Dammit. I really wanted to love this movie. Instead, I'm just kind of OK with it. You see, I'm a long time fan of the low-budget trash-art that Troma has distributed and produced for 40 years. I even worked for them for a stretch. (I was the company's DVD production manager and main video editor from 2005-06, and some of the featurettes I edited can be found here, here, here, and here. Apart from film director/Troma president Lloyd Kaufman and a few of the actors who make cameo appearances, I do not know the folks who made the two-part Return to Nuke 'Em High.)
I was never a crew member on one of Troma's features, but I know the amount of work that goes into these gonzo flicks, even just from being in the same building while the producers and editor toiled over the post-production on Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead for months and months to meet Kaufman's directorial demands.
I don't want to be a snobby elitist. I want to be a good Tromite. I want to support independent art. But I've gotta say that this new third sequel/first reboot of 1986's Class of Nuke 'Em High, Return to Nuke 'Em High, Volume 1, doesn't completely do it for me. While Troma movies are not always paragons of economical storytelling, this seems significantly sloppier than most of Kaufman's directorial efforts. Granted, since this is just the first half of a two-part epic, I'm sure a lot of the parts left dangling will eventually be brought to a satisfying climax. (Ahem.) But, as it stands now, RTNEH1 is largely a series of clever premises that don't always manifest solid punchlines.
Now, for most Troma fans, my little quibbles won't matter. In fact, if you're a Troma fan, stop reading this and go ahead and buy the Blu-ray. You're gonna get high and have a great time whether I give the flick my rubber-stamp of approval here or not. The movie's got boobs, over-the-top practical gore effects (augmented by a little low-budget CGI this time), and enough shticky fourth-wall-shattering meta jokes to make both Pirandello and Mel Brooks proud. Those are the base requirements any fan is expecting from a Lloyd Kaufman joint. Unfortunately, RTNEH1 is schizophrenic in the way that it goes back and forth between mindlessly fulfilling those expectations and cleverly exceeding them.
Before we dwell on the film's cons, let's look at the pros. First and foremost, Kaufman and Co. struck gold when they cast their leads. Smart, sexy, and funny, Asta Paredes and Catherine Corcoran are astonishingly game for whatever nonsense the Troma Team has cooked up for their characters to do. Those characters are Chrissy and Lauren, burgeoning young lesbians whose high school is situated right next to a former nuclear power plant-turned-ersatz health food factory, Tromorganic Foodstuffs. Chrissy is an orphaned activist from a working-class background, trying to expose Tromorganic for the sham that it is; Lauren is a rich girl obsessed with her pet duck Kevin.
Living in such different worlds, it doesn't seem like they should fall in love, but Chrissy and Lauren are both hot, so we suspend disbelief. Actually, to be perfectly honest, though Kaufman has stuck lesbian lovers in pretty much everything he's directed since 1996's Tromeo and Juliet, the relationship between Chrissy and Lauren marks the first time I bought it that the lesbian characters were actually into each other and not just going through the motions to satisfy Troma's horndog fan base. Their moodily shot sex scene is genuinely erotic, and wouldn't be out of place in an indie movie that didn't have mutants in it. (Oh, I didn't forget to mention that Chrissy and Lauren, along with many of their classmates, turn into mutants because of the polluted food, did I?)
And speaking of moodily shot, the cinematography by Justin Duval is fricking great. It's a little ironic that Troma's best-looking film in decades was shot digitally, considering that Lloyd Kaufman has long been devoted to having his movies shot on 35mm celluloid. (Besides Troma's numerous behind-the-scenes documentaries, Kaufman's one prior foray into digital fiction filmmaking was the ugly-looking, best-forgotten salvage job Tales from the Crapper.)
As with every film set in Tromaville, the landscape is peopled with memorable oddballs, both in the speaking roles and in the background. 300-pound drag queen Babette Bombshell, dressed like a man and looking very much like Divine's male character from Hairspray, plays Tromaville High's spastic principal, who is in cahoots with the food company in their plan to distribute toxic meals to his students. Brian Cheverie, who played Father O'Houlihan in Poultrygeist, is back playing another priest -- maybe because he owns the costume (?). Random cameos abound, from various Troma alums like Debbie Rochon and Brick Bronsky to Motörhead's Lemmy to the folks from TV's Oddities. Peter Parker (aka the guy who created Peter Parker) once again does the opening narration, as he did for Citizen Toxie.
Also, it's a pleasantly odd change-of-pace to have the soundtrack peppered with songs from the cult cabaret band The Tiger Lillies, instead of just the hard rock and punk that has been the typical musical accompaniment for Kaufman's movies for the past two decades (not counting the eclectic musical numbers from Poultrygeist, naturally).
RTNEH1 is, first and foremost, fan service. In addition to being a reboot of Class Of Nuke 'Em High, complete with the original film's retro theme song, RTNEH1 grabs elements from all throughout Kaufman's oeuvre and mixes them in a blender. Hardcore Tromites are bound to get a kick out of the numerous Easter Eggs the writers and crew have sprinkled throughout the film, like posters for Sloppy Joses (Poultrygeist), a school taco lunch gone awry (Citizen Toxie), and even the Troma Poofs* Glee Club's decision to sing "Amazing Grace" at a school assembly (Terror Firmer).
This fan service becomes problematic when familiar plot points and death scenes crop up, suggesting Kaufman and crew are re-running the Troma Team's greatest hits. Troma has always been environmentally conscious, but this isn't the kind of recycling they should be promoting. The epitome of Troma recycling -- the infamous Sgt. Kabukiman Car Flip, which has been appearing in Kaufman's movies for nearly 25 years and is usually a guaranteed laugh -- feels artlessly tossed in here, despite cameos from Crank director Mark Neveldine and Terror Firmer's Gabriel Friedman. (That said, if the flip's not also in Return to Nuke 'Em High, Volume 2, I will be very disappointed.)
It might seem like I'm being way too hard on a movie where a character literally sticks a duck feather in her hat and calls it "Macaroni." The idea is to have smutty, silly, gross fun. And that happens. And maybe that's enough. Based on the Volume 2 teaser included on this disc, it looks like the wildest, most visceral stuff is still to come. So maybe Return to Nuke 'Em High, Volume 1 is the slimy green expository vegetables one has to make it through before getting to the... uh... slimy green dessert?
*It's hard to think of a more Lloyd Kaufman-y pun than this: "Troma Poofs" plays on the "Whiffenpoofs" singing group of Lloyd's alma mater, Yale University, while also calling to mind the British slang for gay men, "poof." Also, this is a joke around 10 people will ever get.
While RTNEH1 is a Troma production, this disc was actually released by Starz / Anchor Bay. That means that many of the odd little goodies one might expect on a Troma release, like an intro from Uncle Lloyd or the ever-present minute-long modern dance PSA "Radiation March", have been left off.
As I hinted at above, the AVC-encoded 1080p 1.85:1 image looks surprisingly crisp for a Troma production. Around 95% of it was shot with an Arri Alexa camera, with a few pick-up scenes and moments shot with a Canon 5D. The two different formats don't mesh seamlessly, with the Canon 5D looking softer, contrastier, and smearier, but I expect no one reasonably thought they would actually match. The main footage, though, has excellent detail and a nice range of color. The encode has a pretty generous bitrate, which keeps the image from getting noisy. There has not been an overall better looking HD presentation from the Troma Team than this one right here...
...which is why it's so odd that the disc sports lossy Dolby 2.0 stereo audio. For what it is, the mix sounds clean and balanced, but come on -- even most old movies that were mixed in mono show up on Blu-ray with uncompressed audio tracks. Subtitle options: English SDH and Spanish subtitles.
While not as extensive as the discs for most tentpole Troma releases, there are some worthwhile goodies here that mostly focus on RTNEH's pre-production. This leaves one to speculate that another full-length documentary, in the vein of Apocalypse Soon or Poultry In Motion, which will cover the film's actual production process, is hopefully in the offing and might end up in the bonuses of Volume 2.
- Actors' commentary with Asta Paredes, Catherine Corcoran, Zac Amico, Clay von Carlowitz, and Stuart Kiczek - This is an upbeat and informative commentary, with the actors joking and sharing production stories. Amico is a font of information, and he frequently provides interesting trivia to keep the track moving. There are sporadic spots of unexplained dead air -- seemingly mid-conversation -- which makes me wonder if those are technical errors or someone started talking about topics it was thought best to leave out of the final track.
- Filmmakers' commentary with Lloyd Kaufman, Justin A. Martell, Matt Manjourides, Regina Katz, and Travis Campbell - This track starts off a little stilted, with Lloyd in Make Your Own Damn Movie seminar mode, trying to prod his overly polite producers into discussing the logistics of the production, specifically for the sake of fledgling filmmakers. Eventually, everybody loosens up, and the anecdotes and production details flow more easily and naturally. Lloyd talks a little smack and self-deprecates about his occasional failure to cover scenes well enough for editor Campbell to cut it all together. He also mentions working on the long-gestating fifth Toxic Avenger movie.
- Casting Conundrum (7:07) - A featurette covering Troma's open call for actors and the gradual selection of the two leads, including topless callback auditions.
- Pre-Production Hell with Mein-Kauf (Man) (9:44) - Why do these guys seem surprised? Have they never seen a Troma making-of featurette? This is a brief piece about the woes felt by the crew in the days leading up to the start of production, often while trying to meet director Lloyd Kaufman's sometimes counterintuitive demands.
- Special (Ed) Effects (7:22) - More handycam footage of folks getting stressed, this time about making sure the effects work before they are executed during filming.
- Cell-u-Lloyd Kaufman: 40 Years of TROMAtizing the world (2:11) - A promo montage of Troma movie clips, set to Motörhead's "Sacrifice" from the Tromeo and Juliet soundtrack.
- Architects of Fear "Edison Device" Music Video
- Return to Nuke 'Em High, Volume 2 Teaser Trailer
Troma fans don't need to think about it: add this movie to your collection now. As for other folks... I don't know. My girlfriend is fairly straitlaced, and she had never previously seen a Troma movie before she watched the closing 30 minutes of this one with me. She was convinced she had just seen a staggering work of insane genius. I still like Poultrygeist and Terror Firmer better. Maybe I'm becoming an old fuddy-duddy, or maybe you should just Rent It.
Justin Remer is a filmmaker, oddball musician, and frequent wearer of beards. His new single, "Gotta Stop (Messin' About)," is now available to stream or download on Amazon, Apple, Spotify, and wherever else fine music is enjoyed.