We all know the combat cliché – war is indeed hell. But so is filmmaking, that is, if you ask Troma chief and all around champion of independent art, Lloyd Kaufman. Not only would he argue that any conflict – political, personal, or philosophical – is absolutely pointless, but it’s painful as well. All throughout the bonus features for the recently released “Tromasterpiece Collection” version of the studio’s seminal Troma’s War, the infamous filmmaker complains about the production clashes that almost cost him his movie – and his sanity. From less than professional actors to constant complaints about shoddy food service and “third meals”, this brilliant satire on man’s unbridled bloodlust and the sovereign satisfaction of same stands as one of their best – no matter the final box office.
Yes, Troma’s War was a bomb, and that’s something the Kaufman and clan just can’t get over. Frankly, such a status is understandable when viewed through the middling eyes of the mainstream, but almost impossible to fathom when it comes to balls-out geek fandom. For all its outright liberal leanings, this film falls right smack dab in the middle of American road, an offering that celebrates carnage and killing (actually setting a record for most squibs used in a major motion picture) while arguing against such outright aggression. Indeed, Troma’s War is a crackpot inconsistency, pro and anti, a delicious dark comedy that’s often vile and mean-spirited, a standard action flick flecked with all manner of Kaufman’s bad taste comedy conceits. Together, these impossible parallels deconstruct everything we love about the genre while reinventing the way we view the enemy, and ourselves.
The storyline is simple in its set-up. An airplane loaded with Central Casting characters (fey flight attendant, chauvinistic Vietnam vet, sporty hunk, skeazy gal pal) crash lands on a Caribbean island. Little do the survivors know that they’ve washed up on the shore of a terrorist encampment. Seems a pair of perverted conjoined twins is creating a super army. Their goal? Destabilize the USA and take over. Under the auspices of Capt. Schweinhart, Maj. Ramirez, Col. Jennings, and Maj. Asyolsky, they are almost ready to invade. Unfortunately, they think the innocent casualties of the crash are armed guerillas ready to undermine their mission. Soon, it’s a full blown firefight as baddies are raping, killing, and kidnapping everything in sight – and once they are outfitted weapons, our heroes are ready to kick some evil-doer hinder as well.
Military movies just don’t get any more deranged that Troma’s War. All mega-munitions claims aside, this is one completely crazy entertainment. If you know Kaufman and crew’s unbridled audacity, if you get the fact that he and is mythical moviemaking company are out to both revolutionize and rebel against the status quo, if you truly comprehend his found film school hired help mentality, you’ll plotz at how powerful this vision can be. If, on the other hand, you want logical narratives, non-cartoonish characters, ambiguity of purpose, and pure Tinseltown polish, please look elsewhere. Troma isn’t in the wholesome, feel good film business. Instead, they have made their name challenging convention as well as looking for new ways to make the old formulas and stereotypes fresh and new.
You can see the agenda clearly within Troma’s War‘s visuals. A blustering officer is decked out in a full pig nose, another is a Nazi who confuses everyone for a Jew. The conjoined twins are viewed as so sexually maladjusted that only their carnally confused brain would come up with such a stupid invasion strategy. Heck, even one of the heroes is decked out in full Oliver Stone flowery Hawaiian shirt mode, the better to homage the controversial auteur. He even looks like the famed director of Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July. Hot topic issues like Anti-Semitism, gay bashing, and religious sacrilege are prevalent, as are jokes and problematic jibes about same. Blindness and bondage happily coexist with ethnic slurs and questionable racial profiling. And just when you thought you’ve seen it all, Kaufman and company find new ways to insult, intrigue and irritate you.
For Troma, no subject is a sacred cow. This is particularly true of a sequence Kaufman kvetches over, complaining that the MPAA and producers forced him to cut it prior to the theatrical release (though it has since been restored to the DVD print proper). It involves a slimeball infected with HIV and the subplot to turn a group of infected AIDS zombies loose on the horny American population. The entire scene is so surreal, so ridiculously over the top and histrionic that you can’t help but laugh. And yet the notion that Troma would take on the horrific disease right in the middle of its struggle for social and political relevance illustrates just how extreme and aggressive the company can be. It’s an attitude that might explain the underage revolutionary with a rifle (who turns out to be Kaufman’s daughter) or the constant traumatizing of an infant as part of another sordid scheme (again, one of the director’s kids).
While some may moan that the majority of the bonus features are ported over from previous releases (and it’s hard to hide such a fact when interviewees and commentators constantly reference the year, the time since the movie was made, and other temporal clues), they do provide a portrait of a troubled set. Some of the actors speak lovingly about working on Troma’s War, but behind their benevolence is just a hint of anger and animosity. Similarly, Kaufman’s commentary is filled with complaints – about talent, about tolerances, about taking advice from people reluctantly. He indicates that Troma’s War started out as a semi-serious attempt at making something like Rambo or Missing in Action. Instead, the cracked corporate aura that infiltrates all of the company’s canon took over, and the rest is ridiculous ersatz exploitation bliss history.
Could there be more bloodshed? Certainly. While Troma’s War takes the cake in mini-explosives as bullet wounds, there is much more arterial spray in something like Tromeo and Juliet. Similarly, the no name cast of day players is perfectly acceptable, but doesn’t offer the same staying power as later members of the thespian ranks like Trent Haaga and Debbie Rochon. In fact, one could argue that Troma’s War was the moment when the company realized that it couldn’t successful conquer every genre and see solid audience returns. Instead, they went back to what they did best, something drive-in film critic Joe Bob Briggs would call “the three B’s – breasts, beasts, and blood”. As a result, the King of Outsider Art – Lloyd Kaufman – remains firmly atop his decade’s old filmmaking throne. Yet for every adventure of the Toxic Avenger or Sgt. Kabukiman, NYPD, we have a terrific forgotten masterwork like Troma’s War. At the time, it was dismissed. Today, it’s divine.