I was thinking about STREET TRASH (1987) after I revisited the TOXIC AVENGER series a couple months back. I had seen the movie as a teen and all I really remembered was a part where some dude is taking a piss and his dick gets ripped off and a bunch of guys play keep away with it. Of course, any movie would be proud to have a memorable scene like that, and most filmmakers would tip their hat to it, just out of professionalism. But it is widely known that TOXIC AVENGER director Lloyd Kaufman hates STREET TRASH and the people behind it. I heard him grumble about it at a book signing, and he refers to it sometimes in his books, without really going into specifics. People ask him about it in interviews, but he’ll just make a joke. The best explanation seems to be that he thinks it’s a rip off of the Troma style. Also, there was apparently some incident involving its “little shit” director Jim Muro on an episode of The Morton Downey, Jr. Show.
It definitely traffics in a similar in-your-face repulsiveness/taboo-violating to the Troma movies. It takes place among a community of homeless alcoholics in Brooklyn and uncomfortably blurs the line between offensive caricature and (very mildly) sympathetic portrayal. I can’t think of a character in the movie that’s not intentionally repellent, but the movie at least recognizes that they’re up against a cruel and unjust world.
The plot, to the extent that there is one, involves a liquor store owner (M. D’Jango Krunch, THE SWEET LIFE) putting out a case of very old, spoiled wine called Tenafly Viper that causes horrible deaths for the people who purchase or steal it. In between drinking deaths, various people behave awfully, yell at and degrade each other. Warning: there is a gang rape scene. I could’ve done without it.
This is gonna sound stupid, but by far my favorite thing about this movie is its color palette. The world is dirty and scummy but the deaths are candy-colored. There is an amazing first death where a man is drinking on the toilet and it causes him to melt, dripping bright blue paint, and later yellow. His body shrivels until he’s so fragile that both of his feet just break off, which makes him lose his balance and start to fall off the toilet, so he reaches for something to hold onto and grabs a chain hanging down above him. Which turns out to be one of those old fashioned pull chain toilet flushers.
So yes, this incredible melting man manages to flush himself down a toilet. It’s so gross but kind of pretty because of the colors. Stylish artistic interpretations of it appear on some of the poster and cover art, with a sense of design that, it’s fair to say, is much hipper than what Troma had to offer. They marketed it more as the druggie midnight movie type of cult movie (quotes on promotional materials compare it to ERASERHEAD and John Waters) than the drive-in type. The gore effects are very high quality for a low budget movie like this, but it’s that edge of pop art sensibility that makes them special. This frame below might as well be an art installation!
The second death happens to a guy on a fire escape talking to a cat. He melts into green slime that drips down on some yuppies who happen to be walking below while on their lunch break or something. That causes one of them to melt into yellow slime in front of a bunch of onlookers. Crazy day at the office today. A cop named Bill (actual ex-cop Bill Chepil) also sees it and starts investigating what’s going on with all these colorful melt attacks.
I’m not sure if you can say there’s a protagonist, but if there is it’s Fred (Mike Lackey, also a special makeup effects artist on this and I WAS A TEENAGE ZOMBIE, then I guess a Marvel Comics writer in the ‘90s). He lives with his younger brother Kevin (Mark Sferrazza) in a house made of tire piles. Kevin has a bed and a table with some books and Spider-Man and Incredible Hulk banks.
He also has a friendship with and/or crush on Wendy (Jane Arakawa), who works at the junkyard. She actually seems cool other than her inappropriate relationship with someone I believe is a minor. Unfortunately we have to see her get assaulted by her disgusting boss (Pat Ryan, the mayor in THE TOXIC AVENGER – another possible motive for Kaufman’s feud).
The villain of the movie besides the booze is Bronson (Vic Noto). He’s a crazed Vietnam vet who lives in the skeleton of an old semi truck in a pile of dirt in the junkyard. He’s frequently having nasty sex with and/or punching his skinny, dirt-covered girlfriend (Nicole Potter). He considers the junkyard to be his domain and has a bunch of other vets as his “men” like the war is still going. I don’t like him.
Noto is one of the only actors in the movie with a real acting career. He had already played uncredited creeps in VIGILANTE and DEATH WISH 3, would go on to be a biker in the “No Sleep till Brooklyn” video, a bartender in TOUGHER THAN LEATHER, he was in INNOCENT BLOOD, he was a bounty hunter on Homicide: Life on the Street, he was in an episode of Daredevil, etc. But he was hired after filming already started, to replace a fired actor, and says he had/has no idea what the character is supposed to be. (And this is probly the most understandable character in the movie. The crazy guy who rules the junkyard.)
It feels less like a story than a series of incidents and sometimes confounding encounters between these odd characters. It’s not very involving, but there’s something really effective about the rawness of the acting and locations, and at least on the remastered blu-ray there is something beautiful about its unadulterated ugliness. I mean, look at this frame of a guy climbing out of a hatchback after enjoying a modest amount of beer. Somehow it’s a gorgeous shot.
But it would be torturous to get through this movie without the gooey, drippy, neon-colored bodily integrity failures. A guy explodes and splatters blood and guts covering an entire car. One of his hands sizzles on the pavement. Fred avenges a wrong by Wizzy (Bernard Perlman) by tricking him into stealing his Viper, so Wizzy’s throat splits, he starts puking, and purple, blue and yellow goo starts dripping out of him. Nickelodeon must’ve been so jealous of all the slime in this movie.
And it definitely ends on an exclamation point. Fred is fighting Bronson to the death and losing, but Kevin props up an oxygen tank on some tires, knocks the top off with a rock and causes it to launch like a missile. It blasts the motherfucker’s head entirely off while he’s holding Fred in the air with one hand. There is an absolutely astounding shot with the still-upright headless body spewing fluids in the foreground as the head drops to the earth in the background.
I mean, holy shit – what a death, what a shot.
Then there’s a suitably dumb joke that Wendy runs and leaps over the (animatronic) severed head and it smiles because it got a look up her skirt. That’s STREET TRASH for you.
Wikipedia claims that STREET TRASH “is one of a number of films known as ‘melt movies,’” but the source they cite does not tell us what else is included in this alleged genre or movement. And I’d like to know.
I’m unclear which character this is, but one credited as “Obnoxious Kid” is played by Ian Bernardo, who apparently is now one of those reality TV quasi-celebrities. I guess he was on So You Think You Can Dance? and American Idol doing really ridiculous acts and being annoying to the judges, so he proudly calls himself “the most hated contestant.” Way to go, I suppose.
More of a success story is Tony Darrow, a night club singer who made his acting debut in STREET TRASH playing the mobster Nick Duran. Allegedly Martin Scorsese saw STREET TRASH (!) and encouraged him to audition for GOODFELLAS, in which he ended up playing Sonny Bunz, the owner of the Bamboo Lounge. Since then he’s been in a whole bunch of Woody Allen movies, mob comedies like ANALYZE THIS and MICKEY BLUE EYES, and on The Sopranos as Larry Boy Barese.
Unfortunately, I guess Darrow also did some real gangstering with the Gambino crime family, because he was convicted of ordering the maiming of a man who owed money to a loan shark. He only received six months of house arrest, and then continued to act in KILL THE IRISHMAN, THE BRAWLER and other stuff.
One of the only names on the credits I was familiar with was writer Roy Frumkes, because he’s the guy who had the foresight to shoot behind-the-scenes footage during the making of DAWN OF THE DEAD, which became DOCUMENT OF THE DEAD (1980). He met Muro because he was his teacher at New York’s School of Visual Arts. He claims that Kurosawa’s DODES-KA-DEN was an influence on STREET TRASH. He’s also notable for having a writing credit on THE SUBSTITUTE!
Unfortunately, in 2018 “an investigation found that he had violated the school’s sexual misconduct policy,” so he was removed from teaching at the School of Visual Arts, according to The New York Times. (Warning: The comments on this article are a nightmare.)
At least one student had alleged that he “told her in graphic detail about a student he said had gone to his apartment and had sex with him. Then, she said, he added that if she wanted a recommendation she should visit him there.” Other former students quoted in the article talk about Frumkes inviting them to his apartment, calling them at their dorms, and commenting on their breasts.
The other name on the credits I knew was Bryan Singer, another student of Frumkes who worked on STREET TRASH as a grip. Only eight years later he was directing THE USUAL SUSPECTS, and then X-MEN, SUPERMAN RETURNS, BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY, etc.
Unfortunately… well, you know. Alleged prolific rapist. Seems to be a total monster. Some of the makers of STREET TRASH are really making a show of the human race being garbage, as depicted.
But what became of Kaufman’s talk show nemesis, director Jim Muro? Well, this is one of those things that I thought might be a mistake when I first saw it on IMDb, but he went on to become James Cameron’s favorite steadicam operator (working on THE ABYSS, T2, TRUE LIES and TITANIC) and then director of photography for many mainstream movies, including OPEN RANGE, best picture winner CRASH, ROLL BOUNCE, RUSH HOUR 3, and PARKER. He also directs lots of TV shows including Southland, Longmire and SEAL Team. Maybe he can bring back STREET TRASH as a one-hour procedural drama.
He operated steadicam on STREET TRASH too, but the d.p. was David Sperling (THE BOOGEY MAN, TOXIC ZOMBIES, additional camera on THE DRILLER KILLER). Though the movie is not as entertaining as Troma’s best (by which I mean THE TOXIC AVENGER I & II), it’s way better looking than anything I’ve seen by them. So I guess I shouldn’t be surprised this guy turned out to be good with cameras.
Don’t worry – no “unfortunately” for Muro so far. He was 21 at the time, which sort of explains the content and attitude of the movie. Reportedly he distances himself from it now because he’s a born again Christian, but you wouldn’t have to be religious to be a little embarrassed of it. I’m embarrassed of 20-year old reviews where I use the r-word. This is more extreme.
I can’t really recommend STREET TRASH to most humans and I don’t expect to ever watch it again, but I did get something out of it. Everything on screen is so vulgar and awful it starts to seem like it constitutes a world view. It’s a neighborhood that verges on post-apocalyptic because it seems to consist entirely of filthy junkyards, graffiti walls, garbage-strewn streets, dank liquor stores and check cashers. Everyone’s clothes and skin are dirty, most people are foul and abusive. It’s not as exaggerated as THE DARK BACKWARD, and is more naturalistically lit and photographed, but it’s a real bleak vision of modern life. I choose to interpret the brightly colored ooze that marks one’s exit from this world as a celebration of merciful liberation from a living Hell. But I’m sure the aftertaste of that Viper is terrible and tends to ruin the moment.