It seems almost antithetical to what Troma stands for. This maverick Manhattan production/distribution company, the brainchild of Yale classmates Lloyd Kaufman and Michael Herz, just doesn’t seem like the kind of film force to embrace the latest in home video technology. Sure, films like The Toxic Avenger and Tromeo and Juliet found their notorious niche during the advent of VHS. Indeed, many of today’s indie art devotees found their calling along the bottom shelf of many a Mom and Pop rental palace. But to now see classics like Poultrygeist “prettied up” thanks to the demands of the high def format is almost surreal. Luckily, Troma’s outsider masterworks are so good, so beyond basic reproach that no amount of 21st century tweaking can rob them of their inimitable irreverence and style – even if the company isn’t really remastering their catalog (more on this in a moment).
When Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead was unleashed upon an unsuspecting world, few knew what to expect. Created by Gabe Friedman, Daniel Bova, and Kaufman himself, this fright flick farce built on fast food and freak side showboating rejuvenated the lame duck label that, at one time, boasted the biggest roster of cult icons this side of a John Waters’ Dreamland reunion. With rave reviews coming from all manner of outlets – including oddball love letters from Entertainment Weekly, The New York Times, and The Guardian – it should have been a massive Saw-sized hit. Instead, Kaufman claims conspiracy, stating flat out that theaters would not book his film because of his outsider stance and its “Unrated” status. Luckily, as with most criminally overlooked efforts, the digital format (and its blu-rated cousin) is here to save the day.
Our sordid saga begins when Arbie and Wendy, two horny high school graduates, have sex in a local cemetery. They are interrupted by the restless spirits of a disgraced Native American tribe, and afterwards, vow to remain close even as life pulls them apart. Fast forward a few months and the American Chicken Bunker, run by recovering KKK member General Roy Lee, has set up a restaurant right on top of the Indian’s burial base camp. Even worse, the company’s noted livestock atrocities have members of C.L.A.M. (College Lesbians Against Mega-Conglomerates) up in arms. While Denny and the rest of the staff – Carl Jr., Humus, and Paco Bell – try to keep things under control for the grand opening, Arbie learns that Wendy has gone girl, hooking up with angry activist Micki. Joining the General’s team in hopes of winning back his babe, our hero comes face to beak with a collection of undead fouls, and the reanimated resolve of some pretty pissed off pullets.
Outrageous, insane, and borderline brilliant, Poultrygeist is one of the best things to come out of Troma since Kaufman gave birth to the Make Your Own Damn Movie parody Terror Firmer. It’s bloodier, ballsier, and bluerer than anything the company has ever done, and it is its first ever zombie flick. This is the kind of crackpot genre gem that gets its kicks out of wallowing in feces, tweaking Islamic terrorists, exploiting same sexiness, and undermining standard cinematic expectations. It’s a tasty throwback to the days when physical effects ruled repugnance, where gore-based gags were just as important as CGI spiked spurting. In the grand realm of grade-Z grooving, where bile and body parts match boobs and buttocks for cinematic sleazoid perfection, director Kaufman and his amiable cast of unknowns deliver on every sophomoric swipe, while drop kicking Colonel Sanders and Ray Kroc in the process. It also makes one thing crystal clear – once you’ve seen how the originators get it done, the imitators seem pretty pathetic, indeed.
No one really champions Troma’s take on terror today, and that’s a shame. Certainly, it’s broad based and jocular, trying for as many snickers as scares, but there is something deeply satisfying about the way Kaufman and crew approach their projects. The scripts, usually collaborations between many motivated film geeks, tend to cut to the chase and amplify the anarchy. Smartly written and loaded with all kinds of cracks – puns, lampoons, and the proudly profane – they become the blueprints for the creation of an unmistakable horror hybrid. Poultrygeist definitely benefits the most from this brazen business model, since it has four decades to draw on. The results are like a glorified greatest hits package, an omnibus offering of everything that makes the Troma name terrific.
Some, however, have questioned the decision to include songs in this film, since the notion of a monster musical where characters constantly interrupt the flow of the fun to rev up and vocalize does have its questionable rewards. But Poultrygeist does a wonderful job of making the tunes feel like an effortless extension of the storyline. When Arbie and Wendy try to re-establish their romance during the evocative ballad “Fast Food Love”, Kaufman counterbalances the “Moon/June” sentiments with a full blown lesbian ho-down. As our paramours plead in 2/4 time, the sisters of Sappho go gonzo. Similarly, a fabulous duet between Arbie and his future self (played by a spectacularly goofy Kaufman) has the added amusement of seeing the Troma chief traipsing around in a too short skirt. Granted, many of the actors are tonally challenged, and a few of the lyrics are more wobbly than witty, but the combination really works. It’s reminiscent of another Kaufman supported entity – the brilliant Trey Parker/Matt Stone extravaganza Cannibal: The Musical.
Poultrygeist is indeed on par with the aforementioned farce, since it handles its consistently contradictory facets with fearlessness and finesse. In a mainstream dynamic that can’t conceive of how to technically go for broke, this amazing movie does so time and time again. Gorehounds, unable to get their daily recommended dose of disgusting via conservative Tinsel Town tripe, will practically plotz at the level of outstanding offal here. There are sluice soaked gags so innovative and memorable (the head omelet, death by diarrhea, implant evisceration) that they’re destined to go down in the annals of onscreen splatter. There’s hasn’t been this ludicrous level of Technicolor yawning in quite a while. Combined with the blatant bad taste witticism, the propagandized agenda, and Kaufman’s clear creative vision (mock him all your want – the man knows his audience and what makes them merry), you end up with the motion picture equivalent of punk rock – raw, dirty, and damn proud.
If Poultrygeist is a certified ‘Tromasterpiece’ – and it most certainly is – then the Blu-ray is its Hearts of Darkness. Thankfully, all of the added content presented previously has made its way onto the new release (and then some). Like that aforementioned memorable documentary of Frances Ford Coppola’s insane shoot for Apocalypse Now, there is an accompanying Making-of featurette entitled Poultry in Motion: Truth is Stranger than Chicken. In it, we witness nearly ninety minutes of infighting, exasperation, and the well-plucked perfection that comes from such a meeting of fertile, often unhinged minds. All the problems Kaufman and crew face on the film, from reluctant DP divadom to abject naked actress angst, are captured by the roving camera of Andy Deemer and Jason Foulke. As with other Troma projects, the onset mayhem sometimes threatens to undermine the entire enterprise. Here, it makes the good great, and the special something spectacular.
Almost all the troubles revolve around the all-volunteer crew and amateur cast ‘hired’ by Kaufman as a cost cutting measure. Living in an abandoned church and filming in a rundown McDonalds, everyone begins with high hopes. And when a few of the F/X fail to work, everyone is determined to hunker down and make things right. But soon, Poultrygeist as a production starts to go askew – very askew. No-names turn despots, and Kaufman’s consistently cranky personality explodes. Soon, threats are being leveled, insults are being hurled, and nerves are systematically frayed, folded, and mutilated. By the last day of shooting, so little of the previous good humor exists that people seem satisfied just to see something – anything – happen.
It’s a telling reflection of the final film, one of the best things to ever come out of the New York nuthouse. Kaufman can call ‘fowl’ all he wants (or claim as he does on the commentary that many of the mistakes were fixed in post), but Poultrygeist is a great geek film made by and meant for film geeks. It’s a love letter to the genre by individuals who make macabre their entire life. It’s so blood and bodily fluid splattered brilliant that the freebie filmmaking assistants should be complimented, not cursed. Sure, as the alternate narrative track insists, more went wrong than right, but sometimes, a couple of thousand f*ck-ups can lead to something truly remarkable. It’s just a shame then that Troma went to quantity instead of quality when it comes to Blu-ray. The image is better than your average DVD, but not truly taken to HD heights. Similarly, the sonic source is the same stereo track – nothing lossless to be found here.
Luckily, much of the previous added content remains intact. They argue for Kaufman’s often unglued approach to material. There is a deleted song for the character Humus that definitely should have been left in the film, and several of the Troma titan’s self-proclaimed “film lessons” often come across as stand-up comedy routines. This is not meant as a criticism. Instead, it’s offered to support the supposition that art often comes from the most messed up of minds and motives. The concept of creating a Toxic Avenger like epic with a group of individuals surviving on naiveté, guts, and far too many stale cheese sandwiches may seem like a pie in the sky suggestion. But if Poultrygeist can make it work (albeit in a rather painful manner) why can’t other independent filmmakers?
Of course, the answer is obvious – few in the post-modern motion picture world have the kind of dedicated demo that Kaufman and company possess. For over 35 years, they’ve delivered the slapstick splatter that directors like Sam Raimi and Robert Rodriguez have built their entire career upon. Luckily, instead of its swansong, Poultrygeist suggests that Troma is just getting back into the ball game. As this amazing Blu-ray illustrates (all questions about the audio and video tech specs aside), you don’t need Hollywood’s overinflated sense of self – and mega-multi-millions – to crank out something significant. All you really need is the voice of the people, and Poultrygeist has that in offal-accented spades.