You don’t need to have seen Troma’s cult classic The Toxic Avenger to appreciate the inhumanity that director Macon Blair unsubtly orchestrates with his excessively out-of-bounds remake — but it helps. Michael Herz and Lloyd Kaufman’s The Toxic Avenger (1984) introduced a tutu-wearing New Jersey superhero by turning hapless health club custodian Melvin Ferd Junko III into a muscly green brute who starts cleaning Tromaville’s streets with uber-violent justice. It built the house of Troma, spawning a few sequels, a Toxic Crusaders cartoon series, tie-in action figures, and even a rock musical. With his new Toxic Avenger remake, Blair squeezes as much Troma DNA into his “mainstream” version of the hero as he could under a studio banner, striving to honor the underdog scrappiness of both Troma’s cobbled-together exploitation trademarks and Melvin’s cult-iconic legacy as a 98-pound zero to hero whose brutal mutilation of stock character thugs won over the hearts of B-Movie diehards.
The reboot cements Peter Dinklage’s rock n’ roll take on Winston Gooze as standalone canon, leaning into an unlikely hero’s journey riddled with dismemberment and good intentions. It’s Troma-like in its wishy-washy commitment to in-depth story development, all part of the film’s midnight movie charm. That might scare away viewers who aren’t prepared for smash-cuts from one chaotic display to the next instead of boring exposition, but at least you’ll find out real quick if The Toxic Avenger is your speed.
Blair’s dedication to recreating the low-low-budget aesthetic of Troma’s held-together-with-duct-tape productions is respectfully disrespectful and passionate, yet takes a hot minute to find its groove. A clunkier, surface-Troma introduction feels tonally askew before we sink into the sludgy muck that is St. Roma’s Village (a play on Kaufman’s Tromaville universe), but once The Toxic Avenger emerges and starts decapitating Insane Clown Posse knockoffs, gratuitous blood becomes the film’s saving elixir.
Dinklage delivers a humorously straight performance as single step-parent Winston Gooze, a rare decent citizen amongst the drek of St. Roma’s Village. He works as a janitor for the Earth-killing BTH company, run by the hilariously fiendish Bob Garbinger (Kevin Bacon is having a blast playing an exaggeratedly vile baddie). Poor Winston is diagnosed with a terminal brain disease — we don’t know specifics because construction sounds muffle the doctor’s words every time — but his outlook is dire. The thought of leaving stepson Wade (Jacob Tremblay) an orphan is too depressing to handle, but an experimental drug provides a ray of light. But he can’t afford the drug at the current tier of BTH health insurance, so Winston throws one final Hail Mary and asks Mr. Garbinger for help, which gets him tossed into a vat of toxic waste — turning him into the Toxic Avenger (aka Toxie)!
For those who’ve feasted on Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead or graduated from the Class of Nuke ‘Em High, Blair’s take on The Toxic Avenger should delight once the gratuity starts spewing disgusting flesh-bit chunks. It’s not as successful a mimicry during a pre-Toxie opening that’s trying to force its B-Movie-ness a wee bit hard, but that fades once Winston starts waving his glowing green mop that’s supercharged by BTH goop. Everything is supremely graphic, supremely off-color, and supremely silly — just like Mr. Kaufman would be proud of — but not in an ignorantly shock-jock package. Blair uses Toxie’s quest for vengeance to teach screamed-in-your-face lessons about ecological compassion and basic humanity built on Winston’s wholesomeness — in a movie with equal opportunity nudity, anal intestine removals, and acidic urine.
What’s moderately disappointing is the usage of digital gore in places to execute those over-the-top deaths where exposed brains squirt crimson liquids over the camera. A Troma release would never — for better and worse — and there’s a stark difference between the comically gross instances where skulls are smashed into practical slop versus animation that plays comparatively worse. Although, I use “moderate” because there are enjoyably grotesque examples like arms uncleanly yanked from shoulder sockets, or the prosthetic makeup for Toxie himself. Dinklage is head-to-toe sealed in a costume like a miniature Incredible Hulk covered in purple festering boils, which sells the hell out of what practical effects craftsmanship exists — and it’s a groovy amount. Blair’s clear adoration of Troma’s catalog is present in his emphatic usage of puppetry (a featherless bird rotted by chemicals), fantastically squeamish death scenes, and production designs like an MST3K backdrop, which ultimately shines through.
The cast takes a second to settle into the absurdist hellscape of St. Roma Village, but once comfortable, their portrayals are a hoot. Dinklage is just one piece of the puzzle, responding to the comic-booky insanity that spreads like an infection. Taylour Paige has a few standout lines as vigilante whistleblower J.J. Doherty, who becomes Toxie’s unlikely partner in crime fighting. Bacon might be the MVP, playing his environment-destroying businessman like he’s a Bond villain in a James Bond porno parody. At one point, both men are covered head-to-toe in mutant makeup effects, swinging mystical weapons, and you can only wonder how the stars aligned to deliver what you’re watching. I’m not saying the movie is bulletproof (hardly true), but something about almost unrecognizable monsters made of Kevin Bacon and Peter Dinklage trading blows in eco-horror warfare just seems right.
Then again, some scenes just feel off. Troma’s movies feel organically do-it-yourself while Blair’s reboot under the Legendary Picture’s banner has trouble intentionally recreating that experiential model. All the signatures of Tromaville are present in St. Roma’s Village — oddball punks like the Monstercore band who doubles as assassins for hire, little lines here and there as mobs shout one-liners from afar — but Blair’s direction plays like Troma with a bigger budget in the wrong way. We love to see Elijah Wood as lil’ brother Fritz Garbinger, lookin’ like Danny DeVito’s The Penguin got zapped with radiation rays for a year straight, but he reads like he’s in a different movie until the rest of the production catches up to his schlocky vibes. It’s the idea that you can’t force cult notoriety, especially with more prosperous means, and Blair runs into that issue more than once.
The Toxic Avenger is 70 percent of a Troma movie with an actual budget — as much as Blair could get away with, most likely. Early lulls become a distant memory once St. Roma’s superhero starts massacring “Khaki Creeps” and “Nasty Lads,” as Troma references flow like noxious sludge into once-crystal springs. Not every joke lands, and the film’s dedication to being something you’d watch at 3AM through tracking fuzz can be its worst enemy at times, but Blair’s passion for preserving Toxie’s legacy is loud and evident. You’ll probably be much better primed for enjoyment if you’ve got a history cackling at Troma releases, or at least an appreciation for goretastic horror comedies that don’t take themselves seriously for a single nonsensical second.