[3 April 2014]
Way back in 1986 a studio called Troma released Class of Nuke ‘Em High, an intentionally silly B-Movie (as are most-to-all of Troma’s output) about a nuclear power plant that causes the students (particularly the Honor’s Society) to mutate into a vicious punk gang referred to as “The Cretins”. This silly (yet often fun) farcical take on ‘50s-style paranoid disaster films (updated with lots of violence, nudity and ridiculousness) was followed by two unsuccessful sequels, neither of which succeeded in gaining the cult-classic notoriety that the original has enjoyed. The solution to both this issue and Troma’s financial woes seemed to be a brand new reboot of the series in the form of Return to Nuke ‘Em High, Vol. 1.
Yes, Vol. 1… meaning there is a second half of this ridiculous film coming out some time in the future. This could, of course, be a blessing or a curse. Most Troma fans will rabidly defend anything having to do with Troma’s films, pointing out that these are intentional B-Movies and thus anything “bad” should be given a pass because it is, in fact, intentional. Thus the comments section of this review will likely fill up with angry fans condemning me for calling this film “ridiculous”. If a critic criticizes an intentionally bad film, then said critic clearly just “doesn’t get it”. However, there is a big difference between being intentionally ridiculous and coming out hilariously self-aware and being intentionally ridiculous and succeeding in being “bad”.
The first volume of Return to Nuke ‘Em High falls into that latter category, in spite of (or perhaps, because of) the direction of the triumphantly returning Lloyd Kaufman (Troma’s co-founder). In true Troma tradition there are moments of inspired madness and hilarity, but more often than not this proves to be the exception, not the rule in this part remake, part sequel.
Our film kicks off with the narration of none other than Marvel Comics’ Stan Lee (who also appears onscreen) recounting (as opposed to recanting) the events of the first three films in the series (complete with copious nudity). From that point we delve into the main plot that revolves around that same Tromaville high school and its ostensibly normal student population. Fortunately the nuclear power plant has been bulldozed but in its place a health food factory has been built that supplies the student body with their “hot lunch”. Thus an entirely new batch of students (this time, the Glee club) turns into yet another vicious punk gang (though still known as “The Cretins”).
In short, this is merely a 2013 update of the same old concepts from the prequels/ old series of films. There are occasional moments of parody and silliness that work (at least in that same Troma style) and the plot (though largely a repeat) is interesting enough for the audience to want to know where this film is going. More often than not, however, Kaufman seems to be competing with himself for the crown of tastelessness.
A beautiful lesbian couple (played by Catherine Corcoran and Asta Paredes) mutate into Cretin-hating-Cretins, one with a gigantic pregnancy belly and the other with a gigantic foam rubber penis that is used as a weapon. A pet duck is lodged in its owner’s throat. The contaminated school lunch is graphically displayed. A fornicating couple is attached by a detached free-roaming penis.
There is both gross-out and sex humor in this film, enough to hold the interest of any teenage boy, but little of this results in any legitimate payoff or plot redemption. Instead, the film feels like a series of loosely connected tasteless vignettes that promise to lead to some spectacular (or, at least, hilarious) ending, but never do. The promise of a sequel in Vol 2 (reportedly the suggestion of Troma fan Quentin Tarantino, whose Kill Bill was similarly separated) would suggest some sort of thrilling cliffhanger, but that never quite comes to fruition, either. Return to Nuke ‘Em High Vol.1 more than outweighs its welcome during its 85 minute runtime and few viewers will feel that their time was well-spent when the closing credits finally stagger and splatter onto the screen.
However, for Troma fans, low-budget filmmakers and even the merely curious, Return to Nuke ‘Em High Vol.1’s DVD extras are more than worth the time to enjoy. Aside from the trailer for Return to Nuke ‘Em High Vol.2, the Blu Ray also features a number of documentaries both on the (difficult) making of the film and on Troma’s long history. There are also two commentary tracks on this film, one from Kaufman himself (and an interviewer) and another with the cast (which Kaufman brazenly crashes at one point). Ironically, watching the film with commentary makes the experience exponentially more interesting than actually attempting to follow the plot.
To be fair, there is a multitude of elements to Return to Nuke ‘Em High Vol.1 that will satisfy fans of the Tromaverse and I am included in this group. However, it’s almost impossible to ignore the fact that Kaufman and his crew has treated these elements like a checklist of necessary inclusions with each tick mark resulting in their attempts to “top” the previous films. Class of Nuke ‘Em High had hetero sex scenes. Return to Nuke ‘Em High Vol.1 has lesbian sex scenes. Class of Nuke ‘Em High had the threat of nuclear contamination as its backdrop, Return to Nuke ‘Em High Vol.1 has gone green in a big way. Class of Nuke ‘Em High had gross out humor, Return to Nuke ‘Em High Vol.1 has little beyond gross out humor. Class of Nuke ‘Em High has become a very ironic cult classic of the b-movie genre, Return to Nuke ‘Em High Vol.1 is barely worth your time.
There is no question that Return to Nuke ‘Em High Vol.1 is intentionally dumb and intentionally bad. We get it. However, in this case, bad is just bad.