Return to Nuke 'Em High, Vol. 1 (2013) d. Lloyd Kaufman (USA)
Troma movies, almost by their very definition and heritage, seem defiantly designed to be critic-proof. The ramshackle production elements, the purposefully offensive subject matter and humor, the overt liberalism, the in-your-face attitude and self-referentialism, the splattery special effects that manage to be gross without ever approaching realism, and the gratuitous nudity (mustn’t forget the nudity), these have all become recognizable staples in the Troma formula that seemingly caters to the lowest common denominator while delivering its winking subversive message.
America’s longest running independent film studio celebrates its 40th anniversary this year, and to honor the occasion, main man Lloyd Kaufman has cooked up a doozey of a midlife crisis cake: a two-part epic (modeled on Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill series, who Kaufman says gave him the idea to do an “event” movie) that both revives and revisits his and Richard W. Haines’ original 1986 educational splashdown, Class of Nuke 'Em High.
Straight off the bat, it’s clear that this tiger hasn’t changed its stripes: we’re treated to a down and dirty recap of the original storyline: Tromaville high school is affected by the nearby nuclear power plant’s radioactivity, turning the student body into melting geeks and mutated freaks, cramming as many boob shots and fart noises into 90 minutes as possible. We then watch a young nubile couple coupling, then watch them messily dissolve thanks to the intrusion of a self-ambulating disembodied penis. BOOM! It’s a Troma movie!
Freeze-frames introductions to our main characters follow, complete with their respective captioned stereotypes, and we’re off to the races. Duck-loving naïve rich girl Lauren (Catherine Corcoran) first has conflict with environmental activist blogger Chrissy (Asta Paredes), but the fires grow smokier and hotter the more time they spend around each other, until (*bing*) true love shines through. Unfortunately, the brand new organic food factory supplying the school lunch program turns out to be run by capitalistic scumbag Lee Harvey Herzkauf (Kaufman) who has built the factory right on top of the old power plant. Soon, “going green” means “glowing green” and Taco Tuesday becomes ground central for a blazing, barfing bacchanalia, and it’s up to our two heroines to save the day.
Of course, that’s only scratching the scabby surface, with oodles of subplots and callbacks trotted out for our, ahem, entertainment. For such an ambitious low-budget outing, things look mighty polished, and the performances, while outrageously (and predictably) pitched, are universally solid. It’s almost as if they were making an honest-to-Godzilla movie here. However, in spite of the good-natured shenanigans, things start to feel more than a little labored entering the third act; instead of exploding through the finish line tape, Nuke Em stumbles breathlessly into its hard-cut “To be continued...” that concludes the truth-in-advertising first installment. The abrupt ending is consciously so, I’d like to think, and I don’t feel cheated (as some other online critics have), but there’s still that loss of steam that deserves examination. Is it just too much too loud too long? Maybe.
For Troma virgins, it bears repeating: Return to Nuke 'Em High is not for the weak of heart or rigid of moral. There are “jokes” (quotes because while obnoxious, they’re not really all that…funny) about murder, rape, STDs, school shootings, racist comments, drug use, Fox News, etc. A classic case of “equal opportunity offending,” but unlike the punk-rock attitude of 80s-Troma, it feels little more calculated this time around – as if Kaufman and co-writers Travis Campbell and Derek Dressler sat down with a list of requisite targets as opposed to organically inspired anarchy. Not saying that the earlier Troma films were laugh riots themselves, but there was certainly more of an edge to them – here, everything feels more quaint, familiar, and pseudo-pandering than truly shocking. It’s fun, but in the way that we are generous to our wacky uncles telling off-color tales around the Thanksgiving table; we laugh because it’s expected, not because it’s actually that hilarious.
However, one thing that does outshine the original is the extremely catchy soundtrack – mark my words, you will be singing some of these tunes for days afterwards (which can be a little awkward when the refrains include, “This is the last song/I’ll ever write/Gonna kill myself tonight.”) The title track and end title ditties are equally earworm-worthy, and I’ll admit to actually visiting the official website, http://return2nukeemhigh in the hopes of locating the soundtrack.
The biggest surprise for longtime fans probably arrives in the form of the distributor: instead of their standard self-distribution ballyhoo, Troma has found themselves carried aloft by the generous graces of Anchor Bay (a subsidiary of Starz). The deal of artistic freedom in exchange for an ultra-low budget seems to agree with both parties, and Kaufman has said in interviews that it was a Starz rep that first floated the idea of a reboot.
The overflowing supplementary features – standard issue for any Troma release – are as enjoyable, if not more so, than the film itself. Two audio commentaries, the first populated by the actors (Corocoran, Parades, Zac Amico, Clay von Carlowitz, and Stuart Kiczek) and the latter by crew members (Kaufman, producer Justin Martell, exec-producer Matt Manjourides, associate producer Regina Katz, and Campbell) are a cavalcade of cross-talking and high-spirited storytelling of the trial and travails of the breakneck shooting pace and decidedly non-Hollywood filming conditions. For every tale told, there are two false starts drowned out, which gets a little frustrating at times, but seems in perfect keeping with the chaotic mood set by the onscreen action.
There is also a wealth of entertaining featurettes, ranging from “Casting Conundrum,” “Pre-Production Hell,” “Special (Ed) Effects,” and “Cell-U-Loid Kaufman,” each ranging from 10-20 minutes, as well as a music video for “Architects of Fear and the Return to Nuke Em High, Vol. 2 trailer.
Return to Nuke 'Em High, Vol. 1 is available now at all major retailers, including Amazon, Best Buy, and...Wal-Mart. (Yes, that’s the sound of Hell freezing over you just heard.)
--Aaron Christensen, HorrorHound Magazine