The Toxic Avenger

THE TOXIC AVENGER (1984) is a classic of ‘80s smartass b-movies – the ones that carried the drive-in exploitation model of boobs and blood into the VHS era, but did it with a wink. It was directed by Michael Herz & Lloyd Kaufman, founders of Troma Entertainment. Kaufman had been peripherally involved with respected ‘70s classics including ROCKY, SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER and MY DINNER WITH ANDRE, but as a filmmaker and distributor he specialized in sex comedies (SQUEEZE PLAY, STUCK ON YOU!, THE FIRST TURN-ON!!) with the occasional horror movie (SILENT NIGHT BLOODY NIGHT, MOTHER’S DAY). But when he combined a little bit of those genres with super hero action he came up with a cult classic, a video hit, a figurehead for the studio, and a house style that he and other low budget smartasses would try to duplicate for decades with – according to my calculations – mostly poor results.

It’s a movie that’s crude in every meaning of the word, it’s in very poor taste, it also makes me laugh quite a bit, and it’s so dorky it feels kind of sweet and well-meaning, despite all kinds of ignorant jokes and requiring a “WARNING: THE TOXIC AVENGER CONTAINS SCENES OF EXTREME VIOLENCE” disclaimer at the beginning. Or maybe that’s all nostalgia because I loved this movie so much growing up, after me and my friends somehow managed to rent a copy while we were in middle school. (I seem to remember it being in an adults only section.) We’d never seen DEATH RACE 2000 and didn’t have driver’s licenses, so we thought the bad guys purposely running over people for “points” was one of the funniest things we’d ever seen.

It’s not super villains doing that. They’re just assholes. In addition to being serial thrill killers they’re the beautiful regulars at the Tromaville Health Club in Tromaville, New Jersey. The underdog hero is Melvin Ferd (Mark Torgl, THE FIRST TURN-ON!!), an impossibly clueless janitor at the club who Bozo (Gary Schneider, CLASS OF NUKE ‘EM HIGH), Slug (Robert Prichard, ALIEN SPACE AVENGER), Wanda (Jennifer Babtist, GOODBYE, NEW YORK) and Julie (Cindy Manion, “Dancing Coed,” BLOW OUT) have it in for. That’s partly because he’s a socially inept dork, partly because he’s super horny and watches some of them fucking in the locker room, and partly because he’s a clumsy idiot who accidentally dunks his filthy mop in their hot tub. “Have I got a plan to fix that mop boy’s wagon,” says Julie before she feigns sexual interest to get him to meet her in a dark room wearing a pink tutu. He’s hesitant about the outfit, but agrees to the meeting place saying, “That’ll be good for me too ‘cause I gotta clean the toilets in there anyway around that time.”

When the lights come on he’s surrounded by a crowd pointing and laughing because it’s not Julie he’s making out with, it’s a sheep. That they went through the trouble of putting a wig, bikini top and pearl necklace on this poor animal is representative of the attention-to-detail in their bullying.

Melvin is no Carrie White, he doesn’t have telekinetic powers, so his response is to flee from this humiliation, running straight through a window and falling into the open barrels of bubbling green toxic waste on the back of a truck that was parked out front by some coke snorting truckers in an earlier scene. In one of cinema’s greatest illustrations of human cruelty, Melvin rolls around on the sidewalk, his skin bubbling and literally on fire, and Bozo complains that “he’s fakin it” and “can’t take a joke.”

Like Spider-Man’s spider bite or the Incredible Hulk’s gamma radiation accident, this is The Toxic Avenger’s origin. Melvin runs home (still on fire) and his mom (Sarabel Levinson, no other credits) helpfully asks, “Melvin, dear – is anything the matter?” from outside the bathroom door as he screams in agony inside. He grows tall and muscular (now played by Mitch Cohen, “Leaning Against Wall/Angry Crowd at Door,” CLERKS), he has a low voice (dubbed by Kenneth Kessler, an assistant director and production manager on films going back to 1945’s APOLOGY FOR MURDER starring Hugh Beaumont), and a lumpy bald head with the left eye drooping down an inch or two lower than it used to. His theme song is Modest Mussorgsky’s “Night On Bald Mountain.”

The storyline of THE TOXIC AVENGER is as mutated as Melvin is – a strange hybrid of violent revenge movie and super hero tale. We have our list of bad people who wronged him, and yes he will end up killing them one by one. But Tromaville is also rife with rampaging maniacs and corruption, and Melvin finds himself using his new super strength to stand up to them.

There’s a particular type of character I associate with Troma movies, and I think they started here. They’re kinda like if the “creeps” from the DEATH WISH movies wandered to New Jersey and got even worse from all the pollution. Many of them have bizarre punk fashion, they all have their “acting style” knob stuck on “mega,” and they get off on senselessly terrorizing random innocents. Melvin begins his crime fighting career when he comes across Cigar Face (Dan Snow, TENEMENT), Knuckles (Doug Isbecque) and Nipples (Charles Lee Jr.) attempting to castrate Officer O’Clancy (Dick Martinsen, “Fireman” in both TURK 182 and *batteries not included, “Cop” in CIA II: TARGET ALEXA) for refusing a bribe.

Like the gang themselves, Melvin goes way, way overboard, poking out eyeballs, banging heads together so hard that brains are exposed, smashing faces with mops he conveniently finds in the alley where the violence takes place. Another incident happens when a trio of trademark Troma gunmen take everyone in a fast food Mexican restaurant hostage. Two of them have pretty normal street thug looks, while one wears red briefs over black tights, red suspenders over no shirt, and has his face painted half white, half black and red, like some wrestling villain or Baseball Fury. (These sorts of characters might have been influenced by the maniacs in the the MAD MAX movies, since THE ROAD WARRIOR had come out recently and has been cited by Kaufman as an inspiration for the car chase scene.)

These guys are so evil that they shoot a seeing eye dog and attempt to assault his owner, Sara (played very likably by Andree Maranda, a singer who was the financer’s girlfriend but reportedly auditioned better than everyone else in contention). So Melvin shows up, tears off one guy’s arm and slaps him with it, puts another guy in a deep fryer, etc. He brings Sara home and they later fall in love. It’s very stupid, but it helps to have a naive, sweet character to leaven all the Tromaville horribleness. Yes, I think we as a society have moved beyond the joke that she’s blind and thinks he’s beautiful when she feels his face, but we can still appreciate the very serious seeming montage of these two going on dates, set to a ballad called “Is This Love?” by Mark Hoffman and Race. (One thing that makes this different from other movies like it, including its own sequels, is that it has this very normal soundtrack of normal songs as if it’s a normal movie for normal people.)

This picture inspires me to mention that they really lucked out in having a good makeup design for Melvin. He’s gross but there’s something really cute about him. Most movies of this budget and level of seriousness do not manage to create such a simple, memorable or lovable non-human character. According to Kaufman’s 1998 book All I Need To Know About FILMMAKING I Learned From THE TOXIC AVENGER (written with James Gunn before he’d even done SCOOBY-DOO) he wanted him to look like a Picasso painting, and at first didn’t think makeup artist Jennifer Aspinall’s design was extreme enough. He credits her for rejecting his idea of having the skin around the mouth torn to expose the teeth, because she thought he should be able to smile. I think that was crucial!

(Kaufman writes that Aspinall went straight from Troma to the Metropolitcan Opera Company. After that she did makeup for Kaufman’s most hated movie STREET TRASH, but also major movies like STAR TREK, ONCE UPON A TIME …IN HOLLYWOOD, FORD V FERRARI and Gunn’s GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY.)

When Melvin comes after the bullies who made him a monster, though, it starts to feel like a slasher movie, and our friend here is the slasher. Yes, these are evil people – he finds Wanda in the sauna masturbating to Polaroids they took of a little boy after they purposely ran him over – but it’s still fucked up to see the hero drop her on hot coals and say “Ya hot ass!” It’s more SLEEPAWAY CAMP than super hero.

Later he seems to have gone out of control when he kills an old lady (Norma Pratt, “Hotel Rainbow Guest,” UNDER THE RAINBOW) at the dry cleaners. I mean, she’s being rude, but do you really have to crush her in the laundry press? The guy running the place comes back in and says, “Mrs. Haskell, what are you doing back there? You know customers are not allowed on that machine!” (I like the implication that she’s climbed up on there before and been told not to.)

The joke is that everybody thinks “The Monster Hero” has lost the plot and murdered an innocent person… until they discover that she was the “head of an international white slavery ring.” Melvin has gained something sort of like Spidey-Sense (called Tromatons in the sequel) that draws him toward evil-doers, so even though he didn’t know why he was killing her, that was why he was killing her. I think about this surprisingly often; at the risk of definitely being too serious in a review of THE TOXIC AVENGER, there are alot of times in the U.S. when vigilantes or cops murder people and then the right wing party here tries to find out if the victim turned out to have a criminal past and if they did they use that as proof that it was okay to execute them on the street for unrelated reasons. Tromatons!

I don’t know if somebody who wasn’t paying attention to these movies in the ‘80s could understand what I’m about to say, but at that time, at that age, Troma seemed like part of the counterculture. They portrayed making low budget gore and sex movies as a rebellious social movement like punk rock. They were taunting the prudes and censors of the time with their extreme content, laughing at squares by being weirdos, and making the P.T. Barnum shamelessness of their business model part of the joke. (Though only in retrospect can I laugh about renting FAT GUY GOES NUTZOID and finding out it was kind of a drama.)

According to Kaufman’s book, he and Herz were inspired to do the movie because of a Variety headline they thought was ridiculous announcing the death of horror. Since working on ROCKY they’d thought of doing a horror movie set in a health club. (This was, of course, several years before KILLER WORKOUT and DEATH SPA.) They developed it under the title HEALTH CLUB HORROR, but couldn’t figure out how to make it work until Kaufman suddenly realized they could make it work better as a comedy.

That health club setting is one of the best things about THE TOXIC AVENGER that didn’t carry into its sequels. It makes fun of the fitness craze of the time, basing the story at this gym with this clique of musclebound jerks and their hot girlfriends who are bullies by day and serial killers by night. Wanda spends some of her free time in the sauna wearing a bikini and high heels and feeling her biceps. Bozo frequently flips out and blames his issues on being “a stressed person.”

Kaufman and Herz are happy to exploit the base appeal of these shiny, sculpted bodies, opening with a joke-infused montage of muscles, butts and boobs during a variety of workouts. The songs are perfect because they would work just as well in a sincere fitness movie, especially “Body Talk” by Sandy Farina, who played “Strawberry Fields” in SERGEANT PEPPER’S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND and wrote Barbra Streisand’s “Kiss Me in the Rain.”

“Hot sweat going down your face /
Muscles working all the time /
So slick, skin tight /
I’m gonna make that body mine”

Ultimately the movie makes a joke of this obsession with physical perfection. Melvin transforms into a muscleman, but with a grotesquely deformed face and boils all over his arms, living in a literal junkyard in a shack made of garbage and wearing a filthy bodysuit and burnt tutu. And it’s very clearly the movie’s point of view that Melvin is much cooler than anyone at that gym.

Of course, they violate that ethos by throwing in a bunch of fat jokes. Even though we’re meant to sympathize with skinny idiot Melvin for being picked on, we’re also supposed to laugh at the heavyset woman who eats while working out, and see Mayor Belgoody (Pat Ryan Jr., MANNEQUIN)’s obesity and sandwich devouring as a symbol of his monstrousness. There were plenty of things I didn’t agree with even at the time that stick out even more now: gay stereotypes, blind jokes, and I think Melvin does a non-sequitur Asian stereotype voice at one point? One of the bad guys, Nipples, is a very non-passing crossdresser, which I think in those days (maybe inspired by John Waters) was often meant more as fun weirdness than to demean the actual people who live that way, but at best it’s treating them as sideshow freaks.

And yet under all that ignorance there’s a (not necessarily entirely intentional) satirical vision of the world that’s still easy to get behind. Tromaville is “The Toxic Chemical Capital of the World,” because all of New York’s harmful waste is dumped there. The mayor is a gangster who parties all day, runs the local drug trade and bribes the police force. The chief of police (David Weiss) has a German accent, says things like “Ze orders have been given! It is our destiny to follow ze orders!” and has about three different slips that indicate he’s an actual Nazi. Yet Officer O’Clancy, said to be the only clean cop left in Tromaville, insists “People can’t go around doing things just because they’re right. You gotta leave that up to the mayor and the police chief!”

Having some dork fall into chemicals and turn into a monster who savagely murders the parties responsible for all this (“Let’s see if ya have any guts!” he says before pulling out the mayor’s intestines) is probly not a viable method of reforming the system, at least not one we can repeat in the real world. But turning some well-meaning loser into a hero that the community can rally behind, that’s not bad. I still like this movie.

This entry was posted on Wednesday, February 23rd, 2022 at 1:55 pm and is filed under Comedy/Laffs, Comic strips/Super heroes, Monster, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

16 Responses to “The Toxic Avenger”

  1. Fun fact: I saw this for the first time at an actual drive-in. And I remember wondering what the people innocently going in and out of the McDonalds next door* must of thought.

    *The screen was fully visible from the McDonalds parking lot. When I was small, I always hoped I would catch a peek at a breast from some terrible Chuck Norris movie while I was dining. Actually, I hoped that when I was larger too.

  2. Flying Guillotine

    February 23rd, 2022 at 5:58 pm

    This really is a wonderful film. Lightning in the bottle.

  3. Jojo, here’s hoping that drive-in and McDonald’s were both still there 20 years later; sounds like the perfect venue for POULTRYGEIST.

  4. Funny thing is as a kid I didn’t really understand the difference between Troma movies and real movies. I held Toxic Avenger in the same regard as Terminator 2. The early ‘80s film look probably contributed to that. They get more divergent over the years.

  5. For some reason the movie is known in Germany as ATOMIC HERO. That’s all I have to say. Never saw it. Honestly, I don’t think I ever saw a Troma movie. Except CANNIBAL: THE MUSICAL, but that was only distributed by them.

  6. Now that I think of it, while I knew some of the video covers or titles from magazines or video stores, the first time I actually learned in detail about Troma, was in the late 90s/early 00s, when the sorely missed alternative music video channel VIVA ZWEI had a really cool movie show, that at one hand informed about all kinds of mainstream releases, but also showed classic G….house trailers and shit. One episode was a Troma special, that included an interview with Lloyd Kaufman at a Troma event, where he was surrounded by their most famous characters. (“Say hi to Germany, Toxy! Oh look, there is THE KILLER CONDOM, he actually is German!”)

    God, I miss this station and its shows…

  7. Limey note- The version available in the UK for twenty years was pre-cut by the distributor by a whopping 7 minutes. Nobody quite knows why, it’s true that this was during the “video nasties” era and the BBFC was pretty scissor-happy in general, and while some stuff definitely would have been cut (I understand there’s a sequence with nunchucks for one thing) it’s unlikely all of it would have been. It’s speculated they were hoping to get a 15+ certificate rather than an 18+, but if so that was unsuccessful as this was still an 18+. It was eventually released uncut in the UK, but that was a few years after I saw it.

    Despite all that editing, I kind of enjoyed it, but, if I’m honest, I think I liked the idea of liking this more than I actually liked it. I’ve never seen 2 or 3 (well I’ve seen the start of 3, the video store bit), but as I mentioned on here before, I watched CITIZEN TOXIE a couple of summers ago and mentally cringed thinking of all the mental gymnastics I would have gone through about 15 years earlier to convince myself I liked it and wasn’t offended, and when you think about it it’s the offended squares who are the real bigots etc. Obviously that one was meant to push boundaries even for Toxie/Troma fans, but at the end of the day I’m just not sure the whole Troma is was really for me.

    I didn’t really watch TOXIC CRUSADERS as a kid, but I did get a Toxie figure as a birthday present once. Still have it somewhere.

  8. Yeah, there definitely was a sort of illicit vibe to watching this movie when I was growing up – it felt very transgressive as middleschoolers to rent this, or, say, a Lamberto Bava film, in a way other 18+ films -even porn- didn’t. They were grimy as hell, they had a sense of humor about themselves (to various degrees, I guess) and they were shooting for over-the-top bad taste which I think will be something that forever endears them to 14-year-olds of all ages.
    Weirdly, I kind of remember the Abrahams/Zucker movies having a similar feel, especially Top Secret, though that was gone by The Naked Gun. (I liked it lots, obviously, it just didn’t feel the same way.)

  9. psychic_hits: Unfortunately, like most drive-ins, it’s now a Wal-Mart

  10. We watched this at a friend’s birthday party when we were about 14. It was a mix of boys and girls and the dad walked into the room and stood behind the couch watching during the masturbation in the sauna/death scene. Never in the history of the world has there been a more silent and frozen room. He finally said, “Jesus, Rob, what movie did you pick?” Rob was not his son. I’m sure he just picked a kid randomly, having known most of us all of our lives. Rob started stuttering out denials and the dad just laughed and walked out.

  11. I tried to watch this with some friends once, but I don’t think I made it to the end. I do appreciate that this, of all things, was part of the “let’s turn this R-rated movie into a children’s toy/cartoon” craze of the late ’80s and early ’90s. I had almost all the Toxic Crusaders toys, at least one storybook, several issues of the Toxic Avenger and Toxic Crusaders comics from Marvel (Wikipedia: “Issue #8 was the only mainstream US comic book ever published to carry an ‘Approved by the Comic Code Authority’ stamp while at the same time featuring a man sat on a toilet defecating.”), etc. So I was just surprised to find out the animated series only lasted *13* episodes. Maybe I just have all that stuff because my family has always been cheap and all that merch was on clearance.

    The mention of Lloyd Kaufman hating Street Trash is also interesting, because up to that point in the review, the plot description reminded me of that movie.

    Fun fact: There is a drive-in near me which still plays old movies on 35mm, and Lloyd Kaufman did stop by last year, and I think he’ll be returning this year. He’s like the Stan Lee of trash cinema. Even though I’m not a huge fan of the aesthetic, I appreciate the gumption.

  12. I remember a promotional event here for the release of POULTRYGEIST on DVD. On stage Lloyd Kaufman made it official that, yes, he had sold the rights to remake THE TOXIC AVENGER, people booed (not necessarily him, but the idea of Hollywood’s filthy paws on our beloved “counterculture” stuff), and he was like, what’s the matter, do you think your copies of the original will be erased when the remake comes out? Don’t you want Troma studios to get shitloads of Hollywood money to make more films? It helped me mellow out on the idea of remakes/belated sequels. I mean obviously we didn’t need any sequel to T2, or a ROBOCOP remake, or BLADE not being played by Wesley Snipes, but it doesn’t “ruin” the originals, so ultimately no need to get so upset about the existence of shittier versions.
    Anyway, it’s been almost 15 years and sadly I don’t think Troma has used those shitloads of Hollywood money for something as memorable as POULTRYGEIST since.
    I wonder if the Hollywood remake with Peter Dinklage as Toxie is still happening.

  13. I saw POULTRYGEIST in the theater twice, the second time with Lloyd in attendance. He gave me a copy of the soundtrack album for being a repeat offender, even after I corrected him in front of the whole crowd when he said POULTRYGEIST is a movie about zombie chickens. It’s not. It’s a movie about chicken zombies. I’m glad we could clear that up.

    He also grabbed my friend’s ass but that story gets less and less awesome with every passing year.

    I don’t know if they were worth all those Hollywood remake millions, but I really enjoyed RETURN TO NUKE EM HIGH and RETURN TO RETURN TO NUKE EM HIGH. I love that Lloyd is the world’s biggest cynic but he always goes for the romance in his directorial works. I’m more of a fan of everything he did post-TROMEO & JULIET, which is when he got both more ambitious and more sincere. My favorite might be TERROR FIRMER but I’ll never pass up an actual Lloyd Kaufman joint. I’m really looking forward to SHAKESPEARE SHITSTORM, if it ever actually comes out.

  14. I just wanna give a shout-out to Rhonda Shear on USA’s “UP” All Night for introducing me and knows how many other youngsters to the glory of The Toxic Avenger, albeit in edited form. I didn’t have much, if any access to cable tv in my youth but somehow I ended up with a tape of an Up All Night double feature of the first two films, edited for television. I wore that sucker out, too. And when I finally saw them unedited? Ho-lee cats.

  15. grimgrinningchris

    February 26th, 2022 at 7:54 am

    Speaking of overly gory horror comedies, I hope you’re planning on seeing and reviewing Studio 666. If it didn’t register, it’s directed by my good friend BJ McDonnell, who directed what you thought was the best of the Hatchet movies. His first wide theatrical release as director.

  16. Chris – I noticed it was him. I definitely plan to see it, I’m not sure if it will be in theaters or not. It might be. Looks fun.

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