Lloyd Kaufma, the "artist" half of the partnership between him and Herz (who is the behind-the-scenes businessman type). These are the movies that offer the lowbrow highs of Troma. These are the movies that will make you understand what Troma is all about. If you watch them and you're not on board with their very specific kind of moviemaking, I can't blame you. They're not for everyone. At least you've seen their 10 best movies.

Maybe I never grew out of being nine years old, but I think they're pretty brilliant. Here's why.
1. Squeeze Play (1979, dir. Lloyd Kaufman) After a couple of artsy indie movies (with titles like The Girl Who Returned and The Battle of Love's Return), director and Troma co-founder Lloyd Kaufman started to shape the studio's brand with a series of "sexy comedies" beginning with 1979's Squeeze Play. The movie, about a group of women who form a softball team and challenge the men to a game, features a few early glimmers of elements that would make it into every Troma film: plentiful nudity, juvenile comedy and a feminist bent that underline's Kaufman's lifelong passion for the underdog. I'm not even sure if this is the best of the sexy comedy quadrilogy (which also includes Waitress!, Stuck on You and The First Turn-On), but I think it's my favorite.
2. Mother's Day (1980, dir. Charles Kaufman) One of only two movies on this list not written or directed by Lloyd Kaufman (though he was a producer), Mother's Day is the brainchild of Kaufman's brother Charles. Three young women go hiking in the woods where they are captured and tormented by a group of hillbillies and their insane mother. This is a dark, nasty, unpleasant movie, lacking in the kind of comedy that makes most Troma movies fun. But it's also an effective exploitation movie, and one which represents a very different path the studio could have taken in its early days. This one was remade by Saw II-V director Darren Lynn Bouseman in 2010; it sat on the shelf for two years before going straight to DVD. It's really good.
3. The Toxic Avenger (1984) This is the movie that defined Troma as a brand: part comedy, part horror with over-the-top gore and a homemade, see-the-seams aesthetic. The titular Toxic Avenger has become the face of the company -- he is Troma's Mickey Mouse. Melvin Junko is a geeky janitor at a New Jersey health club who is bullied and falls into a vat of toxic waste, turning him into a mutant hero of superhuman size and strength. Like so many Troma efforts, it's a smart movie passing itself off as a silly, stupid one; director Lloyd Kaufman has a lot of fun mocking the aerobics craze of the '80s and sneaks in some environmental messages. It was followed by three sequels, all of which are worthwhile: The Toxic Avenger Part II and The Toxic Avenger Part III: The Last Temptation of Toxie in 1989 (they were conceived and shot as one film and then split into two) and Citizen Toxie: The Toxic Avenger IV in 2000. I'm partial to Part II but a fan of the entire series.
4. Troma's War (1988) Lloyd Kaufman has called this his favorite of all his movies, though it's a vision that faced an uphill battle being realized. At the time it was Troma's most ambitious and expensive movie to date with a budget of $3 million, a huge cast and more squibs than any film in history. Kaufman, a lifelong fan of Samuel Fuller, was attempting to make a war epic that mocked shit like Rambo and the military obsession of Reagan America in the '80s. But because he's Lloyd Kaufman, he couldn't stop himself from including a bunch of weird, tasteless shit that kept the movie from becoming the mainstream hit he originally set out to make. Hampered by an X rating and kept in limbo for two years (it was shot in '86), Troma's War was eventually released in a neutered R-rated cut that removed much of the personality and turned it into the thing it was mocking. Kaufman's original Unrated version was finally made available on DVD in the late '90s.
5. Sgt. Kabukiman N.Y.P.D. (1990) Another example of Kaufman being unable to control his own Tromatic impulses led to the most schizophrenic and tonally confused movie in the studio's catalogue. While shooting Toxic Avenger Part II in Japan, Kaufman was approached to make a movie about a Japanese superhero. Kaufman came up with Sgt. Kabukiman, about a New York cop who is magically gifted with the power to turn into the superhero Kabukiman. Namco, the Japanese company that put up the money, wanted a family-friendly movie with mainstream appeal (as did Kaufman's longtime producing partner Michael Herz). Kaufman being Kaufman, though, delivered a movie that was part innocuous action comedy and part twisted Troma movie. A PG-13 cut of the movie was shown to the investors but was such a mess that they withdrew their deal; as a result, the movie sat on the shelf until 1996. Even the R-rated cut is pretty tame by Troma standards. Though Kabukiman would go on to become another of the company's recognizable mascots, the movie best viewed as a curiosity by Troma fans -- the time Troma tried to go mainstream and learned that it simply can't. A special note for the real fans: this was the first appearance of the blue sedan car flip, a shot that has made its way into every subsequent Troma movie.
6. Cannibal! The Musical (1993, dir. Trey Parker) This is the only "pickup" on the list for a couple of reasons: 1) I haven't seen enough of the hundreds of Troma's pickups (movies made outside the studio but sold to and distributed by them) and 2) most of the ones I've seen have been terrible. Not true of Cannibal! The Musical, an independent student film made by Trey Parker and Matt Stone in their pre-South Park days. Though crude by current standards, everything that makes Parker and Stone great is on display: great jokes, brilliant, catchy songs and an ability to pinpoint and deconstruct genre tropes with laser precision. The moments of gore and a juvenile sense of humor make it fit in with Troma's catalogue. It has inspired several stage productions and, in 2011, a making-of book. This is the best Troma movie that Troma didn't make.
7. Tromeo & Juliet (1996) The '90s were an interesting time for Troma; having established the brand in the '80s, the studio was experimenting with the kinds of films it could make and the directions they could take their art. After the frustrating disappointment of Sgt. Kubukiman, Kaufman doubled down and made what was arguably the most hardcore Troma movie to date. Oh, and the whole thing is an updated telling of Shakespeare's classic love story written in iambic pentameter by Kaufman and a first-time screenwriter named James Gunn, who went on to write Scooby-Doo and Dawn of the Dead (2004) as well as direct Slither, Super and a little movie called Guardians of the Galaxy for Marvel Studios. Though not my favorite Troma movie, this one deserves major props for being among the company's most ambitious and artistic. It also marks the first appearance of the great Debbie Rochon in a Troma movie, itself a cause for celebration.
8. Terror Firmer (1999) Here it is. Troma's finest hour. After more than 20 years of making movies, Lloyd Kaufman finally directed his masterpiece -- a murder mystery that takes place on the set of a Troma production, with Kaufman himself giving a brilliant performance as the film's blind director. Based in large part on Kaufman's memoir Everything I Need to Know About Filmmaking I Learned from the Toxic Avenger, Terror Firmer isn't just Troma's best movie -- it's a legitimately great piece of demented rebel art. The autobiographical aspects make it particularly fun for fans, but even those not well-versed in Troma movies will find much to like, provided they have a high tolerance for insane levels of gore and sex and poop and puke.
9. Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead (2006) Another of the studio's most ambitious movies isn't just a Troma movie about a fast food restaurant that becomes the site of a zombie outbreak after customers eat some tainted meat, it's also a full-blown musical. The songs aren't quite as good as those found in Cannibal! (the best is "Slow Fast Food Love," the movie's romantic ballad), but they're still a lot of fun. The two lead actors, Jason Yachanin and Kate Graham, are sweet and appealing and the gore is incredibly effective. This is also Kaufman's most satirical film to date, firing off brutal commentary on everything from the fast food industry (duh) to terrorism.
10. Return to Nuke 'Em High Vol. 1 (2013) Lloyd Kaufman's most recent movie is technically only half a film, but even the first half offers a few "bests" for the studio. For one, it's their best-looking movie. More importantly, though, is that it boasts the best cast in a Troma movie to date. Stars Asta Paredes and Catherine Corcoran are my favorite leads ever in a Troma film and create the first love story I've ever really cared about. Their relationship becomes the center of an otherwise insane movie full of sledgehammer satire (even more than Poultrygeist), the requisite gore and nudity and several a cappella musical numbers. I prefer this sequel/reboot to the original Class of Nuke 'Em High primarily for its cast, but also because Kaufman has improved a lot as a filmmaker since 1986. Though we'll have to wait and see until Vol. 2 is released before we can fully see where the movie fits within the context of the studio's overall catalog, its scope, ambition and likable cast make it essential Troma.


  1. Allow me to recommend the Troma film TAINTED. Good stuff.

  2. Very nice list. I think you hit most of the high notes. I'm ready for Return to Nuke'em High Vol. 2 and have been since I saw the ending credits on Vol. 1.

  3. Sorry but I'm pissed off you didn't include the original Class Of Nuke 'Em High in this list. That's my favorite movie. Asshole!!!!

  4. Fuck Troma I preffer Speilberg films.