When you ask the average Troma fan for their favorite film from the Independent production house, few site Tromeo and Juliet from amongst the many. Naturally a certain monster named Toxie and his constant avenging gets a lot of the adulation and attention, while efforts as diverse as the adventures of a Japanese policeman and the making of a low budget epic (Sgt. Kabukiman, N.Y.P.D. and Terror Firmer, respectively) receive an equal number of votes. No, there is something about Tromeo and Juliet that seems to mystify many a genre devotee. Some just don't like the constant nods to that enemy of high school English students everywhere – a certain Mr. Willy Shakespeare. Others are troubled by the lack of splatter and repressed rivers of flowing red gore. A few grumble and grouse over the nudity, while others just can't cotton to the homemade movie approach to the production. Sadly, all these common criticisms are sadly mistaken. Tromeo and Juliet is one of the best films Troma ever created, and thanks to the new 10th Anniversary Collector's Set, we have a near definitive DVD package to accent the movie's many cinematic pleasures. This is indeed a great film, and a terrific new digital presentation to boot.
As long as anyone can remember, the Houses of Que and Capulet have been feuding. Many believe the bad blood began when Cappy Capulet stole Monty Que's adult movie business. Others claim the quarrel was based on Cappy's coveting of Monty's wife. Whatever the reason, the families have been warring ever since, and caught in the middle of it all are young lovers Tromeo Que and Juliet Capulet. Sexually repressed, drawn by desires both carnal and considered, our doomed paramours find it almost impossible to celebrate their passion. While Tromeo seeks solace in computer porn, Juliet gets frisky with her lesbian maid and the local phone sex operator. Eventually, they begin meeting in private, avoiding confrontation with family members of all sides – as well as the ever present evil of the felonious flesh peddler Cappy. When a marriage of convenience is arranged between Juliet and a local meat magnate, Tromeo takes steps to insure their lasting love. But it may be too late for the both of them. The grudges between these folks run deep, and frequently turn dire… and deadly.
Tromeo and Juliet is arguably Troma's masterpiece, a film that truly represents everything the 30 year old independent production and distribution company stands for. More serious than the fabulous freak-out known as Terror Firmer, better conceived and constructed than the entire Toxic Avenger saga, this punk rock revamp of the classic Shakespeare story of star-crossed lovers gets good and tweaked by the Manhattan based masters of rudeness and bad taste. Yet instead of piling on the gore, or obsessing on silly toilet humor, Tromeo and Juliet uses sex, fetishism, kink and its own cruel crackpot logic to deliver a wholly satisfying and cinematically unique experience. Anyone familiar with company president and filmmaker Lloyd Kaufman knows that he enjoys balancing art with anarchy, championing the spirit of outsider cinema while callously catering to the sometimes sophomoric needs of his adolescent demographic. This results in a kind of crazy quilt approach to movie making. Sure, Kaufman creates excellent genre attractions, horror films that are heinous and hilarious, comedies that are campy and crude. But something inspired him to reach a little higher for this effort, and it wasn't just the belief in the beauty of the Bard. No, Kaufman had a stellar screenwriting savant up his sleeve, a scribe headed in a definite Tinsel Town trajectory.
James Gunn, responsible for some of the new millennium's most memorable (Dawn of the Dead, Slither) and mediocre (Scooby-Doo 1 and 2) popcorn films was a lowly Kaufman employee when he pitched Tromeo and Juliet as a possible project. Originally adverse to such an idea, the company came around when it was obvious that Gunn was more than just a concept and a spiel. Gathering together a terrific cast of New York theater actors (including Steve Blackeheart, Will Keenan, and Valentine Miele) and interspersing their ranks with up and coming b-movie icons like Debbie Rochon and rock and rollers like Motorhead's Lemmy and Jane Jensen, everything was in place for a new and quite novel turn on the feuding family tragedy (this was long before Baz Lurhman launched his own modern crime update of the material). Employing a production design that was heavy on body art and tribal piercing and light on the usual Troma trickery (there are very few outright cartoonish elements at play) and draping everything in pure urban grit, the combination of creative filmic facets resulted in something extraordinary and inspired. Gone were the gross out jokes and fart-based funny business (well, ALMOST gone…) and in their place was a wit and maturity mostly absent from the Troma catalog. In many ways, Tromeo and Juliet feels like the first film from the longtime pioneers of puke actually aimed at a wider, more adult-oriented audience.
Perhaps the most compelling aspect of Tromeo and Juliet is how shamelessly resourceful it is. Unlike other offerings from the company, the rampant sex and nudity within the film are not just there for pure titillation. The scenes are part of the overall storyline and thematic sentiments of the film. Both Tromeo and Juliet are repressed, he the abandoned bastard of the Que clan, she the tortured child used by both her boorish, bullying father and sensually Sapphic maid. Most fans get all foamy when Debbie Rochon (as the same sexual servant) and leading lady Jensen do the bump and gyno-grind, but many may not realize why the sequence has such impact. As a link to her eventual liberation as a character, Juliet's frequent explorations into the erotic become a pathway to salvation, a temporary reprieve from all the pain and suffering around her. Sure, we enjoy the bountiful bare bodkin, and there's a sensationally sleazy element, what with all the tatts, glass box bondage and skin ornamentation. But unlike your typical sex farce, when physicality becomes an extension of all the boneheaded humor, Tromeo and Juliet seamlessly incorporates its carnality into the plot. When put alongside Kaufman's compositional control, Gunn's flaunting of taboo subject matter, and the stellar performances, you get a real piece of filmic finery.
Yes, this is still the film that features the first appearance of Harry Balls, the notorious Troma Penis Monster. Yes, we still have the occasional goofball moment, as when Gunn (in a geeky cameo) suffers a stock footage car accident at the hands of a severed head. Certainly there are jokes revolving around obesity, urine, masturbation and pornography. But instead of being the signposts for the film's overall nature, these seemingly sensationalized concepts fit neatly into Kaufman and Gunn's varied vision. They meld seamlessly with all the mock Shakespeare (and actual Bard) as well as cleverly commenting on the contemporary morays that would force families into this manner of feud. Indeed, the reason Romeo and Juliet responds well to modernization is not only because of its timeless love story, but because it easily conforms to the basic behaviors of human beings. Even in the most enlightened environments, parents do desperate things to keep their lovebird children apart. There's just something about biology and betrothal that fails to go together. Be it a religious division or bad business partnership, clans are always splitting for silly and/or significant reasons. Tromeo and Juliet is one of the few film versions of this tale that actually understands this dynamic, exploiting it for all its dramatic and dada-esque impact. It's what makes it more than just another trashy Troma treat. Indeed, this is one of the better independent movies of the last 10 years.
Some may argue over the way Troma has decided to release this film. Instead of providing a 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen image, or some manner of 16x9 high definition transfer, the company has come up with a "lovingly remastered" 1.33:1 full screen print. Granted, the film looks great. For a low budget production based in the less than glamorous backdrops of New York City (and New Jersey, for that manner) there is a tactile personality to the cinematic creativity presented. Kaufman enjoys overloading the frame with optical stimulus, be it natural (breasts) or nasty (blood and beasts) and this latest DVD version preserves all their colorful chaos. While it may or may not reflect the true aspect ratio, this is still the best this film has ever looked – at least in this critic's considered opinion.
Troma occasionally finds itself trashed by critics (yours truly included) for distributing poorly mastered, sonically messy audio mixes. In the case of the 10th Anniversary Edition of Tromeo and Juliet, it is safe to say that few discs created by the company have sounded better. The Dolby Digital Stereo is clean and clear, with all dialogue discernible and all music manageable and expertly modulated. Granted, this is not some fancy 5.1 surround affair, but there is more atmosphere and mood to the aural elements offered here than in most of the production house's previous works.
Here is where this new Collector's Set really shines. Briefly, we are treated to two DVDs worth of added content, material as varied as Kaufman's trip to the set of James Gunn's directorial debut, Slither, a series of deleted scenes, along with a collection of each and every introduction recorded for the different versions of Tromeo and Juliet. Also present are all the Troma openings featuring cast and crew members from Tromeo and Juliet, a visit to Eli Roth's Hostel birthday party, fan recreations of famous scenes from the film, rehearsal footage of Rochon and Jenson practicing their petting, and a music video by soundtrack composer Willie Wisley. As if that was not enough, there are over a dozen new interviews, including Q&As with Lemmy, Blackeheart, Tiffany Shepis, and many, many others. But perhaps the biggest boon for fans is four – count 'em…FOUR! – audio commentaries included as part of this package. We get a brand new 2006 discussion between Kaufman and Gunn, a chance to hear the long suppressed ORIGINAL commentary created by Gunn with his brother Sean, another spanking new conversation with editor Frank Reynolds and Poultrygeist cutter Gabe Friedman, and a 1997 alternative track from Kaufman himself. When you toss in the typical Troma stuff (trailers, merchandising) you get a two disc set overflowing with complementary goodness.
Naturally, of all the material present, the commentaries and interviews make for the most insightful supplements. The original tracks featuring Kaufman solo and the Gunns are very funny, especially since they end up being pissing matches over everything that went wrong during the production. In fact, the reason the brothers' comments haven't appeared until now is because of their less than complimentary take on Lemmy and his thirst-based thespianism. The 2006 offerings are equally compelling. More dirt is dished, some old scores are settled, and we learn more about the Troma way of making movies than anything since the company's comprehensive Make Your Own Damn Movie boxset. While stars Keenan and Jenson fail to take part here (one has to wonder why since neither shies away from an association with the film) the 14 Q&As run the gamut from the comic (Wendy Adams mocking Troma and Kaufman) to the surreal (Lemmy defending his drunken acting). When viewed overall, it's like getting your own private window into the world of low budget moviemaking. Between all the anecdotes and antics, there is a lot to learn from this DVD – not just about Tromeo and Juliet, but concerning the state of Indie art in general. Let's just say that things sure have changed in the 10 years since this film was seen as the dregs of the pre-digital revolution.
It goes without saying that this is one of the best DVD presentations of 2006. If you ignore the OAR issue, and forgive the filmmakers for failing to get EVERYONE involved to be part of the added features, the score for such a sensational reissue is abundantly clear. Tromeo and Juliet easily earns the coveted DVD Talk Collector's Series designation, not just for its boffo bells and whistles, but for what an amazing piece of peculiar performance art this motion picture is. Sure, there will be those who grumble at such an (in their mind) outrageous statement, and even a few who feel that, while good, this pseudo Shakespeare is more gimmick than good. However, when viewed alongside the rest of the Troma inventory, as well as the movies made in and around the same time, this celebration of love and lewdness has no peers. Gunn can be proud to list this entry on his resume of screen credits. It sure looks better than being the scribe behind a pair of films featuring Freddie Prinze Jr. and Sarah Michelle Gelllar. In fact, Tromeo and Juliet is a triumph for everyone involved. As launching pad for future success, this idiosyncratic emblem of low budget determination has no equals. As a pure example of imaginative moviemaking and classical story interpretation, it is even better. Tromeo and Juliet is indeed a true Tromatic tour de force.
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