Class of Nuke ‘Em High (1986) -**½
Few figures in the world of exploitation movies are as divisive as Lloyd Kaufman. The seemingly innumerable films that have spewed forth from his Troma Team production house since the early 1980’s are generally love-it-or-hate-it propositions, and tend to provoke extreme reactions from those who see them. Some viewers hail Kaufman as a genius of sleaze, while others condemn his work as utterly pointless, and opinions in the broad space between those poles are rare indeed. For the most part, I’m in the “utterly pointless” camp. The typical Troma film aims at a sensibility akin to that of John Waters or the young Peter Jackson, but the trouble is that neither Kaufman nor anyone he has working for him possess anything like the demented wit that powers Pink Flamingos or Bad Taste. It takes enormous talent to make a movie that tries to be bad and fails, and Kaufman just isn’t up to that standard— when he tries to be bad (which is pretty much all the time), he’s generally a resounding success. I’ve never been so happy that I couldn’t hear a movie as I was the night my favorite bar ran a sneak preview of Terror Firmer, and most of the time, seeing the Troma logo on a movie’s packaging is enough to make me put it back on the shelf even if the plot synopsis on the back of the box made it sound like something I would enjoy. While in principle, I wholeheartedly endorse the uncompromising, free-wheeling independence that Troma represents, in practice, I find most of their output virtually unbearable. And yet somehow, despite all that, I rather like Class of Nuke ‘Em High.
I suspect there are two reasons for this. First, Class of Nuke ‘Em High was Kaufman’s first film after The Toxic Avenger, the movie which really established the personality of the studio. As a consequence, Class of Nuke ‘Em High, like its immediate predecessor, has a freshness about it which is missing from the excessively stylized and almost ritualistically predictable movies Troma has released in recent years. The other thing that it has in its favor, as far as I’m concerned, is the punksploitation angle. I’m a total sucker for that sort of thing, and Class of Nuke ‘Em High is in a sense the ultimate punksploitation flick. Whereas movies like Future Kill and Class of 1984 give every indication of believing their own hype, this one openly laughs at the then-common idea that the advent of punk rock signaled, as Penelope Spheeris put it, the terminal stage in the decline of Western civilization. Its punk rockers are so outrageously, exaggeratedly apocalyptic as to leave no question about which side Lloyd Kaufman is really on, and it would be so even if he hadn’t subsequently spent his entire career paying backhanded, ironic tribute to misfits, weirdos, and malcontents of every description.
Class of Nuke ‘Em High also carries on (as if you couldn’t have guessed from the title) The Toxic Avenger’s farcical take on the popular mid-80’s obsession with radioactive contamination. Something is going seriously wrong at the Tromaville Nuclear Utility, but the man in charge of the power plant refuses to shut down despite warnings that a core meltdown could be imminent. Things don’t get quite as bad as all that, but one of the pipes circulating around the coolant system ruptures, spilling contaminated water all over the place. The power company’s PR department would have us believe that everything gets back to normal almost immediately, but we know better than that.
Flash forward a few months. At Tromaville High School— which, inconveniently enough, is located on the lot next door to the nuclear plant with, at most, a quarter of a mile separating the two buildings— the effects of the coolant water leak are making themselves felt. One day, in the middle of class, arch-nerd Dewey (Arthur Lorenz) has a violent psychotic episode and then melts into a puddle of slime. The school honor society has transformed since the beginning of the semester into a gang of punk rock thugs called the Cretins, who roam the halls terrorizing all and sundry with complete impunity. And of what may be the greatest importance, Cretin lieutenants Spud (Rick Howard) and Gonzo (Brad Dunker) have a brilliant new scheme in mind to enhance their dope-pushing income by exploiting the super-fast-growing irradiated pot from the clandestine marijuana garden some of the slimier employees maintain at the power plant.
The first suckers to purchase the Cretins’ new nuclear weed (at the princely price of ten dollars per joint) are Eddie (James Nugent Vernon) and Pete (Gary Schneider, from Five Loose Women and The Swinging Cheerleaders), Tromaville High’s most notorious numbskull party dudes. Their rather more upstanding friend, Warren (Gilbert Brenton), is dating a girl whom they consider to be unacceptably prudish, and Eddie and Pete believe that if they could get both Warren and Chrissy (The Allnighter’s Janelle Brady) high, then the inevitable result would be the two of them finally going to bed together. With this aim in mind, they harangue the two kids into attending a huge, hypothetically beach-themed (read: everybody in attendance is supposed to wear a bathing suit) party with them, and shortly after Warren and Chrissy show up, the party clowns go to work on them with radioactive reefer in hand. Warren and Chrissy eventually relent in their refusals, and within minutes, they’re up in the attic, fucking like weasels— if anything, Eddie underestimated the nuke-weed’s effectiveness as an aphrodisiac.
There will, of course, be consequences to pay. Both kids begin having bizarre nightmares in the days following their drug-fueled tryst, but that’s only the beginning. Warren briefly turns into a Toxic Avenger-like mutant, and goes on a rampage which appropriately ends with the deaths of some important Cretins. Chrissy, meanwhile, becomes pregnant with a tadpole-like monster that apparently digs its way from her uterus into her digestive tract, whence it crawls up through her guts and out her mouth, just in time for her to vomit it into the high school’s contaminated plumbing system. As you might imagine, the extra radiation will eventually cause the tadpole thing to grow to considerable size and even more considerable viciousness. Finally, Cretin leader Spike (Robert Prichard, from The Toxic Avenger and Alien Space Avenger) makes the connection between Warren and the monster that slew his followers. His efforts to get back at Warren result in him and the remaining Cretins being expelled from school, and the vendetta becomes a general one: the Cretins against Warren, Chrissy (basically for being Warren’s girlfriend), principal Finley (R. L. Ryan, of Street Trash and Eat and Run), and pretty much the whole of normal society. And yes, you may indeed expect Chrissy’s monster offspring to play a pivotal role in the final clash.
The trick to making a successful John Waters-style farce is to have a light touch with even the most heavy-handed excess. The obvious paradox contained therein explains why so few filmmakers (and not even Waters himself can get it right these days) have ever been able to match his early work with any consistency. And while I would not say that Class of Nuke ‘Em High equals Multiple Maniacs or Female Trouble, it does come surprisingly close, especially when considered in light of later Troma productions. Though it has in common with its successors an almost total lack of story and a relentlessly sophomoric attitude, Class of Nuke ‘Em High’s manic energy keeps it from ever bogging down in the manner of, say, Redneck Zombies. It tosses off its gross-outs at a furious clip, and never pauses to wallow in any one of them. Furthermore, it’s very clear that Lloyd Kaufman is having fun here, and that the tawdry ideas driving the film are flowing easily and naturally; Class of Nuke ‘Em High never feels forced the way so many of the last decade’s Troma movies do, nor does it have the sharp undercurrent of misanthropy that seems to turn so many people off of Kaufman’s more recent output. In short, it marks one of the pitiably few occasions on which Troma’s “we’ll make the absolute worst movie we can, and have a blast doing it” philosophy produced something that let the audience in on the good time. Unsurprisingly, it is also second only to The Toxic Avenger itself in the number of progressively inferior sequels which Kaufman has since foisted upon us.