A teenage nerd is accidentally transformed into a freakish
vigilante after he is thrown into a vat of toxic waste.
The Toxic Avenger (1984)
Directed by Michael Herz and Lloyd Kaufman
Written by Joe Ritter
Starring Mark Torgl, Mitch Cohen, Andree Maranda, Robert Prichard, Gary Schneider, Pat Ryan, Jennifer Babtist, Cindy Manion
I had to see it for myself to believe it. A film I had every intention of throwing away for a number of reasons. The concept was ridiculous and the trailer was abysmal. Yet, somehow the reviews for this wildly over-the-top monster movie were mostly positive. I went into this fully expecting to hate it, but I gotta say...not bad. The Toxic Avenger is the very definition of a cult classic and a B-movie. The performances are all terrible and the script isn't exactly award-winning, but the special effects are pretty good and you can feel the heart that went into making it. Everyone involved in making The Toxic Avenger was a horror movie buff who wanted to make something cool. And I can get behind that.
Meet Melvin Junko (Torgl), the dictionary definition of nerd. He's weird, he's off-putting, and he spies on the hot babes at the Tromaville Health Club (Tromaville, of course, being both the secret sixth borough of New York City and its own town complete with a mayor). Two psychos, Bozo (Schneider) and Slug (Prichard) decide they've had enough of Melvin being weird around them, so they prank him into flying out a window, where Melvin lands in a vat of toxic waste. The waste morphs him into a monstrous vigilante known as the Toxic Avenger (Cohen). Now, Melvin is compelled to attack and kill evildoers, and he quickly becomes a local hero for his escapades. I know it sounds completely mental, but there's something about it that works. It's quirky, funny, grisly, and ultimately a solid satire on typical superhero origin stories.
The Toxic Avenger isn't something that most people will find on their own, or even want to. Word of mouth has kept this film alive for almost forty years. I only watched it because Filmgazm writer Josh Allred suggested it for the podcast. And I won't lie; I was dreading this episode because I thought this movie would be a disaster. But I was wrong. Is it perfect? Not in the slightest. But it is nowhere near the worst movie I've ever seen. In fact, I might even recommend it myself.
This is the one that started it all. Taking their inspiration from an article proclaiming that ‘horror is dead’, Lloyd Kaufman and his partner Michael Herz set about creating their own superhero film packed with boobs, blood, and crushed heads that would put Troma on the map. Their nearly 45-year history as an independent film production and distribution studio can give thanks to the tutu wearing, mop carrying baby they created: Toxie. I’ve written an article which details the beginnings of Troma and the co-founders Kaufman and Herz so I will spare you the history lesson here. Check it out here. This is one of my all-time favorite movies and was shown to me at a time that I really needed it. Having only really seen big-budget Hollywood fare and the occasional late-night B- movie, watching The Toxic Avenger really showed me that you don’t need millions of dollars to create something that will stand the test of time. You just have to have the desire and the balls to pursue your goal.
A title card states that the film contains scenes of extreme violence but that will not be enough to prepare the viewer for the experience they are about to have. Let’s just say: You have been warned. The thing you have to understand about Troma movies is that they are hyperbolic in many ways, the acting is over-the-top, the violence and gore is never spared, and the world they are set in (Tromaville) is a satiric version of America. It is in this playground that Kaufman and Herz address social, political, and environmental issues (that is the case with this film) that wouldn’t get noticed in a Hollywood film. With Troma, there is always more going on than what you’re seeing on screen.
Melvin is every nerdy guy you’ve ever known. He’s oblivious to the teasing he gets but he’s also happy to occupy his social position. That happiness is cut short when he runs afoul of Slug and Bozo, two of the local meatheads who also moonlight as vehicular murderers. To say they are psychopaths is to put it lightly and the things they do have to be seen to be believed. Conspiring with their girlfriends, they figure out a scheme to get Melvin back once and for all, what they don’t know is that they are also creating their downfall: The Toxic Avenger. After falling out of a window into a barrel of toxic waste, Melvin begins to transform in a very horrific manner. The special effects on display are fantastic and you forget for a moment that this movie’s budget was minuscule compared to a Superman film of the time. After Toxie is ‘born’ he walks around Tromaville confused as to what has just happened and runs into a small gang beating on a local policeman. Toxie handles them quite easily and the gore is wonderful and there are hilarious ways in which he dispatches the thugs. As he walks up to the cop to help him up, he frightens the officer because of his appearance (which we see later). This is a message that Kaufman had about heroes in other movies, they are pretty and can be trusted. Toxie is hideously deformed but does the right thing and terrifies the people of Tromaville, at first.
There are the usual tropes in Hollywood of the hero finding a girl and coming together with her by the end and Troma uses that convention but flips it on its head by having the love interest of Toxie be a blind woman, Sara (Andree Maranda). This is one of the ways that Kaufman alludes to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as he said that was an inspiration for his character, Toxie. The scene at The Mexican Place (that is the name of restaurant in the movie, I shit you not) where Toxie meets Sara is fantastic and this starts the monster hero on a collision course with the real enemies of Tromaville: The City Government. Yes, the Mayor and Police Chief (just watch how he handles himself) are running all manner of illegal activities in Tromaville and at the expense of the very people who put them in power. Sound familiar? This is one of the
reasons I love Troma movies so much, they give us a world where the wicked are punished and our heroes (while not pretty to look at) will gladly rip those asshole’s arms off and beat them with it.
This is the first of four films that have been made over the years and currently Legendary Pictures has the option to remake The Toxic Avenger. I can’t say I’m excited about it because taking Toxie out of Troma’s hands might not be the best thing. I love that you have to discover something like this and share it with your friends. Hell, there’s even been a musical made about this movie so if that’s not a testament to how wonderful this story is then I don’t know what is. I will be reviewing more Troma movies because they should be experienced by movie lovers (the way they play with diegetic sound is enough to make any film nerd laugh) and I only ask that you come along and visit Tromaville, it’s a wonderful place full of wonderful people and Toxie is always there to help.