The combination of words alone brings up a nice set of contrasting images: an avenger - someone out to seek truth, justice and the American way; toxic – poisonous or foul, something so noxious it nauseates you to even think about it. Amazingly enough, both descriptions fit Troma and its catalog of films perfectly. For over 30 years, Lloyd Kaufman and Michael Herz have been certified cinematic champions, bucking the nepotistic studio system to make movies so far removed from the mainstream that Hollywood hardly notices them – that is, until the revenue statements come cashing in. And the films they've created (or distributed) quasi-classics like The Class of Nuke 'Em High, Surf Nazis Must Die, and Fat Guy Goes Nutzoid, have all redefined redolence. They wallow in excess and excrete seedy fun from every celluloid orifice. Naturally, many find their motion pictures to be puke-inducing crap, thus the noxious connotation.
So it's no wonder that a single film defines and describes these b-movie mavericks to a perfect "T". From its initial trip to theaters, to this, its 21st Anniversary DVD release, The Toxic Avenger has literally rewritten the rules about independent moviemaking. It proved that invention and originality could overcome even the most rudimentary cinematic elements to make something both crowd-pleasing and profitable. Over time, it has become the ultimate Troma release, the film that fans come back to over and over again. If you haven't visited Melvin and his mother, his sexy, sightless girlfriend Sara, or the perverted popular gang of Bozo, Slug, Wanda and Julie, perhaps this new digital release is your chance to play catch-up. You might even learn what so many Toxie devotees already know: beyond all the bloodletting and nudity, the stupid slapstick humor and hopelessly dated designs, this is actually a wildly entertaining film that holds up as well – or maybe even better – as when it was originally released.
Melvin Junko is a dork. Working as a mop boy for the Tromaville Health Club, he is constantly picked on by the clientele – especially bad boys Slug and Bozo and their ever-present arm candy, Julie and Wanda. Melvin, being a 90 pound pud without a lick of muscle tone, longs for these lanky, lithe ladies, but he doesn't stand a chance against the Neanderthals cruising the club. When they aren't playing a perverse game of hit and run (old ladies are worth 20 points) the fearsome foursome are plotting ways to get Melvin. One night, they rig up a surprise that shames poor Melvin in front of everyone. While trying to escape, our janitor falls into a drum of nuclear waste. The ooze causes him to transform from a skinny stick boy custodian into THE TOXIC AVENGER, a bulky behemoth with the ability to sense the evil inherent in man, and wipe it out with his superhuman strength. As he cleans up crime in the city, and gets his revenge on those who have wronged him, Melvin/Toxie runs into Sara, a blind babe who instantly falls for his hunky, hulking qualities. But when the newly crowned creature champion of the people gets to close to the Mayor's secret crime syndicate, Tromaville declares war on its own beloved beastie.
The Toxic Avenger is the Troma Gold Standard. It's the film that made the company, that gave it a face and an easy to ID icon. It represents everything that the independent label strove to be, and what it continues to work toward some two decades later. Irrepressibly stupid, more than a little dopey, and dripping with the kind of invention and irreverence that many modern movies would give their post-ironic asses to own, there's a reason why this film has left the indelible mark that it has. It's good, goofy, gory, gratuitous fun. It has everything that drive-In critic extraordinaire Joe Bob Briggs proclaims makes a high-quality piece of cinematic trash – breasts, blood and beasts. As ageless as it is hopelessly dated (gotta love that Flashdance inspired soundtrack) Toxie and his tale of nuclear waste inspired woe was probably the original zero to hero epic. Without Melvin and his memorable mutation, who knows where Kaufman and his clan would be today.
Right from the start, The Toxic Avenger announces its desire to be as geeky and as cheeky as it can. This is not a movie that will take itself, or its subject matter, very seriously. Throughout the course of this genre-defying movie, we get nods to horror, comedy, action, romance and even a little 'no nukes' social commentary. Indeed, anyone coming into the film expecting a typical monster on the loose narrative may be baffled by the hit and run death game played by the vane villains, the corrupt corpulent mayor and his weird, Nazi-esque police chief, and the whole buff blind babe dynamic. But make no mistake about it, The Toxic Avenger is more silly than slasher. It is a film that revels in its retardation, that loves every groan inducing pun and shoestring budget sight gag. Like Airplane! for the antisocial set, or a Grimms fairytale gone horribly, horribly wrong, this weird-ass peek into the past proves that some high concepts are indeed eternal.
Even with all of its era transcending tenets, The Toxic Avenger is still a product of the Reagan ravaged 80s. From the mall hair worn by every female character, to the mime style clothing and Loverboy headbands festooned by the fellas, this is a movie that recalls just how malodorous the Greed decade really was. As the best songs the late Laura Brannigan never sang spew from the health club speakers, we watch as the East Coast version of valley girls and oily bo-hunks blast their quads and tighten their delts, making everyone from Jane Fonda to Judi Sheppard Missett happy. Setting the story in the 'singles bar with aerobics' once known as a gym was one of Kaufman's first genius strokes; no other location – not a Galleria, or a high school, or a dying disco club – locks us more directly into the skin and sin sentiments of that false phase of pre-Orwellian human history. Of course, with its showers and locker rooms, there's ample opportunity to show off a little finely toned T&A, both in and out of unitard.
But it's not just the tone and shaping aspects that take us back to a simpler, more spandex oriented time. The stellar (at least for the time) special effects also recall the tainted period perfectly. The work of Jennifer Aspinall – who would later go on to perfect her vomit inducing invention with Street Trash, among others – is ingenious and disgusting, especially during our heroes plutonium based transformation. Sure, it has all the bladder and latex elements of early make-up work, but along with American Werewolf in London, The Beast Within and The Howling, The Toxic Avenger contains some of the best, nastiest shape shifting ever captured on film. Incredibly graphic for its era, and still a pretty potent package today, Melvin's mutation into our tu-tu wearing pile of pus is impressive. So are the other gore effects. Indeed, The Toxic Avenger is a direct descendant of the Herschel Gordon Lewis canon, especially his later, comedy-laced films like The Gore Gore Girls or The Gruesome Twosome. Mixing blood with humor is a tricky business, but Kaufman and Herz pull it off – along with arms, heads and various other unnecessary limbs - magnificently.
Those new to the film, expecting it to somehow transcend its low budget trappings, will be sadly mistaken. The Toxic Avenger wallows in its skid-row production values, allowing the cheap sets and even cheaper visual design to create a sensational separate cosmos. This is the Tromaville that fans remember, a dirty cesspool of unobtrusive streets, dingy dark alleys, and nasty, fetid landfills. In order to keep us locked in the lunacy, to prevent us from wondering why exposure to hazardous waste wouldn't just kill Melvin, not turn him into a marauding superhero, or how a group of assholes can keep from getting caught by the cops for their Death Race 2000 inspired road games, a movie would have to make sure we stay directly tied to its dementia. And The Toxic Avenger does this. It has style and panache, a clear craving to disgust and entertain. When it comes down to it, this is a simple revenge flick where the obvious bad guys, primed for a creative comeuppance, get their just desserts in delicious, disgusting spades. Had we clung too closely to reality in the process, much of the payback would seem mean, not amusing.
But this is the beauty of The Toxic Avenger. It can make the stuffing of a little person in an industrial dryer seem like justice. It can show the killing of a dog or the crushing of a child with as much merry abandon as the disemboweling of a dishonest public official. Like a more jaundiced Jason Voorhees, this is a movie that loves the way it does away with people – be it with a milkshake mixer, or a bunch of hot sauna rocks. And the beauty thing is that it keeps coming back for more. Just when you think it can't get any more bloody or dumb, when you know that there is not another taboo it can bust or envelope it can push, Lloyd and the crew find a way to up the anarchy. From the fine performances (much better than you'd except from a low budget horror comedy) to the use of NYC as a gritty urban backdrop (Tromaville is just across the river) this is an expertly shot, cleverly directed and wonderfully realized film. It's not surprising that, of all the Troma titans unleashed in the last three decades, Toxie has managed to outpace them all. He deserves to be the company's chief icon. His manic movie is just as fun and fresh as it was 21 years ago, maybe even more so. After all, just like the drive-in, blood, breasts and beasts will never die – and The Toxic Avenger is proof positive of such a sentiment.
Now, here's a pickle. For the 21st Anniversary Edition of the film, Troma goes back to the rare, 1998 laserdisc release and lifts the 1.85:1 non-anamorphic widescreen version of the movie. This is what we get on the new DVD. Then, on the new commentary, Lloyd explains that the original aspect ratio for any and all Troma films is 1.33:1 full screen. He further admits that this Anniversary print is basically the 4x3 image cropped, removing information from both the top and bottom. So basically, we are getting a questionable aspect ratio that will, indeed, probably not please 16 x 9 home theater owners. So, what's a consumer to do (all other DVD releases of The Toxic Avenger have been full frame). The answer is simple – buck up and buy the new version. You don't miss much – just a lot of sky and dirt – and all the gore and gratuity from the so-called Director's Cut is here as well.
As for the visual presentation itself, The Toxic Avenger is no Lawrence of Arabia, but it still looks damn good for a low to no budget independent movie. How refreshing it is, in these days of digital cameras, to see actual FILM being utilized to tell a story. The colors are consistent and correct on the remaster, and the contrasts help keep the more gushy details in perfect balance. The image is not too bright or too dark, and even contains a couple of very beautiful, evocative shots (Toxie running past the NYC skyline, a silhouette of our fiend moving past some railroad tracks during an amber sunset). If you think you're going to be blown away by some brand spanking new, clean and flawless piece of celluloid, you'll be gravely disappointed. But The Toxic Avenger looks great in this new release, considering its age, and the financial limits of its creation.
Equally impressive, with similar minor drawbacks, is the Dolby Digital Stereo mix. The surreal soundtrack, with its combination of classical clips and disco-once-removed pop is superb, and the dialogue is always crisp and decipherable. Occasionally, some sound effects (heads crushing, tires squealing, Toxie growling) will drown out the other noises, but overall, the presentation is clean and pristine. Matching the visuals point for point, the aural elements here are excellent.
Fans of The Toxic Avenger will probably be drawn to this two disc DVD release for the new bonus features it offers. While they can't compare to the content packed into the recently released Tox Box (there's even some repetition), they are all interesting in their own right. First up, we get a brand new commentary featuring Lloyd Kaufman and a supposed longtime Toxic Avenger "admirer" named "Lenny" (rumor has it that it actually is Troma editor Gabe Friedman). While there is a little too much of the obsessed fan routine here (especially an unfunny bit about Mark David Chapman at the end), we still learn a lot about how The Toxic Avenger was made, and some of the production pitfalls. Lloyd does a good job of keeping things serious when necessary to provide film buffs with the inside scope. It's not as good as his previous solo alternative narrative outing, but it is a lot of fun.
Next up is a set of interviews with various Toxic Avenger cast and crew. The biggest coup, of course, is getting the elusive Michael Herz to sit down for a 15 minute Q&A. For many fans of the company, Herz is the big fat William Gaines looking lummox, a sometimes Kaufman sidekick dowsing himself with food and females any chance he gets. Actually, that's an actor – the real Herz is a straight up businessman who seems a little befuddled by all the attention paid to Troma. While he shills away for his company and his product, he does offer some interesting insights into the movies and how they get made. Also fascinating is Mitch Cohen, the original Toxie, now the Vice-President of a business machine company. He speaks about his time as the man behind the mask, and even offers his employees a chance to sing his – and the film's – praises as he does a kind of 'man in the cubicle' segment. Dan Snow (Cigar Face), and Robert Prichard (Slug) also offer their brief comments about the movie. Both look about the same, even after 21 years (Prichard has a body covered in tattoos) and have equally warm feelings about the production.
The final features on Disc 1 are the deleted scenes from the film as well as the hilarious introduction material from the laserdisc release. In this perverted prologue, Toxie is a crack head, and Lloyd is dragged right into his pipe smoking Hell. It is a typical Troma treat. The Deleted material is mostly added characterization and plot points. Specifically, we learn the fate of Julie and Wanda, as well as just how horrible Sara's cooking skills are. The final facet of Disc 1 is a series of clips carried over from the release of Toxic Avenger III: The Last Temptation of Toxie. It features different clips from around the world where Lloyd and Toxie have appeared.
Disc 2 is designed for the fans, and it presents some of the most perplexing and downright bizarre added content this critic has ever seen. Specifically, a young kid named Russell Vincent Porter gives us an on-camera crash course in how he learned to make his own damn movie from Troma titan, Lloyd Kaufman himself. We then get to see his homemade epic, a mind-bending piece of human Id called – honestly – Day of the Dead. Featuring shot from computer screen credits/ title cards, and lots of pre-teens giggling at their own gore effects, this incoherent slice of dada insanity is enough to make you fear for the future all over again. Just the thought that Russell and his friends will be adults one day is enough to give you continual night terrors.
Disc 2 also contains a Toxie cartoon from James Bernadelli, a couple of music videos, a collection of fan comments, and clips from Toxic Avenger: The Musikill. Yes, believe it or not, someone has brought our favorite mutant to the stage, singing and dancing his way into your heart - and we aren't talking about Tommy Tune. The brief moments we see give us a basic idea of how the show works (some material is done live, while other parts rely on projected images on a backscreen to sell the story) and it definitely looks like a lot of fun. Along with trailers for all the Toxie films, as well as the usual Tromatic goodies, this is a stacked and packed DVD presentation.
Don't let the sequels and the cartoons fool you. Don't let the weird product placement of his image ruin his reputation. All huckster status aside, The Toxic Avenger will always be first and foremost a movie star, and his namesake film will always be the ultimate Troma film. Looking at it 21 years later, it's hard to believe how revolutionary – and revolting – many once thought it was. It now seems almost quaint, like a visit from your doddering old granny who mistakes your umbrella stand for a chamber pot. Love it for its lunacy and unhinged aspiration to entertain, or just marvel at how magnificently it creates its own private universe, but there is no doubt about it: this is one of the best independent b-movies ever made. There may be a time, somewhere in the distant future, when Troma as an entity is no more. After all, nothing lasts forever. But The Toxic Avenger will always be around. After all, a legend is supposed to be timeless, right?
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