Maybe you’ve heard of Troma, the production company that gave us such fine cinema as Surf Nazis Must Die, Redneck Zombies, and Poultrygeist. The company is synonymous with the sort of bottom of the barrel, unwatchable garbage that takes us all back to those days of drive in movie theaters, beach movies, and casual racism. But it wasn’t always this way; it wasn’t until 1984 that Troma discovered independent horror movies make far more money than softcore porn. 1984 was the year Troma released its first “horror” movie, a comedy/horror/superhero thing called The Toxic Avenger. The Toxic Avenger was inexplicably a big hit in the mainstream, spawning a number of godawful sequels and even a cartoon (although I think every successful movie in the 80’s automatically got a cartoon). I even had a Toxic Avenger action figure despite having never seen or heard of the movie.
The film starts across the river from New York in the 80’s; the only thing worse than New York in the 1980’s was New Jersey. We’re introduced to “Tromaville,” a suburban town whose main attractions are the gym and the Mexican restaurant. The opening credits take place in a health club that makes me think maybe this was originally conceived as a softcore porn. We got a lot of shots of pretty hot chicks doing chest exercises for the opening of a horror movie. We also meet Melvin, the fake-toothed, jew-froed janitor. His very presence offends Bozo (who looks like an evil Jon Stewart) and his yuppie buddies Slug, Wanda, and Julie, who intimidate the little nerd for no good reason. Afterwards, Bozo is told he’s starting to get a belly, and responds by re-doubling his efforts on the bench press. This guy is why personal trainers have jobs. It’s at this point that I realized the music from the opening credits STILL has not stopped.
Wanda and Slug break off from the group to an empty locker room. Wanda gets turned on by her gang’s hit and run exploits, and the two start doing it right there on the bench. It took a whole six minutes to get to nudity and we still have zero horror. Melvin walks in on the action and the girl barely slows down long enough to brandish a knife at him.
Later, the yuppies are in the car and go over the rules for murdering pedestrians. These darn kids must play too much of those durn videogames! Like, uh… Frogger. They see a kid and run him over, stopping to take pictures. Since this is an independent film, there are zero other cars on the road so they take their time.
Back at the health club, Julie, Bozo’s girlfriend, sets a trap for Melvin by coming onto him and asking him to meet her by the pool in a pink tutu. After seeing more nudity, Melvin agrees. The pool is suspiciously completely dark, and we get a solid minute of total blackout while Melvin gropes around for the girl. Somebody switches on the lights and Melvin is kissing a sheep, and the whole club is there to laugh at him. For some reason their laughter causes Melvin to run away up a flight of stairs. In the meantime, a couple of drug-addict toxic waste drivers park their truck outside the health club so they can snort some coke. You can guess what happens next. Melvin leaps out of a second story window for no reason and lands in a vat of waste. He catches on fire and runs home, where he turns into a monster while the music from Frankenstein plays. Hey, and it only took 21 minutes! Ghost Rider should’ve taken some notes!
Meanwhile, the only honest cop in town is being beaten up by three cartoon villains including a crossdresser and a guy that calls himself “Cigarface.” The bad guys are all ready to shoot the guy’s dick off when Melvin, now a 7 foot tall monster, beats up the two men and one crossdresser, brutally murdering them. We see various reactions to the murder including some dismay from the obesely fat mayor and his inexplicably German police chief. At the health club, Wanda relaxes in the spa for another nude scene when her boy Slug shows up. She references the Elephant Man to show that Troma is down with David Lynch.
The film abruptly cuts to a Mexican restaurant, where three MORE cartoon villains show up; my favorite is Patrick Kilpatrick, longtime movie bad guy, wearing face-paint over half his face, no shirt, and suspenders to hold up the red underwear he’s got on over his pants. The leader says “We are the entertainment for this afternoon” and brandishes a knife. Total Dark Knight rip-off! And when they say entertainment, they mean it: even though they immediately open the register, they don’t actually take the money, they just hold everyone hostage for no reason. When one of the patrons objects to this course of action, offering to be the sole hostage if everyone else goes free, he gets shot in the chest for his efforts. The leader spots a dog and eventually realizes it’s the seeing eye dog for a beautiful blind girl named Sarah (who is also doing the worst job of playing blind I have ever seen). Face-paint guy shoots the dog while the leader talks about his longtime dream of “cornholing a blind girl.” That’s a pretty specific dream! The bad guy bends her over a table, and at this point I’m questioning whether these bad guys had a plan at all. Did they just decide they were going to play it by ear once they showed up with guns looking like idiots? The non-talking member of the three has also kissed the cashier with identical footage three times.
Long-story short, Toxie falls in love, but that doesn’t stop him from taking out his old health club enemies. The girls get maimed, but Bozo gets driven off a cliff and I forget what happens to Slug. We also get a great montage of Toxie’s heroic actions including opening a jar for a housewife. Toxie and Sarah have sex but it’s movie sex not porn sex and we really don’t see anything. Also the music WILL NOT STOP even when people are talking or things are happening.
When Toxie shoves an old woman into a washing machine the evil fat mayor sees an opportunity to turn the town against him, covering the fact that the old woman apparently ran a white slavery ring. He calls out the National Guard, but a bunch of hippy-dippy kids Toxie has saved in the past few weeks get in the way. Toxie asks the mayor if he has any guts, then pulls out some large intestine. The crowd cheers as Toxie gives Sarah some flowers, and we’re out!
I’m really torn on this one. I laughed at the jar-opening bit pretty hard, and I loved how the villains were comic book villains: ridiculous looking ciphers with zero positive characteristics. I mean really, how does shooting a dog aid your escape from a restaurant robbery? It makes the scenes where terrible things happen to these guys worth your time (although Bozo’s death was really lame). On the other hand, god please turn the music off! Some of the jokes are just atrociously bad: in one scene Slug puts a snake in an aerobics instructor’s leotard, with hilarious results. What’d the instructor ever do to him? Who knows? Toxie gets hit in the crotch by Sarah "accidentally" so many times you start to wonder whether she's just a mean bitch who can see. The poor lit, 80’s porn atmosphere starts out as part of the film’s charm but at 82 minutes it’s worn out its welcome. As terrible an actress as the blind girl was, she was really hot. And Marisa Tomei and Patrick Kilpatrick get their careers started here! Bizarrely, nobody even uses the term “Toxic Avenger” until the epilogue. Until then he’s called “Monster Hero,” a name so bad I believe a local newspaper could’ve come up with it.
Maybe it was its “super-powered” revenge of the nerds story, but Toxic Avenger was a big hit at the time, shaping Troma’s future as a terrible horror movie studio. But Troma’s not all bad: they were the first to bring a Japanese film to America (My Neighbor Totoro), and distributed Cannibal! The Musical for a young Trey Parker and Matt Stone.
What to Drink:
Toxic Waste... or Tap Water if you live in NEW JERSEY!
Bozo: would you take a look at that fucking guy? Can't even mop right!
Wanda: You want to give me a fuckin' disease?!
Bozo: Yeah, this is FUN (after running over a child)!
Melvin's mom: My little Melvin: he must have finally reached puberty!
Frank: We are the entertainment for this afternoon!
Leroy: you like mexican food little baby? well how'd you like to have this hot tamale shoved down your throat?
Frank: I'll kill you motherfucker! (realizes his arm has been torn off) Aaaaaaahhh!
12 year old prostitute: You said you were going to take me to the david bowie concert! He's not David Bowie!
Arbitrary Ranking System:
3 mops out of 5