The Plaza Theatre presents the Troma Film Festival; Starts Wednesday, June 26 @ 7 p.m., Thursday, June 27 @ 5 p.m.; Plaza Theatre; Schedule and Event Info here; Tickets $30 for 2-day passes, $12 for single day passes, available at Plaza box office.
By Aleck Bennett
Troma Entertainment. Say what you will about them, they’ve survived nearly 40 years of independence while assaulting the very idea of good taste, and simultaneously bringing the concept of the B-movie into the home video age. And for two inglorious nights, the Plaza Theatre brings Atlanta a look back at the filmic legacy of Troma, the films they’ve produced and the films they’ve distributed with the Troma Film Festival.
Troma started up shop in 1974, the brainchild of extravagant frontman Lloyd Kaufman and the behind-the-scenes, lurking-only-in-shadows figure of Michael Herz. (Seriously, Michael Herz is the Sasquatch of independent cinema: only seen running awkwardly in blurry 8mm film clips shot from a great distance away.) The team not only created and distributed their own sex comedies for the exploitation/grindhouse/drive-in circuit (such as SQUEEZE PLAY!, THE FIRST TURN ON! and WAITRESS!), but also provided assistance to outside productions such as John Avildsen’s 1986 classic ROCKY (which was edited on Troma’s flatbed editing equipment) and Louis Malle’s 1981 feature MY DINNER WITH ANDRE.
But it was in 1984, just after the advent of the home video revolution, that Troma made its first big, bloody splash. THE TOXIC AVENGER started with Lloyd speculating 10 years earlier that a horror film set at a health spa would be interesting. Over the years, the idea mutated like Toxie himself, becoming a self-referential (the film is set in the fictional Tromaville, NJ, which would become a mainstay of Kaufman/Herz-helmed Troma flicks) and hyper-violent superhero spoof. While the film came and went in general release with little notice, its success in midnight screenings led to nation-wide coverage and its successful distribution on VHS through Lightning Video. Significantly, though, because Troma had faced pushback over certain gory scenes in getting the R rating needed to gain widespread theatrical exhibition from the MPAA, they discovered that home video was a surefire way to bypass the ratings board and use that to extend the Troma brand.
Troma followed up on the huge success of THE TOXIC AVENGER with 1986’s similarly mutated CLASS OF NUKE ‘EM HIGH. Co-directed by Kaufman and Richard W. Haines, the film continued on the same parodic path as previous, sending up the sensationalistic “high school gang” film tradition that reached from 1955’s THE BLACKBOARD JUNGLE to ‘82’s CLASS OF 1984, spiking it with the heady taste of radioactive waste. The film was another success for Troma, both theatrically and on home video, and the company began hacking out a place in the home video market that they sought to fill with outside productions.
Much like Kaufman’s role models in American International Pictures and Roger Corman’s New World Pictures, Troma ventured into the world of acquisition, finding independently-produced films from other movie-makers that stylistically fit under the Troma umbrella. They picked up “Tromatic” flicks like the notoriously gore-filled and sadistically sleazy BLOODSUCKING FREAKS, the revenge comedy SURF NAZIS MUST DIE, the Belgian import RABID GRANNIES and the surprisingly good-natured spoof MONSTER IN THE CLOSET. Meanwhile, earlier Troma productions like their sex comedies saw new life in video stores across the country.
Constant advertising and coverage in magazines like FANGORIA helped to ensure that their target audience of horror-and-gore-loving young adults was constantly in the know when a new Troma flick was hitting the shelves. In the mid-80s, if you were a teenager into horror and comedy, it was pretty much a guaranteed thing that you went through a Troma phase. While plenty of people tried to emulate the mixture of gross-out humor and blood-soaked horror that the company reveled in, Troma had established itself as a reliable brand for all your disgusting needs and had that part of the market pretty much sewn up.
If this were something like VH-1’s BEHIND THE MUSIC or an E! TRUE HOLLYWOOD STORY, you’d expect a fall right about now. And hey, look! There’s one right here!
In 1988, Troma undertook their most expensive film to date, TROMA’S WAR. The film was created to send up hyper-patriotic war films of the Reagan era like RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD PART 2, INVASION U.S.A. and MISSING IN ACTION (and, by extension, the Reagan administration’s attempt to glorify war in general). However, its blatant over-the-top violence and subplot involving terrorists spreading AIDS to the US led the company to run afoul of the MPAA once again. While cuts had been made to previous Troma films, at least their storylines remained comprehensible. After submitting the film twice to the board, nearly 20 minutes were removed in order to receive an R rating, and the film was butchered so heavily that it made even less sense than your typical Troma flick. It flopped in a spectacular fashion, the critical response was abysmal, and the negative press even affected the home video release. The financial loss to the company was nearly fatal.
It wasn’t until 1996’s TROMEO AND JULIET that Troma began to establish itself once again. An ambitious attempt to create a comic version of Shakespeare’s play that was both relatively faithful and Tromatic, the film was the first collaboration between Lloyd Kaufman and James Gunn (SLITHER, SUPER and the upcoming GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY) and it was a breath of fresh air after an unsuccessful series of TOXIC AVENGER and NUKE ‘EM HIGH sequels. TROMEO was critically acclaimed and had successful art house engagements in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco, where it played for over a year. Suddenly, with a huge return on a $350,000 investment, Troma was back on the map. While 1999’s TERROR FIRMER and 2000’s CITIZEN TOXIE: THE TOXIC AVENGER IV were comparatively less successful, they did help to keep the brand above water and in the public eye.
And, as is to be expected, Troma managed to turn things around.
Troma’s website had long been a fan destination for original Troma-related content, and they decided to pursue a novel idea: an anthology series called TALES FROM THE CRAPPER entirely presented on their website. They enlisted model/actress/producer India Allen to develop the series with a budget of $250,000. Allen backed out of production halfway through, and later sued Troma for breach of contract, slander, sexual harassment, trade slander and intentional infliction of emotional distress. The resulting footage was nearly unusable, and Troma attempted to salvage the project as a series of two DVD releases. It was a huge blow to what was turning out to be a second coming for the studio.
But then in 2006, Troma returned with POULTRYGEIST: NIGHT OF THE CHICKEN DEAD. A satirical horror movie take on the fast-food industry, the film was plagued with production problems throughout its shooting. Effects didn’t work, money was short, actors weren’t being paid, sets were destroyed prematurely…in short, it was what you’d expect a Troma shoot to be like. Despite all of the troubles, though, it was completed on schedule and was released to Troma’s best notices to date, and finally saw wide release in 2008. Publications ranging from ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY to THE GUARDIAN singled out the film as “an exploitation movie with soul” and “wonderfully bold” (respectively), while NEW YORK magazine and SALON.com chose the movie as a Critic’s Pick.
Feeling gusts from the winds of success at their backs, Troma decided to partner with Canadian filmmaking team Astron-6. Known at the time for their short films disguised as fake trailers for imaginary 1970s and ‘80s movies (including COOL GUYS, LAZER GHOSTS 2: RETURN TO LASER COVE and FIREMAN), Troma released a DVD of their shorts to great acclaim and co-produced the epic FATHER’S DAY with them. A spoof of 1970s rape-revenge flicks (with the genders reversed), supernatural horror and slasher movies, screenings of the film were greeted with wild enthusiasm, and it looked like this was to be a harbinger of another grand new era for Troma Entertainment.
But then, this is Troma we’re talking about. You know what’s about to happen.
A huge rift between Astron-6 and Troma pretty much put a kibosh on there being any more collaboration between the two parties. Astron-6 claimed that Lloyd was selling bootleg DVD-Rs of the film at screenings, which led to early piracy of the film. Troma’s initial poster art removed Astron-6’s logo. Disputes and conflicting claims from both entities over a “making of” documentary (which was critical of Troma) led to it not being included on the DVD release of the film. Troma scrapped the planned Astron-6 commentary track from the release, and included an early cut of the film rather than the finished, final cut.
So that leaves us here, as we stand reflecting on 40 years of Tromatic entertainment. Still with me? Good.
Because Troma is still with us as well. Like cockroaches, they will survive to be the only film studio standing after the nuclear holocaust that will obliterate all other life in the year 2025, the studio run by a coterie of mutants and some guy wearing a Toxie mask carrying around Lloyd’s head in a jar. And probably Michael Herz. No matter who’s come after them for their exercises in poor taste, no matter how shoddy their business practices may or may not be, Troma springs eternal.
May the lord have mercy on us all.
Aleck Bennett is a writer, blogger, pug warden, pop culture enthusiast, raconteur and bon vivant from the greater Atlanta area. Visit his blog atdoctorsardonicus.wordpress.com