“Body piercing. Kinky sex. Dismemberment. The things that made Shakespeare great.” –Tagline for Tromeo and Juliet
DIRECTED BY: Lloyd Kaufman
PLOT: Alcoholic Monty Que and unscrupulous Cappy Capulet have a long running feud dating back to their days as partners in a low-budget sleaze movie studio, and they have passed on their personal vendettas to the next generation. Monty’s son, Tromeo, falls in love with Cappy’s daughter, Juliet. The two young lovers must overcome the bloody gangland antics of their friends and family, Juliet’s upcoming arranged marriage to a self-mutilating meat-packing heir, and Cappy’s tendency to beat Juliet and lock her in a plexiglass box, among other crossed stars.
- Original drafts of the script had the parts played by costumed characters from other Troma studio releases: The Toxic Avenger, Sgt. Kabukiman, and so on.
- Much of Shakespeare’s original dialogue was included in the rough cut, but most was removed after negative audience reaction.
- Rock n’ roll cult figure Lemmy (of the band Motörhead) played the role of the narrator for free, and also donated the song “Sacrifice” to the soundtrack. Several less famous bands also donated songs for free or for a nominal price.
- Shakespearean actor William Beckwith played the role of Cappy Capulet under the pseudonym “Maximillian Shaun” because he was a member of the Screen Actor’s Guild and Tromeo and Juliet was a non-union film.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: Many of the more memorable images in Tromeo and Juliet are too obscene to be depicted in stills. The best sequence is when Juliet’s belly unexpectedly and rapidly distends and splits open to give birth to… a surprise.
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Redoing a classic Shakespearean tragedy as a low-budget, offensive farce is a promisingly weird, if obviously gimmicky, premise. Lloyd Kaufman and his Troma team were inspired by the concept, however, and put more creativity into the project than they did in their usual formula schlock fare. The typical Troma anarchy and bad taste reign again here, but the producers add a healthy dollop of bargain-basement surrealism (Juliet’s disturbing sex dreams) and some on-the-cheap arthouse effects (the lovemaking scene in a plexiglass box against a starry backdrop). The result is a movie that’s completely unpredictable, despite a plot known to every high schooler. Tromeo is revolting one moment, and oddly sweet and beautiful the next, an incongruity that only adds to the weird atmosphere.
Short promotional clip for Tromeo & Juliet
COMMENTS: Troma is a low-budget film producer/distributor formed in 1974 to promote and distribute exploitation movies. In 1985, they produced The Toxic Avenger, the tongue-in-cheek story of a nerd who gains superpowers when he accidentally falls in a vat of toxic waste. The Toxic Avenger was deliberately campy and unpolished, set in the mythical burg of Tromaville, and featured copious nudity, ridiculous gore, bizarre costumes, cheap shocks, sci-fi and comic book motifs, and toilet humor. The film was a surprise drive-in hit, and Troma began churning out film after film containing the same elements, with eye-catching titles like Class of Nuke ‘Em High, Redneck Zombies, and Sgt. Kabukiman, N.Y.P.D. The studio also began aggressively branding its product, setting almost every picture in Tromaville, and coining terms like “Tromatic” to describe its style. Troma made sure to include lots of advertisements featuring buxom spokesmodels (“Tromettes”) cavorting with the mop-bearing “Toxie” and other Troma characters on every video release.
Troma films are almost always comic parodies of genre films, but despite each film possessing its own audacious zaniness, they quickly become formulaic. Thy all have an incongruous, improvised feeling, but use the same basic palette over and over: camp, juvenile humor, nudity, cartoonish gore, and outlandish costuming. Each film is unpredictable, in the sense that you did not know exactly when or in what manner the punk gangster is going to get his head crudely crushed by the cartoon monster, or exactly which character is soon to fart at an inopportune moment. But the studio’s basic vocabulary of exploitation effects is predictable. For this reason, Troma productions are somewhat weird, but it’s a silly, middle-school playground strain of weirdness that typically doesn’t make much of an impression.
Although these flicks always deliver the goods their young male demographic craves, given their circumscribed vocabulary there’s a low ceiling as to how good a Troma film can possibly be. Tromeo and Juliet bumps right up against that ceiling. Mixing the low camp of Troma with the high art of the Bard produces a notably weird effect, and one that’s a bit more interesting and watchable than the average Troma production. For one thing, even though Juliet is made into a bisexual and (T)romeo is cast as a young man who feverishly masturbates to “romantic porn,” the doomed lovers still come across as sweet, idealistic kids. The fact that they play their out love story against a backdrop of the usual assemblage of Troma perverts, from the cruel Capulet who sublimates his lust for his daughter with unsettling cruelty to an obscene Mercutio who’s as adept at employing his bodily fluids against his enemies as his cutting wit, highlights the youngsters likability and keeps their predicament tragic. Most of the rest of the supporting punk characters sport an array of bizarre piercings, tattoos, and modified Zippy the Pinhead haircuts that scream “unemployable.” But the emotional core of the Shakespeare story remains, and even floats to the top of the sea of trash.
Tromeo & Juliet is one of those films that’s custom made for “list-style” reviewing. For example, a critic might say that Tromeo and Juliet is just like Shakespeare’s play, only with incest, Lemmy as a slurring narrator, explicit nipple piercing, headbanging background music intermixed with old Negro spirituals, gratuitous nudity, fart jokes, a former Penthouse Pet in the role of Rosaline, cheezy gore, lesbian sex, Shakespearean porno (“As You Lick It”), exploding crossbows, alien monster penises, punks caught in the windows of speeding cars, vegetarian propaganda, self-mutilation, references to other Troma movies, bad vaudeville routines, a popcorn pregnancy, a plexiglass isolation booth used for “time outs” when Juliet has sex dreams, 500 lb. male phone sex operators, urination, tattoo needles in the eyeball, Hitler statuettes embedded in brains, severed heads, car crashes, child abuse, opium dens, acid trips, cow-faced women, puking, horse penises, pedophile priests, a “happy” ending, and occasional iambic pentameter.
The briefest scan of that résumé indicates why Tromeo and Juliet should be considered a weird film. Troma’s oeuvre as a whole is weird, although the parts tend to be less weird than the whole concept of a studio existing solely to churn out such films. The filmmakers seem particularly inspired by the Bardic gimmick of Tromeo and Juliet, making it an excellent choice to represent the entire Troma project on the list.
One thing missing from that list that Tromeo and Juliet doesn’t have, but wishes it did, is a sense of revolution. Although director Kaufman would like for the film to be seen as at least partly a satire of middle-class values and a defense of the creativity of youth against the stultifying status quo, there’s no bite or shock to such a Dadaist attack in an age where bad taste is merely another acceptable alternative lifestyle. This mix of high and low art may have seemed subversive two or three decades ago. Now, it seems more like a nostalgic throwback to the days when audiences hadn’t seen it all before, and still possessed uptight bourgeois values that could be challenged by the avant-garde. Tromeo and Juliet ends up as nothing more than a unique, outrageous comedy, with no attainable ambition other than to make us laugh, sometimes uncomfortably. That’s a good enough reason for Tromeo and Juliet to exist. It’s a bonus that it does its job quite well.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“‘Tromeo and Juliet’… is to Hollywood B-movies what Mad magazine is to comic books… there is something goofily exhilarating in the spectacle of all the staple images of teen-age sex and slasher movies transformed into farce.”–Stephen Holden, The New York Times (contemporaneous)
“…sexy, silly, sweet and surreal!”–USA Today (contemporaneous)
IMDB LINK: Tromeo and Juliet (1996)
OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:
tromeo10’s youtube channel – 9 short promotional clips from the film (WARNING: some mature content)
DVD INFO: The DVD evaluated in this review was the first Tromeo and Juliet single disc release (buy), which is still available. The DVD is packed with extras, but oddly, the film is presented in a full frame aspect despite having had a (presumably widescreen) release. This choice suggests that Troma doesn’t believe its target audience is very discriminating. (NOTE: I amy be totally off base here: “Zooter” suggests in the comments that the movie was originally filmed in a 4:3 aspect ratio, which is certainly possible). Also, it can be a bit difficult to start the movie; there’s no “play movie” choice, instead one has to navigate to menu item 6 (of 8) and select “Creature Presentation”, which brings up the scene select menu. The aforementioned extras included a commentary track by Kaufman, deleted scenes, trailers of Troma’s greatest hits, production stills, short cast interviews, an interview with Lemmy that looks like it may have been part of a discarded commentary track, ads, some odd and perverse but rather dull shorts, and an “interactive tour” of Troma studios which is mildly amusing but mainly just a vehicle for more Troma branding.
The studio has also released an expanded two disc “10th Anniversary edition” (buy). This extravaganza contains an entire extra disc worth of bonus material and a total of four commentary tracks, more than enough material to satisfy the most obsessed Troma votary.