by Patrick Bromley
Among the many stops we visited during our recent trip to New York City, Erika and I made a pilgrimage to the legendary Troma building in Astoria, Queens. We didn't get to go inside -- despite several attempts at scheduling a tour, our emails had gone unanswered -- but just seeing the outside was important to me. See, I've been a Troma fan for about as long as I can remember. The movie that put them on my radar? The Toxic Avenger.
I can remember first hearing about The Toxic Avenger for the first time from my dad one morning at the breakfast table. I was getting ready to leave for what had to be third or fourth grade and he told me that the night before, he had seen “the grossest movie he had ever seen" on cable. He went on to describe the plot to me, then went into detail about some of the more noteworthy kills, including heads crushed by a set of weights and one bad guy’s face that gets mutilated under a milkshake maker. He told me the title: The Toxic Avenger. I was just a kid, so naturally I had but one response.
It would be some time before I was actually able to, of course, because while I was apparently old enough to have the movie described to me in vivid detail, my parents decided I was not old enough to see it. I think my first viewing came courtesy of USA Up All Night, the late-night basic cable show that aired raunchy comedies, cult, and horror films every Friday and Saturday night. Sure, it had commercials and was edited for television -- I wouldn't see all of the gnarly stuff my dad described to me until I eventually tracked down a VHS -- but I at least got a taste of the film's insane mix of broad comedy, brutal violence, grossout humor, and political messaging. While Troma had been around since 1974, this was the movie that really codified their brand and would set the stage for the kinds of films they would make for the next near-40 years.
Visiting their headquarters on our trip to New York rekindled my love for Troma and made me want to revisit the film that first ignited the flame. The 1984 release tells the simple story of Melvin Ferd Junko (Mark Torgl), mop boy at the Tromaville Health Club, who becomes the subject of a cruel prank and jumps out a second-story window into a vat of nearby toxic waster, thereby transforming him into the Toxic Avenger (Mitch Cohen), a hideous creature of superhuman size and strength. Toxie begins cleaning up Tromaville, taking on not just the homicidal bullies who wronged him but all the local criminals and ne'er-do-wells, including the corrupt mayor (Pat Ryan), and even manages to fall in love with sweet, blind Sarah (Andree Maranda), who will become a character named Claire in the sequels for reasons I still don't understand.
Now of course my affection for the movie is rooted in my nostalgia for what was a very formative experience, no doubt helping to inspire my love of weird cult and exploitation cinema at a fairly young age. But I don't think nostalgia is the single guiding principle behind my love of The Toxic Avenger. It is a special, singular movie -- or at least it was until it become something of a formula that Troma would repurpose over the course of the next four decades. It's a movie that doesn't follow any traditional rules: though directors/Troma heads Lloyd Kaufman (billed here as Samuel Weil) and Michael Herz are using the basic framework of a superhero origin story (a framework with which we were much less familiar in the mid 1980s), they do so in a way that subverts the familiar tropes at every turn. The disgusting monster is actually the hero, even when he violently murders every bad guy he comes across. The good-looking jocks are psychopaths. Kids and animals are killed. Nothing is sacred.
The subversion of these tropes is not an accident. When developing the idea for the movie, Kaufman was inspired to create the first "monster hero," drawing from Universal's Frankenstein and Marvel comic books. He also wanted make something that was environmentally conscious, in the vein of 1970s eco-horror, and something that poked fun at the health and fitness craze of the 1980s. Rather than coming up with different scripts that addressed each of these ideas, Kaufman had them all written into the same story. This is part of Troma's special genius: they never settle for fewer than seven or eight different ideas or tones when just one would do.
There's still no denying that The Toxic Avenger is crass and juvenile, and to describe it as a Movie I Love probably throws both my taste and critical faculties into question for a lot of readers. This is a battle I have fought my whole life as a Troma fan, as even my fellow horror lovers and closest friends have professed to not be into Troma. But The Toxic Avenger forced me to re-train my brain to watch movies differently. It introduced me to exploitation and showed me that not all films are created equally -- that some movies require a level of audience participation to complete a cheap special effect (the head crushing scene in Toxie, so obviously a melon filled with gelatin, still works because our brains fill in the gaps and complete the illusion) or adapt to insanely over-the-top acting styles. It was a taste of forbidden fruit and inspired a lifelong love of Troma. Many of my earliest DVD purchases were Troma's extras-packed releases. I've read Lloyd Kaufman's memoir, All I Need to Know About Filmmaking I Learned from The Toxic Avenger, no fewer than five times. I come by my Troma love honestly, and it all started here.