Ed. note- Watching RETURN TO NUKE ‘EM HIGH VOLUME 2 the other night at Tromadance 2015 reminded me just how much I love the original. I hadn’t reviewed it for either Icons of Fright or DE, so it was high time I took a run at it. And if you question my sanity, just know that for the last three days I’ve been in the midst of the Aroma du Troma. God help me. Oh wait, Troma killed God.- P.F.
Since I first saw it on cable as a teen in the 80s, CLASS OF NUKE ‘EM HIGH has been my favorite Troma film. I don’t know if it’s because of my lifelong love of education and learning, or maybe it’s just that I’m a nerd at heart, but NUKE ‘EM HIGH has always topped my list. Sure, THE TOXIC AVENGER is the iconic Tromasterpiece, and TERROR FIRMER and SGT. KABUKIMAN NYPD are better made, but I’ll stick with this high school meets nuclear plant tale.
A small historical note before I discuss the plot: NUKE ‘EM HIGH was originally set to be directed by Richard W. Haines, the helmer of the atrocious SPLATTER UNIVERSITY (this guy apparently can’t get away from school-based horror, and neither can I). When he couldn’t handle the task early on, enter Hell of Famer Lloyd Kaufman to take over the production. Haines was relegated to second unit, and according to Kaufman was relieved to be. The result was a film that fits squarely into Kaufman’s swirly sensibilities, and Troma’s second big success following the first Toxie flick.
The plot is simple, goofy stuff. Contamination from the Troma Nuclear Plant is leaking into nearby Tromaville High School. This has mutated the school’s Honor Society into a punk gang of thugs who call themselves the Cretins, and also caused nerd Dewey to leak green ooze out his ears and mouth, right before he defenestrates himself. When Gonzo buys tainted weed off nuclear plant workers in Hazmat suits and the Cretins sell it to Eddie and his pals, it ends up in the lungs of our protagonists Chrissy and Warren. Weird stuff ensues.
And it’s fun weird stuff. After the young couple finally have sex, Warren temporarily grows boobs and leaks green ooze out of his flesh as he wastes some Cretins, Chrissy gives birth to what I can only call a spiky tadpole, and Tromaville High mutates into Nuke ‘Em High. The principal loses control over the school, the head of the nuclear plant does his best to cover up the irradiation issues, and female Cretin Muff pees standing up. It’s nutzoid perversity, and it only gets more chaotic as the flick goes on.
It’s also fun to compare it to future Troma flicks. The first noticeable commonality is lousy acting. Though Janelle Brady is competent and does a great job with wild eyed reaction shots as Chrissy, Gil Brenton doesn’t sell virginity and nerd-dom well at all. He gets better as the film progresses and things get a little wilder, but he’s no Will Keenan. James Nugent Vernon is particularly annoying as Warren’s best friend Eddie. The rest of the cast is at least borderline competent (hey, this is a Troma flick after all). There is also plenty of blood, guts and ooze, the requisite decapitation, as well as some hard bodied lesbianism thrown in for good measure. And of course, as this was co-written and directed by Lloyd, there’s the social commentary on the dangers of nuclear reactors in suburbia.
But there’s no head stomp, a staple in Troma’s future output. KABUKIMAN hadn’t been filmed yet, so there’s no car flip. Ditto with TROMEO & JULIET’s Penis Monster. Though the budget is low the special effects aren’t quite as cheapjack as they are on most Troma flicks. And though it’s suggested that Chrissy might end up the unwilling participant in a ménage a trios, nobody actually gets raped.
What most importantly does carry over from TOXIC AVENGER and into all future Troma films is that energy that Lloyd has always put into his films. It’s loony, but it’s probably the most important part of the Troma aesthetic and attitude. The last 20 minutes or so are an absolute masterpiece in chaos. Cretins roam the halls on motorcycles. Head punk Spike and his girlfriend hold Chrissy hostage, on a leash! That spiky tadpole has grown into a much bigger version of itself, and it’s causing havoc as it lays waste the Cretins. The last act is pure Tromessence, and represents the brand at its finest.
What caught me about the final act as I watched it again tonight was how little Warren and Chrissy actually affect the outcome. They’re not really heroes, as they’re more affected by the outcome than they affect it themselves. It also struck me that they’re the first in a long line of Troma couples, good kids whose romance anchors the film. Couples from Tromeo and his fair Juliet through Arbie and Wendy of POULTRYGEIST, and even Chrissy and Lauren from RETURN TO NUKE ‘EM HIGH owe a debt to Chrissy and Warren.
I also still love the monster. Though Tromie the Nuclear Squirrel from the next two sequels would become the poster mutant for the franchise, this mutated thing is much cooler. He bests the Penis Monster and Killer Condom hands down, and I daresay I much prefer him to the Toxic Avenger, as heretical as I know that is to say in a review of a Troma flick.
Though I probably stand in the minority, tonight’s viewing confirmed for me that CLASS OF NUKE ‘EM HIGH is still and will always be my favorite Troma film. “Readin’… Writin’… and Radiation!” are my cup of tea, and as a former educator and lifelong student, I will always ♥ Tromaville High.