The Toxic Avenger: A Brief History of Troma’s Superhero Franchise

We celebrate the hideously deformed superhero of superhuman size and strength, New Jersey's own... The Toxic Avenger.

Assorted comic book facsimiles of New York City may be protected by the tireless vigilance of Superman, Spider-Man, or Batman, but it took Troma Entertainment to give New Jersey a long-overdue superhero all its own, and one it richly deserved. In the annals of radically independent and hilariously low-budget American filmmaking, few franchises have achieved either the longevity or the mythical status of Lloyd Kaufman and Michael Herz’s The Toxic Avenger, the film that cemented Troma’s style and aesthetic, and which introduced an icon who remains as intertwined with Troma’s identity as Godzilla is with Toho’s.

But let’s back up a few years.

Throughout the 1970s, Lloyd Kaufman worked in a variety of capacities on dozens of films, from small acting roles to being Rocky’s pre-production manager and the locations manager on Saturday Night Fever. At the same time, he formed a scrubby little New York-based production house, 15th Street Films, with Oliver Stone. But after Stone left to make his own mark as an auteur with films like The Hand, and after what was thought to be a sure-fire hit (Schwartz: The Brave Detective) turned out to be a box office nightmare in 1973, 15th Street quickly sank without a trace.

Teaming with Michael Herz, Kaufman went on to form Troma Entertainment, which had an unexpected (and to be honest, accidental) hit in 1979 with the softball-themed sex comedy Squeeze Play. Immediately afterward and for some unfathomable reason (though some ads in the trades promising to put big things on the screen for cheap may have helped), Troma was brought on to produce the all-star speculative time travel adventure The Final Countdown, starring Kirk Douglas, Martin Sheen, James Farentino, and Charles Durning. In the film, the fully-armed nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Nimitz runs into a time storm and ends up off Hawaii on December 6th, 1941. Moral dilemmas and excitement ensue, and watching it today that Troma logo at the beginning remains a confounding baffler. I mean, where are all the boobs, exploding heads, and multicolored vomit?

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The 1980 film, which was silly but still boisterously entertaining (even if it was at heart a 90-minute recruiting ad for the US Navy) likewise made a decent amount of money. Had Kaufman and Herz followed that mainstream route, Troma would be a very different animal today. But given the number of headaches that accompanied such a massive production (from a drunken and incompetent director and some ego-mad stars to a lazy union crew), they opted to return to the simple joys of low-budget teen sex comedies instead, with Waitress and The First Turn On. Working with non-professional actors and non-union crews, people who didn’t expect little niceties like a craft services table or money, was just so much easier.

By the early ‘80s, however,  theaters were as glutted with teen sex comedies as they were with slasher films, so Kaufman and Herz decided to try something different by combining horror and comedy. Of course horror comedies in one form or another had been around since the silent era, but Kaufman and Herz had a different approach in mind. Taking the low-brow satire formula that had worked so well for Mel Brooks over the previous decade, they lowered the bar considerably, ramping up the extreme violence, the explosive gore, the gratuitous sex and nudity, and the crude tasteless jokes, while adding in some standard cartoon sound effects and an anti-corporate, anti-political attitude along the way. It would become the official Tromatic formula, and one that made their films immediately recognizable.

Originally conceived by Kaufman in the mid-‘70s as something called “Health Club Horror,” The Toxic Avenger, as it was eventually retitled, was filmed around New Jersey with a no-name cast and crew for about $500,000 and completed in 1984. The new title, in fact, may have been more an inspired afterthought than anything, since apart from the closing narration, the name “Toxic Avenger” (let alone “Toxie”) never appears in the film.

Watch The Toxic Avenger on Amazon

Tromaville, New Jersey, the toxic waste dumping capitol of the world as well as the setting for every subsequent Troma production, is also home to Melvin Junko (Mark Torgl), though he’s sometimes called “Melvin Ferd” for some reason. Whatever his last name is, Melvin is the sweet-natured, mild-mannered, not terribly bright mop boy at the local health club.

Several of the club’s more thick-necked regulars—Bozo (Gary Schneider), Slug (Robert Prichard), Julie (Cindy Manion), and Wanda (Jennifer Babtist)—have come to loathe the dorky and smelly little nobody. Considering their hobbies include beating up the elderly and (in a clear nod to Kaufman’s friend Roger Corman) running down minorities and kids for points, well, there you go. In order to exact a little revenge on Melvin after he accidentally spills a bucket of slop water on them, they come up with a cruel prank. Being the trusting sort and a simpleton, Melvin of course falls for it, but when the prank is revealed and he finds himself in a tutu kissing a sheep, in his humiliated panic he runs out a window and tumbles into a vat of toxic waste. After a fire stunt and much flapping about he re-emerges later as the Toxic Avenger (Mitch Cohen), a monstrous and indestructible cross between Swamp Thing and Hellboy, and with a much deeper and richer voice.

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Along with seeking revenge on those thick-necks who wronged him, he also becomes a staunch and unstoppable protector of children, the downtrodden, the victimized, and cops, doing bloody battle around Tromaville with drug dealers, pimps, gangsters, and terrorists, to the accompaniment of cartoon sound effects. In the end, he even publicly disembowels Tromaville’s corrupt Mayor. But I guess I don’t really need to explain any of this, do I?

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Now, if you were to excise all the things that mark this so clearly as a Troma picture, just hack out all the skin and gore effects and crude jokes, you’d be left with a film about five minutes long, but a five-minute film that was actually very sweet and simple in a standard Hollywood fashion, right down to the crowd-pleasing happy ending. It’s Good vs. Evil, in which the Evil is clear and obvious and unredeemable, and the Good is unshakably virtuous and unbeatable. In short, it’s more superhero movie than horror film.

Beyond that, though, it’s a story about how what’s inside is much more important than your outer appearance. When you get right down to it, it’s a Mask reboot (beautiful blind girl included), had Rocky been in the habit of ripping off limbs and shoving white slavers into dry cleaning presses. And what audience couldn’t love a happy and warm picture like that?

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When the film was first released in 1984, it was all but completely ignored. It was only after a long run as a midnight movie at the Bleecker Street Theater in New York in 1985 that the picture began developing a solid cult following. Couple that with regular cable broadcasts and several home video releases, and The Toxic Avenger became the film that introduced Troma to the world. 

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The ironic thing is, according to Kaufman, for all the boobs and splatter that remained so memorably onscreen in the ’80s, the film had to be cropped considerably beforehand to earn an R rating. Without it, no theater would have touched it, even for a midnight showing. Even after that, he says, every cable network, video distributor, and foreign market chopped it down even further, hacking out anything from 15 seconds (Canada) to a full half hour (Germany). It wasn’t until the first official Troma DVD release around 2000 that viewers could experience the full glory of a complete and restored director’s cut, which included the extended and notorious head crushing scene.

In proper comic book movie fashion, the original film ended with hints of a sequel, and in 1989 Kaufman and Herz finally got around to making one. Problem was, and it’s a problem several directors have run into in recent years, at the end of the shoot Kaufman realized he had far too much material for a standard 90-minute picture. In a move that would become par for the course twenty years down the line, he simply opted to edit all the material together, chop it in half, and release it as two films: The Toxic Avenger, Part II and The Toxic Avenger Part III: The Last Temptation of Toxie. Sadly, even despite that promising subtitle, both were fairly forgettable.

But that was hardly the end of Toxie, who by that time had already become a cult icon. I even had the pleasure of riding an elevator with Toxie at a Fangoria convention in 1995, and I’m happy to report he was a very nice fellow.

In 2000, Toxie was resurrected for Citizen Toxie: The Toxic Avenger Part IV, a film which to my mind anyway remains the most perfect expression of the Troma aesthetic. Plot aside (though we are introduced to Toxie’s evil twin, Noxious Offender), some 15 years after the original, the formula has been fine-tuned and supercharged. The gore is even more deliriously disgusting, the taseless jokes even more crass, the sex more gratuitous, and the social satire at the core of all Troma films even more savage and pointed (if some of the references by now are a little dated). Where else will you find two fetuses getting into a brawl in the womb? Or a classful of disabled students invaded by terrorists? And on “Bring a Mexican to School Day” even!

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Although, thanks to a laundry list of writers, the film can sometimes play more like a collection of set pieces than a flowing narrative, with a Troma film that’s forgivable. Plus along with all those actors from the original who reappear here in different roles,there are all those celebrity cameos, including Lemmy and Ron Jeremy, both of whom would become Troma regulars themselves. There’s even a cameo from Troma-alum-made-good James Gunn. No, no one at all is spared in the third sequel, from the unborn to Mexicans, Asians, African Americans, women and the developmentally disabled. There’s something here to offend darn near everyone on some level, which is exactly as it should be.

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In a way, even that was only just the beginning for Toxie, who had by that time already begun infiltrating mainstream culture in some mighty insidious ways for a Good Guy.

Marvel published a stand-alone Toxic Avenger comic which ran about ten issues in 1991 and ’92. Around that same time, Kaufman produced a kid-friendly animated series, Toxic Crusaders, in which an environmentally-conscious Toxie leads an army of deformed mutant children (!) in a battle against assorted alien litterbugs. Although it was cancelled after two seasons, in 1997 it was edited into a straight-to-video feature, Toxic Crusaders: The Movie. Later there was some talk Roger Corman would be producing a live action version for New World, but those plans fizzled.   

Two independent musical stage versions of The Toxic Avenger (called “The Musical” and “The Musikill” respectively) appeared around 2004, and in 2008 Kaufman produced his own musical version, which ran off-Broadway and ended up winning an armload of awards from respectable theater critics, if you can imagine that shit.

In 2009, years after the unofficial death of the movie novelization, Thunder’s Mouth Press released the official movie novelization. And in 2012, Toxie’s evil twin, Noxious Offender, appeared as the villain on an episode of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, which only makes sense.

Meanwhile, in 2010 plans for a major studio reboot (a la the earlier reboot of Troma’s Mother’s Day) were first announced, though it would apparently be wiped clean of the boobs and splatter and endless cursing that made the original what it was. The studio seemed determined to pull off a PG-13 version of Toxie which could be enjoyed by the whole family and not just drug-addled teenagers. In short order Arnold Schwarzenegger was attached to star as Toxie, and in even shorter order he’d pulled out to make Terminator: Genisys instead. Nevertheless, plans are still on the table and people are still talking about it.

As those big studio execs talk and talk and talk, Kaufman always sounds like he’s down for finally doing Toxic Avenger V, although lately it sounds like Legendary Pictures might have plans for everyone’s favorite superhero from New Jersey. So yes, it seems Toxie is, and was, and way things are going, ever shall be.

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