Judge Patrick Bromley is the pride of Troma High's A/V Club.
Readin'? Writin'? Radiation? Again!
I am a lifelong Troma fan. I can remember being very young and my dad—who has always had a predilection for schlock—telling me about a movie he had watched the night before called The Toxic Avenger. He described how children were run over in the streets so that drivers could score points. He said it was the grossest movie he had ever seen. By the time he was going into detail about how a guy gets his head put under a milkshake maker that gets turned on and turns his face into a pool of mushy goo, I was a goner. I could think only one thing: I have to see this movie.
A Troma fan was born. I spent my youth tracking the movies down (often on USA Up All Night) and recording them to be played back over and over, trying to show them to my friends and convince them that behind all the nudity, gore and silliness, there was real art. My friends were only interested in the nudity and gore. I guess I can't blame them.
As I grew up, so did Troma. Theirs were among the first DVDs I bought when I first got my player in 1998 (Troma were early adopters, understanding the potential for loading their releases with bonus content). I read Troma president Lloyd Kaufman's books multiple times. I listened to the commentaries and watched the epic behind-the-scenes documentaries, which remain some of the very best and most honest depictions of low-budget filmmaking I have ever seen and should be required viewing in film schools across the country.
Troma's latest movie (or half a movie as it were), Return to Nuke 'Em High, Vol. 1, is the independent studio's most ambitious production to date and a movie so epic and huge that it had to be split into two parts.
A sequel/remake/reboot of sorts to 1986's Class of Nuke 'Em High—still one of the biggest and most beloved titles in Troma's catalog—the film finds the students of Tromaville High exposed to toxic green goo being dumped by Tromorganic, another in a long line of evil corporations depicted in a Troma movie. After the school geek ignites and explodes on Taco Tuesday, the glee club is transformed in Cretins—mutant punks right out of some combination of Saved by the Bell and The Road Warrior—who go about terrorizing the student body and wreaking destruction on all of Tromaville.
At the center of all this is the relationship between militant tough girl Chrissy (Asta Paredes), who writes her own activist blog about the evils of Tromorganic, and sweet, demure Lauren (Catherine Corcoran), the new girl in school who just happens to be very wealthy. Chrissy has a boyfriend, Eugene (Clay von Carlowitz), but knows that something is missing and will make up any excuse not to sleep with him. Lauren's only relationship is with her pet duck (Kevin the Wonder Duck). Though they begin as combative opposites—Chrissy can't stand what she perceives as Lauren's weakness and sense of entitlement (but mostly envies a life that seems easier)—it's not long before they are connecting as kindred spirits and a romance develops.
Troma movies have always been sexually liberal, and have often flaunted lesbian acts in a pubescent, "isn't this naughty?" kind of way. But there's nothing gratuitous about the same sex romance in Return to Nuke 'Em High, Vol. 1 (who could have predicted that the graphic lesbian sex scenes in the French art film Blue is the Warmest Color would be far more exploitative?). With the exception of one line of dialogue about a character wishing to remain "closeted," there's nothing even really gender-specific about it—it is a love story between two people, and a beautiful one at that. That's because the chemistry between Paredes and Corcoran is electric. Both are tremendous finds, able to be funny and sexy, tough and vulnerable all in the span of a single scene. Troma has a long history of finding terrific actresses, from Phoebe Legere to Debbie Rochon to Allyson Sereboff to Kate Graham to Jane Jensen, but Paredes and Corcoran are the best yet. Despite being written as possible "types" in the script, both actors inhabit their roles with honesty, finding the insecurities and humanity in the characters.
There is a scene in which they dance together at a party—the moment they realize they are falling in love with one another—that is sexy and beautiful in its abandon. The band plays a song about making the most of the moment because it's the last night of being alive. It is, too; the old Chrissy and the old Lauren die off the moment the girls kiss and are reborn as something different, something more confident, something happier. Something with the power of love on their side. It's a beautiful scene, and "beautiful" is something Troma movies are rarely accused of being.
In many ways, Return to Nuke 'Em High, Vol. 1 is business as usual for Troma—which, coming from a fan, should be taken as a compliment. There's plenty of skin on display of both the male and female variety. The practical effects are goopy and glorious, as much about creating a convincing illusion as they are about being special effects. But there are a lot of improvements made, too. This is the best-looking Troma movie to date. The sets feel bigger and more open without losing that lived-in Tromaville feel. Justin Duval's cinematography is bright and bold, with saturated colors that pop—the images have the splashy, comic book-y feel of Romero's original Dawn of the Dead.
The supporting players, usually comprised of amateur and inexperienced actors, are unusually solid too, making for one of the best casts the studio has ever worked with. Stefan Dezil has a funny turn as the token black friend (he's identified as such on a title card) who, as always in these sorts of things, is the voice of reason. Clay von Carlowitz makes Eugene a very entertaining douchebag, playing the part at the big, stylized pitch we've come to associate with Troma. Within seconds, we can identify him as "that guy," but by the time the film ends he has become more than that. There are jokes made at the expense of his sexuality that aren't just cheap laughs, but actually tie into the larger themes of the movie. Eugene, stooge that we may think he is, turns out to be just another misfit looking for a place to belong. No matter where that may be, the movie never judges. It's one of the things that is unique and wonderful about the Tromaverse. Everyone has a place.
Return to Nuke 'Em High may be vulgar and silly. It may be goofy and gross. It is never soulless. It has too much energy, too much passion, too much intelligence and, yes, too much humanity to be soulless. The ultimate misfit movie studio has made a movie about misfits who find love. It's a movie that loves its misfits.
If Return to Nuke 'Em High, Vol. 1 frustrates at all, it's in the "Volume 1" aspect. Large swaths of the movie appear to have been taken out and pasted over in the editing (particularly near the end), so we get screens of text attempting to explain the jumps in time and continuity. I wouldn't mind it so much if I didn't know that the movie has been split into two already; with another movie's worth of running time, why not just leave that stuff in? The ending is awfully abrupt—it doesn't wrap up in any way so much as just stop mid-scene. Return to Nuke 'Em High is only half of a movie. It's an entertaining half of a movie, but half a movie nonetheless. It still worked for me, because by the time the credits rolled I was ready for Vol. 2 to begin immediately. I've got to see how that shower ends.
Return to Nuke 'Em High, Vol. 1 is being distributed by Anchor Bay instead of Troma, so the disc is missing a lot of the bonus content we've come to expect from the world's longest-running independent. The good news is that it looks great in HD; though Troma movies are sometimes characterized by grungy, grainy photography (it's part of their aesthetic), the shot-on-digital photography of Vol. 1 is bright and clean and very sharp. Unfortunately, Anchor Bay hasn't included a lossless audio track—only a compressed 2.0 stereo option that delivers the dialogue well enough but seems curiously out of date.
A pair of audio commentaries kick off the supplemental section. The first features director Kaufman, producer Justin A. Martell, producer Regina Katz, producer Matt Manjourides and editor Travis Campbell, and it's a decent nuts-and-bolts track with Kaufman doing most of the heavy lifting. He's always good at talking about the process of low-budget filmmaking (he's literally written volumes on the subject) and doing so with humor, and he doesn't disappoint here. The more entertaining of the two tracks, though, is the one that features stars Paredes, Corcoran, von Karlowitz, Stuart Kiczek and Zac Amico, who are all funny and informative about working on a Troma film without ever succumbing to the "talking over one another" curse that so often plagues commentaries with this many participants.
A couple of featurettes round out the bonus features: one on the casting process, one on the special effects and one that focuses more on Kaufman during the production. A music video by the band Architects of Fear and a short promo reel for Troma are also included, as is a very brief trailer for Return to Nuke 'Em High, Vol. 2 which tells us very little about where the story is going but suggests it will get there with a lot of goopy special effects.
Over 30 years into his career, Kaufman is still going strong and showing no signs of slowing down. While it's impossible to judge the whole of Return to Nuke 'Em High until Vol. 2 is released, Vol. 1 promises a lot of good things to come. The satire is merciless, the humor juvenile as ever, the gore plentiful, the nudity nonstop. The major difference this time is that Kaufman is working with his best cast to date, with Paredes and Corcoran going above and beyond the traditional Tromette roles to create believable characters in whom we are invested emotionally. The best thing about Return to Nuke 'Em High, Vol. 1 isn't that it's able to make us laugh or make us gag. It's that it's able to make us care.
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