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.
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.
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.