A current slogan for Troma Studios - the independent US schlock outfit that gave the
world Surf Nazis Must Die, Chopper Chicks In Zombie Town, and the infamous Toxic Avenger
series - claims that their productions are 'Movies For The Future.' I hate to say it, but
it's looking more and more like they could be right. If you want evidence of how the Troma
touch is invading the mainstream, check out any one of Hollywood's recent wave of
'gross-out' comedies - such as last month's top box-office hit, Scary Movie. As I
mentioned when I reviewed the film on this site, this is the one where a gay guy gets
killed by having an erect penis thrust through his skull.
"the Troma formula"
There's also the bimbo slut who's so annoying she keeps on bitching and whining even
after she's been decapitated. Very Troma. As is the scene in Me Myself And Irene where Jim
Carrey's thumb gets shot off - though in a Troma film it would have been at least his
whole arm. What does the Troma formula consist of? In a nutshell: absurdly bloody
violence, shameless soft porn, cheerfully shoddy production values, and a breathtaking
lack of conviction on the acting and scripting level. The most important element is the
last - the assumption that audiences will accept anything, no matter how dumb or
offensive, as long as it's framed as a campy, ironic joke.
Without exception, the Troma films I've seen are spoofs rather than genuine horror
movies, something that sets them definitively apart from earlier 'exploitation' movie
producers. In a sense, Troma simulates being an exploitation film studio - just as Lars
Von Trier simulates the art movies of the '50s and '60s in such films as The Idiots and
Breaking The Waves. It's this arch self-consciousness that aligns Troma with much current
As a proudly marginal, lowbrow film production house, Troma has been equally
influential on many sections of the independent or 'alternative' film scene (here and
overseas). For filmmakers working without large budgets or trained actors, one of the
easiest genres to tackle is undoubtedly what critic J. Hoberman has called 'the ironic
spectacle' - the kind of B-movie parody where lame special effects and wooden performances
are part of the fun. Many of the features at the recent Melbourne Underground Film
Festival were in the Troma vein - and the Arena cable TV channel even ran a short film
contest last year where the prizes included a trip to Troma's headquarters in New York.
(Ed: urbancinefile.com.au supplied its editor as a judge…) Included in the package
was a chance to meet Mr Troma himself - studio funder Lloyd Kaufman, who's co-written and
directed most of their best-known works.
"the revenge of the nerds"
Kaufman shows up in person to provide introductions and commentary for the release of
six Troma classics on DVD in 'director's cut' versions (released at the end of October
2000). Kaufman appears in these as a manic, balding little guy in a suit, who chortles and
bugs his eyes at the camera: clearly he's himself some kind of frustrated performer - a
would-be Rodney Dangerfield or (as one of his actors suggests) a low-rent Mel Brooks. This
again suggests that Troma's real roots are less in horror than in the (often overtly or
implicitly Jewish) comedy of geeky resentment: in more ways than one, their films are all
about the revenge of the nerds.
Even the Toxic Avenger himself started off as a drooling janitor named Melvin Furd,
before an encounter with toxic chemicals transformed him into a mutant superhero (played,
incidentally, by a completely different actor). The sympathy for grotesque underdog heroes
seems meant to mirror the supposed underdog status of the studio itself, which is
presumably what Kaufman is getting at when he refers to 'Toxie' as a 'hero for the little
guy' - though it's hard to get a handle on the 'politically incorrect' politics of a movie
that ridicules both bodybuilders and obese people, and condemns environmental pollution
while endorsing ultra-violent vigilante justice.
Before you rent or buy the director's cut of The Toxic Avenger (one of the two new DVD
titles I've previewed) be warned: it was the first film Troma made, back in 1983, and as
filmmaking it's strictly amateur night. The staging is primitive, the jokes are awful, and
the acting is on the level of furniture commercials that screen on late-night TV. A lot of
the budget must have gone into the gory special effects, which mainly involve Toxie
killing his enemies using unlikely household objects: mops, washing machines, gym
equipment... It's the kind of film where as soon as you see donuts being cooked in a
diner, you know right away that someone's hands are going to be plunged into boiling fat.
"greater cultural credibility"
Fifteen years later, with Tromeo And Juliet ('Troma's Most Successful Film Ever!' made
in 1998) the technique has improved a bit, and there's a sense that Kaufman is striving
for greater cultural credibility, both by borrowing a classic source (Romeo & Juliet
via Baz Luhrmann's 1997 movie with Leonardo de Caprio) and by trying to tap more directly
into what's deemed to be hip 90s youth culture (body piercing, appearances by
'alternative' rock stars).
The result is a hodgepodge of tones and styles, partly because the filmmakers haven't
really figured out how to update Shakespeare's plot (jokes about tattoos and vibrators
co-exist oddly with priests and arranged marriages) and partly because the attempts at
hipness are continually frustrated by corny jokes and artless pornography. Paradoxically,
a protracted lesbian sex scene winds up proving the film's basic squareness - it's so
obviously the work of a leering male director wowed by the thought of two girls getting it
Needless to say, there's no male gay sex and relatively little male nudity - though, in
keeping with the freefloating nastiness that fuels most Troma productions, there are a lot
of creepy references to incest and parental abuse.
Most of what Tromeo And Juliet is trying to do is done more successfully in Gregg
Araki's movies, particularly Nowhere (1997) which was released straight-to-video in
Australia, and which follows the exploits of a bunch of angst-ridden, arty, pansexual
teenagers in a similarly self-parodic comic-book style. Araki is a very unusual filmmaker
in that he manages to strike all kinds of trendy poses without being irritating. It helps
that he has an intelligent, distinctive sense of film style - and that you can never tell
where the parody stops and the posing starts.
"an exploitation filmmaker aspiring to some form of
What has Araki got that Kaufman hasn't? You could answer this in terms of cultural
status, and say that Kaufman is an exploitation filmmaker aspiring to some form of
respectability, while Araki is a sophisticated artist who plays with exploitation
techniques. Or you could note that Araki is a pioneer of New Queer Cinema, while Troma's
output - like, in varying ways, the work of the Farrelly Brothers, the South Park
creators, Von Trier, or Harmony Korine - falls into the awkward, perhaps impossible
category of heterosexual camp.
I don't mean to suggest that gay sexuality is inherently subversive, nor that queer
filmmakers have any automatic advantage when it comes to satire (if anything, the many
terrible gay films made recently suggest the reverse). Nonetheless, it's true of Kaufman
and the other filmmakers listed above that the more they show themselves to be fascinated
with the monstrous and perverse, the more desperately they cling to some semblance of
normal, straight, male desire - while striving to reassure us and themselves that all this
freaky, kinky stuff is just for laughs. And that, ultimately, could be the problem with
Troma and their many imitators - who often hold out the promise of a walk on the filmic
wild side while falling well short of the dangers and pleasures of a truly radical cinema.