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If you’ve never heard of Troma Entertainment, there is no better place to start than their 1984 masterpiece, The Toxic Avenger. Though at first glance, this may seem like a terrible movie, it is actually that rarest of all “so bad it’s good” movies: the kind that is simultaneously self-aware and very sincere. Sure, it’s filled with cheesy puns and one-liners, and the performances are uniformly over-the-top and cartoonish, but that’s all part of director Lloyd Kaufman‘s unique, immediately recognizable style. Kaufman may be a trash filmmaker, but he has embraced sleaze so fully that he almost transcends it. He is truly the greatest trash auteur since Roger Corman; in fact, he’s greater, because his films are even trashier than Corman’s ever were.
The Toxic Avenger takes place, as all canon Troma films do, in the fictional town of Tromaville, New Jersey, “the toxic waste dumping capital of the world.” Melvin Ferd (Mark Torgl) is a scrawny, awkward nerd who works as a janitor at a local health club, where he is perpetually tormented by a quartet of bullies. Bozo (Gary Schneider) and Slug (Robert Prichard) are a couple of meat-head juvenile delinquents who spend their free time either working out or going on vehicular homicide sprees with their equally unredeemable girlfriends, Wanda (Jennifer Babtist) and Julie (Cindy Manion). Early on in the film, we see them run over an innocent boy on a bicycle (D.J. Calvitto) in an obscenely graphic shot gloriously preserved on Netflix in the original unrated version. When Wanda later pleasures herself to a photo of the messy murder, it’s almost as if the film is commenting on the exact kind of repugnant titillation it so gleefully provides.
At any rate, a prank the gang plays on Melvin goes horribly awry and ends with him falling through a window and landing in a barrel of toxic waste, transforming him into a “hideously deformed creature of superhuman size and strength.” Played by Mitchell Cohen and voiced by Kenneth Kessler, the Toxic Avenger fights not only the bullies responsible for his transformation, but also the rampant corruption found everywhere in Tromaville, leading right up to its evil boss, Mayor Peter Belgoody (Pat Ryan, Jr.). Along the way, he rescues and falls in love with a beautiful blind woman named Sara (Andree Maranda), who loves him for who he is and not what he looks like.
The Toxic Avenger is a wonderful blend of superhero and monster movies, with comedy at the forefront. It’s raunchy, violent comedy, and certainly not for everyone, but it strikes a unique cultural chord as a film that doesn’t take itself too seriously, but also presents an unusually smart and intriguing worldview. Its environmental and political concerns are blatant, but no one could seriously accuse a movie this silly of being preachy. I highly recommend this film to anyone with a taste for “bad” movies, with a caveat that its first two sequels are genuinely not very good. Luckily, Citizen Tonie: The Toxic Avenger IV brings the franchise back to its peak form, and is considered “the real sequel.”