[12 July 2013]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
If Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn was the ‘unofficial’ beginning of the horror comedy, Jim Muro’s amazing Street Trash was its ultimate first phase culmination. Yes, it was significantly less scary than the future mainstream hit makers goofball gore epic. It also contained a bit more meaningful social commentary than Raimi’s revisionist ride to a creepy cabin in the woods. But when film student Muro asked his instructor Roy Frumkes for some advice on how to expand a short film they had made into an actual feature, the result was a collaboration that crafted one of the best, more baffling entries in the then fledgling fright subgenre ever. Today, every joke filled creepshow looks like a combination of Dead and Trash. Back then, there was absolutely nothing like it.
Inspired by the homeless that frequented the less savory sections of Manhattan and aided by some astonishing special effects from Jennifer Aspinall and her crew, the story centered around a skid row liquor store specializing in cheap hooch for the transient population. When a rotting crate of something called Tenafly Viper is unearthed and sold to said bums, they begin melting in a kind of horrific Technicolor bleed out.
A rogue cop (Bill Chepill) investigating an incident in the area, comes across one of these confusing deaths and is convinced it has something to do with a group of tramps living in a junkyard next to an auto graveyard. Among these hobos is a violent, delusion ex-Vietnam vet (Vic Noto) who leads one group of the dirty and disenfranchised, and two brothers - Fred (Mike Lackey) and Kevin (Mark Sferrazza) - who disagree about their lowly lot in life. As the Viper works its way through this clique it leaves a pool of rainbow repugnance in its wake.
It’s safe to say that Street Trash is and always will be a true post-modern macabre masterpiece. It is a ferocious freak show of a film, a craven carnival barker’s wettest dream in which various incongruous elements - Vietnam, necrophilia, the homeless, alcoholism, scatology, gore, romance, mob comedy, and splatter filled slapstick - come together to form an unlikely fear film fiesta. It offers F/X so amazing that Aspinall et.al rival the true gods like Smith, Savini, and Bottin, and uses the decaying parts of NYC to offer up a chilling portrait of social disinterest. It’s a triumph of DIY filmmaking, the reason so many mainstream moviemakers argued for the growing importance of the homemade auteur and their camcorder creativity.
But Street Trash is no bargain basement production. Sure, the acting is occasionally amateurish and the scripting unnecessarily obvious, but for the most part, Muro and his newly purchased Stedi-cam create a seamless bridge between the current crop of Cineplex crap and their own sublime schlock. Many of the ‘80s most mediocre fright flicks wish they were as wonderful as Street Trash, even if they could better it in production value and plot viability. In his commentary track (one of two on the new, stellar looking Blu-ray release) Muro states that most of the narrative is just linking between “melts” - those moments when our bums take a swig of Tenafly Viper and start their personal percolation into putrescence - but we don’t care. When you’ve got golden stuff like doorman James Lorinz squaring off against the ‘Don of D-bags’ Tony Darrow, who needs straight storytelling.
Indeed, most of Street Trash plays like a collection of clever ideas barely held together by Muro’s talent, Frumkes’ clever conceits, and the whole film’s flawless premise. Filmmakers such as David Cronenberg and George Romero have used the whole social sickness idea as a means of generating fear (Shivers and Rabid for the former, The Crazies for the latter) but neither found the right combination of buffoonery and bloodletting that this movie manages. Beside, none of their efforts are as imminently quotable. Even years after seeing the original VHS version of the film, yours truly still remembers to put raisins in his hooch to cure constipation, to call bigoted old ladies by less than flattering names, and to reference every guy in a god-awful service industry uniform as “Bullwinkle.”
The images, as well, are equally hard to forget. The first melt, featuring a bum literally flushing himself down the toilet, stands as a symbolic, signature kill. Similarly, when main villain Wizzy finally dies, his elongated death mouth grows more and more terrifying as his body slowly liquefies. Granted, you have to put up with a decapitated penis gag that goes on a bit too long and the whole rogue cop element seems superfluous, as if the narrative needed a way to move from point to point to point without resorting to a vignette like approach. On the other hand, the film is still a winner, a sometimes forgotten entry in the highly influential merging of screams and snickers. Street Trash is terrific. It’s time for a new generation to see what all those glorified geek accolades are all about.
As for the Blu-ray release itself, it’s magnificent. Synapse even held back the release a bit to make sure the transfer was timed properly, and it shows. The visuals are crisp, clean, and full of detail while the aural situation offers up easy to understand dialogue and sickening sound effects. We are treated to a bevy of bonus features including the aforementioned feature length discussions, a two hour making-of documentary, various featurettes, and interviews. It’s all aimed at added appreciation to what is already a worthy effort in and of itself. In fact, if you don’t adore Street Trash, your horror film fan credentials need to be checked for possible fraud. It’s the reason many of us fell in love with the genre to begin with. In its troubling multi-hued grotesqueries and sly social satire, it remains a true original.