Lloyd Kaufman: The Toxic Director

The filmmaker gets his close-up after 40 years of Troma (more or less)

Last month, this is how Kaufman pitched the Class of Nuke 'Em redux to fans at the Philly Comic Con: "If any of you want to sleep on the floor, eat cheese sandwiches three times a day, or learn how to defecate in a paper bag, you can go to @lloydkaufman on Twitter, and I will tell you how to proceed." You think he's joking. He is not.

"Troma is the slap on the face for a lot of upstart filmmakers," confirms NYC Zombie Crawl co-founder Doug Sakmann, a Lloyd loyalist who served as head of Troma Team production from 1999 to 2002. "People would come in and want to live and breathe Troma. And there were other people who would come in, not really know too much about Troma, just looking to get some kind of internship." Indifference, stupidity, or arrogance wasn't tolerated, even from volunteers. "In less than five minutes, they'd leave almost crying. You'd just never see them again."

"We may not have the best bedside manner," Kaufman says at his office desk, a few hours before we see Amico's penis. Amid the collection of monster memorabilia and fan art, there's a half-full bottle of Orange Fanta on the floor. "But on the other hand, the young people—they don't know what they don't know. That's what's exciting about young people. It's fresh. The movies have an injection of youth. They always have." Kaufman's philosophy is that he'll give anyone a chance, but it's up to the person to capitalize on it. "There are certain practical things," he says, describing a scenario of missing car keys halting the production with the practical application that an assistant director should read every key on that belt. "People don't know that. You don't learn that in film school. You have to do it. It gets you grouchy. Sometimes you get upset about it," he says.

Nate “Igor” Smith
Zac Amico tries out for Return to Class of Nuke 'Em High
Nate "Igor" Smith
Zac Amico tries out for Return to Class of Nuke 'Em High

Even during today's visit, Kaufman will chew someone out for his call sheet "slop" and reprimand an intern about breaking the chain of command. "The ones who can stand it for more than a few weeks—they get it. That 'I'm learning something, and this is worthwhile.' And it's not something personal." He pushes back his purple reading glasses. "Some of those people in there on the production? They will probably quit. It's hard to do what we do."

"In this highly elitist industry, he is one the few established filmmakers willing to give untested talent a chance," points out Gabe Friedman, who co-wrote Poultrygeist with Kaufman and worked at Troma for a decade. "He's a shrewd businessman, a hell of a nice guy. He can be very demanding, but if you're in the fight with him, it's worth it. At the end of the day, you'll have something you can be proud of—your parents might not be proud of it, but you'll be."

The Toxic Avenger is Troma's Mickey Mouse. Co-directed by Michael Herz and Kaufman (credited as Sam Weil), the 1984 film of the same name is the campy tale of hapless weakling Melvin Junko, a clumsy bucktoothed health club janitor who is mercilessly mocked by bully caricatures named Bozo and Slug. After Melvin becomes the victim of a prank seduction by Bozo's girlfriend, Julie—who coaxes the dim-witted wimp into a pink tutu so they can "do it"—he runs down a hallway blubbering like the Cowardly Lion, jumps out the window, and falls headfirst into a barrel of bubbling toxic waste. The chemicals transform him into Toxie, a monster crime-fighter in a ballerina skirt who kills bad guys, leaves mops in their mouths, and falls in love with a beautiful blind woman. It's the sort of movie that, when the blind woman's Seeing-Eye dog is "murdered" during a violent fast-food spree, the animal is still visibly breathing.

Made for roughly $500,000, The Toxic Avenger was a low-budget satire that conjured mainstream references like Frankenstein (a sympathetic monster), A Clockwork Orange (Bozo, Slug, and Julie are droog-like in their gruesome lust for pedestrian hit-and-runs), and Revenge of the Nerds (Melvin was wussier than Poindexter), which was released the same year. But the film was intensely self-aware, lampooning the horror genre and superhero tropes, as well as itself. Although far more measured than nearly anything that would follow, the first 10 minutes alone would foreshadow everything the word "Troma" would come to represent: sexuality as a sensory assault, a cartoony power imbalance, slapstick violence, acting so bad it seemed to mock acting.

"If you talk to any filmmaker, they know Toxic Avenger," insists screenwriter/director Mark Neveldine, who's collaborated with creative partner Brian Taylor on two Crank films and this year's Nicholas Cage vehicle Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance. "Even Troma's War, which wasn't highly received by the critics, people know the movie. Why? Because Lloyd has these fantastical themes that are so sort of genius and creative." In the pantheon of "incredibly imaginative" auteurs, Neveldine puts Kaufman up there with Sam Raimi and Stanley Kubrick. "He really is tapped into the pulse of Theater of the Ridiculous in the best possible way."

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