Synonymous with extreme farcical splatter and copious, tongue in cheek nudity, independent movie making faction Troma Studios has been selflessly dedicating itself to notoriously un-PC, gonzo comedies for over 40 years now. Headed by their seemingly tireless head, Lloyd Kaufman – essentially the Stan Lee of trash or a less classy Roger Corman: take your pick – the studio has given us many dubious pleasures over the years such as Class Of Nuke ‘Em High, Tromeo And Juliet and Terror Firmer and even kick started the careers of people as diverse as James Gunn, Samuel L. Jackson and J.J. Abrams; but surely their most legendary achievement is that of the world’s first superhero from New Jersey, the potato-headed, tutu wearing, mop wielding mutant known to the world as the Toxic Avenger! Making his debut in 1984 and immediately cementing himself as the studio’s mascot, Toxie nailed himself three sequels, a Broadway musical (I’ve seen it, it’s magnificent) and – somehow – a Saturday morning children’s cartoon, not to mention a big budget Hollywood remake that should be casting as I write these very words…
But it all started here, in this grimy, silly, low budget epic that reveled in it’s alternative black humour and frequent bursts of grotesque ultra violent gore – witness the radioactive birth of a true cinematic original.
Allow me to welcome you to Tromaville, a sunny little burg located in the wastes of New Jersey which also happens to proudly be the toxic waste dumping ground capital of the world, but under the pleasant facade of all-American life, we find the apple to be rotten to the core as corrupt city officials have allowed this proud community to become a cesspool of crime… think Gotham City but less skyscrapers and way more boobs.
Dutifully manning his bucket at the local gym, mop boy Melvin Ferd stands out from the muscled patrons as your typical stuttering, 80’s nerd with an overbite that could clean through through a beer keg and is picked on without remorse by a quartet of truly psychotic body beautifuls. When they aren’t working out in a frenzy or openly fucking in the changing rooms, Bozo, Slug, Julie and Wanda relieve their unique tensions by performing hit and run fatalities in their car, tallying up the points (we find out first hand that a twelve year old on a bike is apparently worth 25 points) and even take Polaroids of the splatter afterwards to get off later on the carnage.
Their relentless tormenting of poor old Melvin takes an extreme turn when, after being humiliated by Julie, he plunges out of a window and lands head-first into a barrel of fizzing toxic waste which – instead of giving him a fatal case of lymphoma – mutates him into a hideously deformed creature of super human size and strength and gives him the uncontrollable urge to brutally mutilate anyone he senses is evil. After clearing up the town and dating Sara, a blind girl he saved from attempted rape at a Mexican restaurant (look, it’s a weird fucking film, alright?), Toxie finds he’s now in the crosshairs of the city’s crooked Mayor who orders in the national guard to take out the monster once and for all. Is this the end for Tomaville’s beloved Toxic Avenger or will the humble weirdos who owe this muscle bound mutant their very lives finally make a stand?
Subtle as a fart cushion at a funeral and just as childish, reviewing something so eagerly un-PC in these more enlightened times initially seems quite an insurmountable task; yet all the ludicrously unsubtle portrayals of gay and trans characters and an almost deranged need to break taboos like Bane’s aborted attempt at chiropractic adjustment ends up making the film come across like that weird kid at school who’d eat worms on a date (they still have those, right?).
However, while it goes without saying that the offensive ramblings of The Toxic Avenger isn’t for everyone, in among the shotgun blasted seeing-eye dogs and old lady beatings, there’s a genuine warm streak (ew) running through a heart that’s obviously having palpitations thanks to a careless overuse of cocaine. Not unlike the genuine sweetness that underlines the frenzied crudeness of the work of the South Park boys, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, The Toxic Avenger – when he isn’t crisping a screaming thugs hands in a deep fat fryer – has quite the cuddly personality when you get to know him.
It also helps that the film is genuinely pretty savvy when it comes to how funny it actually is, turning it’s obvious negatives into wonderfully malformed positives and the filmmakers actually lean into the lack of budget and talent involved in order to create a cartoonish sense of unprofessionalism that offsets it’s more gruesome tastes. For example, take the scene where the shapely villains deliberately obliterate someone with their car for kicks but then call it a night when one of their number points out that they have to be up for church the next morning – or watch as Tromaville’s lumpy savior messily pancakes a drug dealer’s skull with a weight machine as we cut to the comically screaming onlookers which feature more relentlessly gurning faces than a Nicolas Cage greatest hits reel – a Troma trademark.
Something else that offsets (and enhances) the awesomely extreme gore and overwhelmingly over-the-top stereotypes is that Toxie is a genuinely adorable character; uncontrollably growling when he has blatant ability to speak in a manly basso voice and featuring a mug that befits a Hollywood leading man – if that leading man happens to be Jason Voorhees – his relationship with with Sara is tremendous fun as they disco dance and rut like rabbits while Toxie isn’t stoving in the heads of drug dealers and opening stiff jars for frustrated housewives.
Hardly what you’d call a refined cinematic experience, the movie takes aim at a lot of low hanging fruit such as Sara unwittingly blasting Toxie in the balls with her cane or the crooked police chief that has a German accent and spouts Nazi rhetoric, but if you are a true connoisseur of skanky eighties comedies that lack more taste than a hummus-only buffet, then you’re onto a sticky, icky winner here. Plus bonus marks for primo “before they were famous” points with a blink and you’ll miss it shot of an uncredited Marisa Tomei screaming/gurning with everybody else.
Wilfully offensive in a pre-teen, attention grabbing way that’s somehow also weirdly cute in an ugly sort of way, The Toxic Avenger will undoubtedly turn off countless viewers with it’s insanely rough around the edges production values and it’s particular brand of pull-my-finger, fuck you humour but if you happen to be on Toxie’s wavelength, then you have an off-beat comedy that gives having toxic sense of humour a new meaning.