Review: The Toxic Avengers (1984)

The Toxic Avengers (1984)

Directed by: Michael Herz, Lloyd Kaufman | 80 minutes | action, horror, comedy, romance, fantasy | Actors: Andree Maranda, Mitchell Cohen, Pat Ryan, JR, Jennifer Babtist, Robert Prichard, Cindy Manion, Gary Schneider, Mark Torgl, Dick Martinsen, Chris Liano, David N. Weiss, Dan Snow, Doug Isbecque, Charles Lee Jr., Xavier Barquet, Patrick Kilpatrick, Larry Sulton, Michael Russo, Norma Pratt, Andrew Craig, Ryan Sexton, Sarabel Levinson, Al Pia, Reuben Guss, Kenneth Kessler, Barbara Gurskey, Donna Winter, Mary Ellen David, Dennis Souder, Joe Zarro

What Mario is to Nintendo and Sonic is to Sega, the Toxic Avenger, affectionately called Toxie, is to Troma. This oversized, horribly mutated, bump-and-sore superhero has become the figurehead of this subversive film label. It is also the best known, and probably best film of the 1974 Troma, founded by Lloyd Kaufman and Michael Herz. The film is a very badly acted, very flawed, and naked and gore laced mix of ‘Frankenstein’ and ‘Revenge of the Nerds’, and surprisingly has quite an attractive charm. Far from being a quality film, ‘The Toxic Avenger’ nevertheless manages, in its own insane way, to regularly strike the right chord.

Some lame jokes, like the one in which someone (usually Toxie) gets hit in the groin, do get very tiresome; several plot lines receive too much or unnecessary attention; and the acting is too bad for words, but there is also a lot to enjoy. Toxie’s creative and gruesome executions have to be seen to be believed. A hand is put in the frying pan, a whole body in a pizza oven, eyes are put out, entrails are pulled from a belly, and an old lilliputian female is put in a washing machine. And most executions end appropriately with Melvin’s trademark – a mop crammed into the victim’s mouth/skull.

But not only Toxie kills with a lot of accompanying “gore”. The villains – the bullies who harass Melvin at the gym – are given a wry and truth-based backstory, highlighting a nasty hobby of the group of men and women. They find it particularly exciting to drive on and over pedestrians and cyclists with their cars. Preferably minorities, women and children, for which extra points are awarded. In the film, this leads to a gruesome and controversial scene in which a child is run over and his head – which is clearly a melon though – shatters under the tires of the car. Furthermore, a customer of a fast food restaurant is unceremoniously knocked over with a double-barreled gun and a guide dog is shot dead, in a fairly realistic way. Everything that is wrong and gross is used by Troma. No holy house is left standing in ‘The Toxic Avenger’, a flat exploitation film that works despite and thanks to its amateurish pulp character.

Toxie itself is a bit of a contradiction at times. He growls like a beast during his attacks, but a moment later turns out to have perfect pronunciation, and sounds like a trained theater actor. His executions are gruesome and his strength inhuman, but at the same time he really only has a small heart. The contrast that arises from these elements is often very comical. It’s funny when he’s just slaughtered the robbers at a taco restaurant and then walks up to a blind girl and politely asks her to go out with him. Also the first time Toxie in his new form visits his mother, who slams the door in shock, results in a funny scene when Toxie retreats to the (chemical) waste dump and hangs a picture of “Mummy” there. Ahhh, pathetic. But luckily the beautiful blind girl is not averse to a little mutant love

Despite the short playing time, the story becomes fairly monotonous at a certain point and is also somewhat confused in its storylines. It would have been enough to just let the bullies of the fitness club be the villains, but also a group of notorious criminals led by one “Cigar Face” is added, and a corrupt mayor, who, like some kind of mafioso, holds sway in the city. This mayor’s right-hand man is a fascist cop who seems inspired by Dr. Strangelove, because of his German accent and references to the “Führer” and the “order is order” creed. Another Kubrick reference occurs when one of the fitness club thugs explodes into singing when he kicks up an old lady, just like Alex used to do in ‘A Clockwork Orange’.

In short, it seems that anything that seemed even remotely useful to the filmmakers actually ended up in the film. But even though it has become a bit of a mess because of the great nonsense and pulp content of the film, this doesn’t matter much. Also the acting, of which the question is whether the actors are really that bad and have such terrible timing, or whether this might have been exactly the intention, is on the one hand irritating – especially Melvin himself gets on the nerves with his exaggerated nerdy stuff – but on the other hand funny because of the exaggerated amateurism.

The film may not be as hilarious or gut-wrenching as it could have been, but it’s a classic in its genre, and with the right attitude and audience, ‘The Toxic Avenger’ is an ideal party movie.

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