Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Class of Nuke 'Em High (1986, Richard W Haines & Samuel Weil aka. Lloyd Kaufman)


Class of Nuke 'Em High (1986, directed by Richard W. Haines and Samuel Weil (aka. Lloyd Kaufman)

Version reviewed: US Troma Team DVD release, no region coding, as part of the "Class of Nuke 'Em High Parts 1, 2, 3 The Complete Spill-ogy" boxset.

"Class of Nuke 'Em High" is one of the great Troma movies and it almost happened by accident. It's the grand ole mythic tale of a high school and the shoddy, hazard-ridden nuclear power plant that corrupt Tromaville politicians allowed to be built next door. In the high school, teen lovers Warren (Gilbert somethng) and Chrissy (the sexy Janelle Brady) plan to go to a big party with Warren's douchebag friends Eddie and Greg. All around them is nuclear waste, which in Tromaville leaks out of pipes going right through the middle of the high school, and the breaks in pipes are always right above the water reserves in the school's basement fall-out shelter or the water that gets pumped through drinking fountains.

The radiation affects the students in different ways -
  • The "Honor roll" become a gang of violent criminals ("The Cretins"),
  • Nerds vomit green foam and head for the windows ("The Toxic Avenger" took 30 minutes to show us a nerd fall unconvincingly from a window, in "Class of Nuke 'Em High" it takes 8, and the nerd is doing the most hilarious karate chops through the air as he makes his way to the window).
  • Smokers of radioactive joints either become vengeful radioactive monsters who fight crime (not unlike "The Toxic Avenger") or get pregnant with nuclear monster babys from their radioactive boyfriend and have miscarriages in the school toilets.

Dewey has a meltdown

The style of humour is a little different than before. Some of the dialogue is the unique mix of teen sex comedy and Vaudevillian humour akin to "The First Turn On" era Troma (the "miscarriage" sequence with the mother at the hospital, the party), but a lot of it is even more deadpan than "The Toxic Avenger". The tone of this film is like one of those propaganda films of the fifties like "Reefer Madness". It's like the whole film is the most over the top "science-lab" film/cautionry tale ever made. I hear Kaufman claim deeper meanings in most of the Troma catalogue, but not often about "...Nuke 'Em High". It's anti-nuclear message was done better in "Toxic..." and more clearly. If this film has significant things to say about radiation or corruption, it probably ends at the point the guy starts growing breasts after nuclear exposure. No, most of it is played just for laughs - which makes it funnier, per minute, than "The Toxic Avenger". I can't say the whole film makes a lot of sense, but I can say the few moments it's not funny, it's got a cool monster or a cheesy visual effect on it. The deadpan sense of humour frequently meets the ridiculous eg. the scene where the atomic joint is smoked is funny mostly because everytime someone takes a drag of the joint, an intense close up is shown of them smoking, along with the same cheesy sting. It happens like five times and gets funnier each time.

Despite all these positives, there are some signs of a troubled production (most people probably can't tell the difference between a "troubled production" and a "Troma production"). Apparently Richard W Haines wanted to make a straight-forward and dramatic teen science-fiction b-movie called Atomic High School. He was part way through directing from his own script when Kaufman took over as co-director. I'm not sure if that means Haines was fired, or merely accompanied for the rest of the shoot. According to extras on the DVD, Haines was demoted to second-unit-director after only a week, having only shot the scenes in the basement with the monster at the end. Knowing that, it's easy to notice how much more serious those scenes were than the rest of the film and also how well the monster was filmed. The finished film runs as more or less a "First Turn On!" type sex comedy with occasional toxic spills, but gradually becomes more far out and horrific as it goes on. Lloyd Kaufman's influence is most keenly felt in the first half.

Warren & Chrissy

In any case, it takes what would have been the first in-house Troma production not directed by Michael and Lloyd (and potentially a more serious film) and turns it into the logical successor to "The Toxic Avenger". Tonally the film seems like a marriage of the teen sex comedy/verbal comedy stylings of "The First Turn On!" and "The Toxic Avenger"'s ultraviolent Sci-Fi. A lot of cast members return from "The Toxic Avenger" including Slug and Bozo who are now Cretins (with the power roles reversed between them - they also have a variation on their old "punching an old woman to rob her' "routine") and Wanda is now a German teacher who becomes a cretin after a particularly passionate kiss. The "Welcome to Tromaville" sign reappears, in a new location. Pat Ryan, the Mayor in "Toxic Avenger" plays a different member of the elite, the head of the power plant (Ryan also starred in the cult classic eighties horror movies "Street Trash" and "Eat and Run"). Professor Snodburger reappears, sans German accent, as a high school science teacher with a hilariously fake looking laser in his laboratory, who drinks chemicals out of a beaker after students leave his room.

Warren & Chrissy's radioactive mutant monster offspring

The special effects are as good, if not better, than those in "The Toxic Avenger", especially the cool monster which shows up throughout the second half. How awesome is the scene where Chrissy first vomits it up? And how awesome does that monster look when we see it later on, fully grown? Pretty great, for Troma. The soundtrack has about five or so songs, which we hear about six times each (I'm exaggerating) while the score is a simple synth thing, similar to the deliberately awful music in"Redneck Zombies", which is sometimes great, other times inseperable from the the synth pop songs either side of it.

Gonzo, a cretin

It's all very anarchic and stupid in principle, but in play it transcends it's litter due to it's fun soundtrack and low-budget John Hughes-on-acid-in-Tromaville feel. In fact, it's strange that rather than resemble "Commando" director Mark Lester's "Class of 1984", to which it was retitled after, the influence on the high school characters definetely seems more informed by the films of the late, great John Hughes, who's "Sixteen Candles" and "The Breakfast Club" were coming out around this time and featuring self-aware and emotional young people in a way not seen previously in cinema. Of course, if this film were a John Hughes production, Warren would be played by either Matthew Broderick, Anthony Michael Hall or Jason Lively, Chrissy would be Molly Ringwald or Ally Sheedy, Eddie would be...John Cusack? I don't think any Hughes actor would do it justice, so I'd use Bobcat Goldthwait, Keith Gordon or the fat guy who played Shelley in "Friday the 13th 3D", and for Greg it'd have to be Robert Downey Jr. (In the film, Eddie is the shorter, jewish one and Greg the tall one with New Waver hair).

Also, like John Hughes' films, the soundtrack shies away from punk and has a lot of new wave instead, usually with people putting on English accents and over-emoting. Actually, "Class of Nuke 'Em High" has some bad pop metal on it too, including an awful song by someone called "Stratus" called "Run For Your Life" which plays fifty million times and is from their album "Throwing Shapes" available here. Also, the final song in the end credits is another awful pop metal thing, only in this one, "Angel" by G.M.T., the vocalist sounds like early James Hetfield or early Dave Mustaine singing this awful shit. It's pretty funny. Actually, this is the exact same kind of awful metal Pantera was playing in the eighties.

Ironically, the quasi-sequel to "Class of 1984" named "Class of 1999", also directed by Mark Lester, featured a post-apocalyptic feeling high school in a war zone in the (then) future, cumulating with the rebel students riding motorcycles through the high school halls as they fight their robotic teachers. This is very similar to the end of "Class of Nuke 'Em High".

It's a shame both of the "Class of Nuke 'Em High" sequels were awful, awful in-house, non-Kaufman productions made on the West Coast. I want to say they're okay, or they're only as bad as the first two Toxie sequels, but that's just not fair. They're really, truly awful, only peripherally related sequels with no spark or wit or passion in them. But I'll probably review them someday too.

Hey, sing it with me, possibly the worst theme song ever recorded by somebody for this movie:

"But outside of the classroom walls,
The geiger counter tells it at all,
Can't see or feel, smell or taste
The remnants of a nuclear waste

Really wanna knowwww!

Really wanna know!......


Nuke 'em High....

Nuke 'em High...."

There, that's just a small portion of the credits song to this movie. Convinced we're onto a winner yet?

It's not quite as good as "The Toxic Avenger", the quintessential Troma movie, but it's as good as "The First Turn On!", "Troma's War" and "Stuck On You!", which is very good in the Troma stakes. If you like Troma, you'll like it.

Click HERE to go back to my Troma page and click HERE for a full list of my reviews.

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