[23 May 2010]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
While it was never consistent in overall quality, Troma has always been known for its brash, unapologetic devotion to artistic vision. If you had an idea, no matter how screwed up or unsane it seemed, Lloyd Kaufman and the gang would celebrate your right to express it. Better yet, if they had the available cash, they would help you realize your most outrageous, ambitious cinematic dreams. As both production house and distributor for some of most outrageous and original films of the last 40 years, their fiery independence and slavish devotion to entertainment has definitely resulted in some craven cult classics - and there is no better example of the studio’s slash and burn brilliance than the iconic ‘80s interscholastic splatter satire, The Class of Nuke ‘Em High.
Originally the idea of Troma staff editor Richard W. Haines, the eventual collaboration with Kaufman (who claimed the novice was “in over his head” and needed his help during production) has become on of the studio’s staples, a franchise that spawned two sequels and talk of a post-millennial remake. Its plot is a combination of No Nukes environmental screed, hopped up teen sex comedy, creepy B-monster movie splatter, and the traditional Toxic Avenger style schlock. Unlike other movies from its era, however, The Class of Nuke ‘Em High is buried in unbelievable Greed Decade iconography. From the Honor Society turned proto-punks to the spandex, mall hair, and surgically unenhanced chests of the females, you’d swear Ronald Reagan was still in office guiding Iran-Contra.
When an accidental overflow of radioactive waste from the nearby Tromaville Nuclear Power Plant seeps into the substrata, the students of Tromaville High School start to feel the effects. Mostly, the unusual illnesses come from smoking the dope pushed by the violent gang known as The Cretins. The delinquents buy the pot from some worker at the Chernobyl-in-waiting facility. When cheerleader Chrissy and BMOG Warren partake of some of said tainted marijuana, they begin to mutate. He changes into a hulking, rampaging fiend. She instantly gets pregnant and gives “birth” to a monstrous slug creature. As they try to figure out what happened, the ‘baby’ finds refuge in the underground waste pools. Soon, it grows into a massive being, looking to the student body to feed its need for blood.
In the long history of Troma masterworks, few are as outright successful (and satisfying) as The Class of Nuke ‘Em High. At first, one can argue that it’s little more than a Toxic Avenger update, the cute couple at the center of the narrative taking the place of chump turned champion Melvin Junko and the Cretins substituting for the health club bullies responsible for the environmental crusader. Add in the strong political message (the Nuclear Power Plant personnel give a new meaning to the word ‘incompetent’) and the last act arrival of one of the company’s best creatures, and you’ve got something worthy of wearing the Toxie badge of honor. But in truth, The Class of Nuke ‘Em High is its own unique experience. Because of the rock and roll dedication to period specific culture, as well as the satiric takes on other elements of the era, we wind up with a time capsule that entertains as well as corrupting your cinematic sensibilities.
You can really see Kaufman’s influence here, the over the top cartoonish characterizations, the middle class mediocrity of the citizenry and the setting. As with many Troma movies, The Class of Nuke ‘Em High highlights the last vestiges of urban suburbia malaise. Chrissy and Warren are not seen as cool or revered. Instead, the various animalistic gang members and hormonally overcharged supporting players come across as far more fun. Even better, while we root for our hero and heroine to succeed, we also want to witness someone getting splattered. Teachers, administrators, bumbling bureaucrats - they are all in Class‘s line of fire. Like the great filmmaker he is, Kaufman knows how to disguise his moralistic diatribe in gallons of grue. While we are barfing over the ample arterial spray, we are deliberating the pros and cons of the subversive message being presented.
Indeed, as recently as the post-millennial masterpiece Poultrygeist, Troma has remained steadfast in its ‘significance among the slaughter’ ideals. Unlike other examples from the genre, they imbue the medium with a philosophy that’s weird, a little whacked out, but wholly warranted. What’s perhaps most amazing about The Class of Nuke ‘Em High, however, is its dopey desire to constantly go for broke. While it doesn’t delve into the smutty scatology of other company product, it pushes the boundaries of socially acceptable behavior and beliefs. The most inspired example of this is The Cretins. As Mensa members gone mental, we laugh every time a victim laments their former high IQ status. As with many mainstream ideals perverted by this film, their presence provides a perfect illustration of where the world was - and where it was definitely heading.
As part of the new “transfer to Blu-ray” policy adopted by Kaufman et al, the latest version of The Class of Nuke ‘Em High looks amazing. Much better than previous editions, as a matter of fact. The colors are crisp and bright and the level of detail (some of the sloppier make-up effects are now quite obvious) is intense. While the 1.85:1 1080p widescreen image won’t win any reference quality awards, it does provide a near definitive version of this low budget beauty. Even better, many of the best DVD bonus features have been ported over here, including some interesting “lost” scenes, a “picture” commentary with co-stars Robert and Jennifer Prichard, and a wonderful alternate narrative by Kaufman himself. While a little stilted at times (he’s definitely out to sell with sarcasm), he does dish the dirt about Haines’ issues, his involvement, and the problems of producing high quality art on a shoestring budget. As with most Troma product, the added content really helps flesh out our understanding of the film.
Still, the best aspect of The Class of Nuke ‘Em High is the celluloid snapshot it provides of a time and place from the past. No one would call the film dated, but its use of certain fashion and cultural lynchpins sure keep it locked alongside the birth of MTV and the rise of the repugnant Moral Majority. Besides, it’s a pretty effective piece of cheese, with a last act beastie that stands as one of Troma’s most accomplished and compelling. With its combination of creepshow and juvenile delinquency dementia, it’s easy to see why this film spawned a series. Almost 25 years later, The Class of Nuke ‘Em High remains a fabulous, if often forgotten, aspect of Lloyd Kaufman’s corporate creative legacy. It deserves to be rediscovered.