Published in 1949, George Orwell's dystopian allegory1984 imagined that by the time of the titular year, the whole world would have become a totalitarian system constantly at war with itself. In fact, what the real 1984 brought us was The Toxic Avenger, the first foray of indie production company Troma Entertainment from their usual sex comedies into, well, something else. Troma co-founder Lloyd Kaufman, here co-directing (under the name Samuel Weil), co-producing and co-writing, had intended this film to be horror (with the working title Health Club Horror), but what emerged from the creative ooze was an altogether odder hybrid of superhero tropes, lowbrow comedy, adolescent sexual fixations (aka T&A), cheesy romance and extreme gore. There is also, for good measure, some subversive satire of the political dispensation under Reagan, bringing things back full circle to Orwell. For here, beneath all the smiles and sun and buff bodies, is a vision of the US as a place of corruption, pollution, and violent criminality, with the ordinary law-abiding "little people" constantly at the mercy of a toxic American Dream.
Late to puberty and borderline autistic, übernerd Melvin Ferd (Mark Torgl) is mocked, bullied and humiliated by the other teenagers at the Tromaville Health Club where he works as janitor. Eventually, inevitably, Melvin will be transformed into a musclebound hero - but not via the expected route of 'Charles Atlas'-style body building, but rather by falling headfirst into a barrel of toxic nuclear waste and mutating into a superstrong creature (now played by Mitch Cohen, in heavy makeup and a faded tutu). Or maybe the altered body, lowered voice pitch and all the slimy fluids are just, as Melvin's mother suggests, a sign of adolescence finally kicking in. He may now be a hideous monster on the outside, but blind (and klutzy) love interest Sara (Andree Maranda) senses Melvin's inner good, as gradually do the citizens whom he saves from various forms of local evil.
Right from the start, with the Big Apple's Twin Towers dominating a montage of establishing shots, an introductory voiceover tells us of "the price to pay" for the progress and technology of America's shimmering beacon city of New York, "the world capital of culture and industry". That price, we are told, is pollution, and it is paid by outlying towns like New Jersey's (fictitious) Tromaville ("toxic waste dumping capital of the world"). This prologue makes two things clear. First, The Toxic Avenger will unfold not in the metropolitan centre, but on the (literal and metaphorical) margins. This is less the mainstream than its stinking effluent, and proudly advertises its peripheral status as 'trash' cinema. Secondly, even if Melvin is the vehicle that barrels out of control through the narrative, dragging us along with him, at its heart The Toxic Avenger is concerned not with an individual but with community. Serving essentially as New York's sewer, Tromaville suffers ills - not just the actual dumped waste, but also the drugs, the organised (and not so organised) crime - that seem the direct consequence of the bigger city's trickle-down effect. It may have a (rapidly decreasing) population of only 15,000, but Tromaville boasts murderous joy-riding delinquents, cop-killing gangsters, armed-and-deadly robber-rapists, even its own white slave trade, as well as an on-the-take police force run by a literal Nazi (David N. Weiss) and a mayor (Pat Ryan Jr.) all too happy to flush his town down the toilet for a little graft.
The Toxic Avenger gleefully presents Tromaville's dirty side (think The Simpsons' Springfield, only darker, nastier and sleazier), while offering the fantasy of a 'mop boy' who emerges from the sludge to clean up the place ("Mops? It must be some sort of a political statement," comments the mayor). Melvin may take on the vicious locals in their own highly questionable might-is-right terms, but importantly, he does not in the end stand up to the powers that be (police, military, the political class) alone, but is joined by an absurd underdog support team of icecream-eating kids, indignant fast food busboys and the town's one good cop (Dick Martinsen). Take that, Reagan (and your rugged individualism)!
Still, for all its satirical anatomisation of smalltown America, what remains most queasily memorable about The Toxic Avenger is its utter tastelessness, with jaw-dropping switches from grotesque excess to dumbed-down gags. A sequence early on sets the desultory tone, as we witness a gang of thrill-riding youths deliberately run down a little boy with their car, graphically reverse over his head, and take polaroids (to be used later as masturbatory aids) of the bloody mess left behind - only for one of the teenagers, Slug (Robert Pritchard), to declare he needs to be home early as he has church the next morning. A love-is-blind scene of Beauty and the Beast getting it on cuts away, almost inevitably, to Sara's parents, taken aback by the loud thumps and bumps coming from upstairs. A restaurant brawl shifts from using the nunchaku and samurai sword that bizarrely decorate the Mexican (!) establishment's walls, to various kitchen implements repurposed for bloody culinary slaughter. A classic-seeming slasher set-up sees a blonde co-ed (Cindy Manion) stalked by a scissors-wielding monster in a dark basement - except that wide-eyed all-American scream queen Julie is a homicidal sociopath, while her pursuer is our putative hero, leaving viewers in a quagmire of moral confusion, unsure for whom to root.
All these postmodern gestures and jarring dissonances are precisely what earned The Toxic Avenger its cult following (after a successful midnight movie running at New York's Bleecker Street Cinema in 1985). Its wilful unevenness, its uncomfortable laughs, its over-the-top, anything-goes exuberance and its general batshittiness would become the defining features of Troma Entertainment's future output, as well as spawning several 'Toxie'-themed sequels and spin-offs (a rock musical! a children's television cartoon!) - while there is something in this film's presentation of a garbage-dump America, run by sex-mad, venal racketeers and populated by drooling, pliable fools, that is truly Orwellian.
The Toxic Avenger. USA 1984. Directed by Michael Herz & Lloyd Kaufman. Starring Mitch Cohen, Mark Torgl, Andree Maranda...
The Toxic Avenger is screening at the BFI as part of their Cult Strand on the 11th and 12th of June. For more information and to buy tickets, click here