[24 January 2014]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
It seems hard to believe that Troma’s last “official” film was 2006’s Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead. Sure, several dozen films have come out under the indie company’s label, including Darren Lynn Bousman’s remake of Mother’s Day and Astron-6’s sensationally psychotic Father’s Day. But if you want the real deal, if you’re looking for the lunatic fringe vision of none other than Troma founder and figurehead, Lloyd Kaufman, you’ve got to go back to that aforementioned splatter social commentary to get your freak show fix…that is, until now.
The King of Crazy Crap Cinema is back with Return to Nuke ‘Em High, a reboot of a popular Troma franchise from the ‘80s that brings the blood drenched boobage of the past into the new millennium, complementing Poultrygeist‘s fast food satire with a similar level of artistry, activism, and anarchy.
The plot, which is really nothing more than a set-up for the second installment (like Tarantino’s Kill Bill, according to the Troma Team), sees a rich girl named Lauren (Catherine Cocoran) arriving at the newly revamped Tromaville High School. The site of a previous problem involving a nearby nuclear power plant, waste oozing into the water supply, and the sudden transformation of the student body into nogoodnik violent punk Cretins (and the development of a radioactive mutant Hellbeast), the institution of higher learning is now bordered by an organic foodstuffs concern, though they are still using questionable methods to make their product.
Sure enough, the taco “filling” they are forcing on the student population is producing similar results as before. Before we know it, the Glee club turns into a bunch of Cretins while Lauren hooks up with an angry working class gal named Chrissy (Asta Paredes). Both become infected, but only our wealthy lead is left with a beastie bun in the oven.
While that description seems rather basic, there is much more to Return to Nuke ‘Em High than slick Sappho lovin’ and a bunch of made-up mutants going gonzo on the populace. As with many of their more recent releases, Troma is highly skilled at the homage, the callback, and their own oddball history. The movie starts off with a recap featuring scenes from the first film.
We then get nods to the company’s output past, tweaks of cinematic classics, and as usual, more of Kaufman’s complex political agenda. We are dealing with corporate greed here, institutionalized debasement of human dignity, and a plethora of LBGT and strictly female (or as Troma puts it, “gyno”) issues. Simultaneously exploiting and expanding on its ideals, Return to Nuke ‘Em High sets itself up as an indictment of various contemporary cruelties while adding the slapstick splatter the brand is obviously known for.
The opening sex sequence between a couple of kids in the janitor’s subterranean room ends in a literal meltdown of the canoodling couple while the antics of the Cretins typically ends in someone dying in a horrible and bloody fashion. There’s a fantastic shout out to Brian DePalma’s
>Carrie as well as countless critiques of the whole green/natural approach to business BS.
Kaufman himself is perfect as the purveyor of the new free range (and irradiated) vittles, and whenever he is onscreen, one is reminded of his memorable performances in Terror Firmer, as well as countless indie cameos. As a corporate shill, as the face of what Troma is in 2014, he remains staunchly iconoclastic and funny as Hell. He also represents that last of a dying breed, a man who believes that film, and its role as art, should be preserved, not passed over to studio suits who only understand the bottom line, not the beauty of creativity and craftsmanship.
Granted, this is coming from a guy who once had a character die from explosive diarrhea, but Kaufman is indeed a true pioneer, a myth in his own movie mire. The fortunes of Troma typically rise and fall on his working whims, and with Return to Nuke ‘Em High you can see a shift back toward countercultural dominance. Poultrygeist, and its lack of mainstream acceptance, almost bankrupted the company, but like many things in the media, it bounced back. Now, new generations are discovering Troma thanks to its YouTube Channel, various streaming and On Demand options, and oddly enough, Kaufman’s own campaign in favor of file sharing and bit torrents. Just when you think you can count them out, the moviegoing public, eager for something new and unusual, drags the near 40 year old entity back in.
Because he offers so much work to so many untried talents, Kaufman’s efforts can occasionally come across as glorified student films. Return to Nuke ‘Em High has a bit of this, but it’s also biting, offering takedowns of subjects that deserve more than mere NPR mention. But this doesn’t take away from its anarchic insanity, a spirit subsisting of a bunch of novices given run of a movie making mill and coming up with comedy and carnage that few in the “normal” film business can generate. It’s clear that, along with Sam Raimi, Troma is the entity most responsible for infusing horror with a real sense of humor. Previous entries from the company may have moderated between the laughs and legitimate scares, but for now, it’s more buffoonery than bloodshed (though there’s plenty of that as well).
Naturally, the narrative leaves off just as things are getting good, pursuant to Kaufman’s claim of being “inspired” by Tarantino and his two part martial arts epic, meaning that some will feel ripped off, wondering why they wasted 90 minutes of their life without a significant payoff at the end. What they don’t understand is that a typical Troma film is nothing but money shots. They’re always about pushing the envelope, testing the limits, and busting taboos. Such a strategy threatened to undermine the otherwise successful business model once and for all. After some time lost in the current confusing media clime, Troma has returned and this particular revisit to Nuke ‘Em High promises more good things to come, not a final corporate death knell.