On the surface, Lloyd Kaufman seems like a bite-sized Mel Brooks: a New York Jewish man with a rather upbeat, humorous personality, who always seems to be waiting to present the next big thing he’s got cooking up. As the founder of Troma Entertainment, that “next big thing” is bound to be even more ridiculous than the last. “Greetings from Tromaville!” he states at the beginning of many of his promotional online videos and public appearances, dressed in a suit and bowtie, usually surrounded by sexy scream queens and guys in masks and monster makeup.
Troma Entertainment, for the uninitiated, is the longest-running independent film studio in the United States and home to the most ridiculous low-budget films ever made. If you’ve ever been to a midnight screening, stumbled upon an esoteric public access television show or even ventured over to the “weird” side of YouTube, then you’re only about halfway there.
Characterized by over-the-top gore, putrid practical special effects and its own cinematic universe to boot, Troma Entertainment wears the title of “cult film” with distinct honor. Familiar to most might be The Toxic Avenger, a 1984 splatter comedy whose narrative follows Melvin, a “ninety pound weakling,” as he transforms into a grotesque, pus-seeping, crime-fighting superhero due to a chance encounter with a vat of toxic waste. The unsuspecting citizens of Tromaville (the fictional New Jersey town where many of Lloyd’s films center) must accept their newfound hero (whether or not he’s the one they deserve). Placed in context, though, with the rest of Troma canon, it’s only the tip of the iceberg.
Since The Toxic Avenger, Troma’s projects to date have imbued that B-movie spirit even further. With titles such as Poultrygeist, Squeeze Play, Rabid Grannies, Redneck Zombies and Sgt. Kabukiman NYPD, you get the sense that Lloyd and his team are always a bit tongue-in-cheek. Because they are. But a studio like Troma doesn’t just emerge fully-formed from the tar pits of Hollywood’s backlots. How did a man like Lloyd Kaufman, a Yale graduate with a degree in Chinese studies, build one of the most influential cult movie studios in recent memory? And why?
When we spoke to Lloyd on the phone, we found him in the midst of a balancing act: finalizing travel plans to Las Vegas, while also neck-deep in the process of editing Troma’s latest in-house produced feature, #Shakespeare’s Shitstorm. The film, based on the Shakespeare play The Tempest, is a spiritual follow-up to the 1996 Troma classic Tromeo & Juliet.
“Romeo and Juliet were shit disturbers,” Lloyd says. “They were going against rules that they didn’t understand that the previous generation had imposed on them for no reason –– just bullshit!”
While that “shit-disturbing” ethos seems to be what has propelled and defined much of Lloyd’s career, his interest in cinema began much more innocently, through an osmosis of sorts during his time at Yale.
“My freshman year, I was placed in a very small room with the guy who ran the Yale film society — a film nut,” Lloyd continues. “Our beds were head-to-toe, and at night I would inhale his stinkin’ feet. Slowly but surely the aroma to Troma was born.”
Through this roommate, Lloyd began to attend film screenings at Yale. He became completely transfixed with the auteur theory of film: the idea that the director takes more of an artistic role in the production of a movie than the writers. For the time, it was somewhat novel. His first film out of college was 1969’s The Girl Who Returned, and Lloyd reflects on it fondly: “It was a feature-length, unwatchable, black-and-white movie.”
But the film proved to be important; formative, even. Namely, it solidified his relationship with Michael Herz. Herz might have been just a fellow classmate at Yale with Lloyd, but for The Girl Who Returned, he and his wife were two of the stars. After the production of the film wrapped, Lloyd leaned harder into film. In those early days, Lloyd took jobs doing things such as production management to pay the rent on the physical space Troma inhabited.
“I had a minor producing part in a movie by John G. Avilson called Cry Uncle! Which, if ya haven’t seen it, it’s terrific,” he said.
Lloyd’s connection to Avilson turned out to be useful in his career, working pro bono while Avilson tried to secure another picture.
“I saw that he was very talented, so I offered to work for him for free. Y’know: xeroxing. I did a little babysitting for him. I forced him to watch my next movie which is called The Battle for Love’s Return… We became lifelong friends.”
The experience also gave Lloyd the opportunity to learn the ins and outs of distributing and producing independent films. Lloyd’s do-it-yourself approach to filmmaking, however, didn’t fly with the Directors Guild of America (DGA). His habit of hiring little to no DGA members and running the operation mostly himself runs counter to their stringent rules and regulations. Often, Lloyd would serve multiple roles for his productions. To bypass the requirements of the DGA, Lloyd credited many of his early films to his pseudonym “Samuel Weil.”
“If you direct a movie, and it’s not a Director’s Guild movie chock full of assistant directors and production managers,” he warns, “you go to movie jail. They kick you out.”
Despite their best efforts to eject Lloyd, his pseudonym and shared director credit rendered them unable to prove he was technically connected to any of the films in question. On this technicality, gently skirting around the union’s rules and regulations, Lloyd and Michael continued their partnership throughout the mid to late 1970s. The pair directed, produced and distributed raunchy comedies such as Squeeze Play! and The First Turn On! While polarizing, the films were successful in their own right. Troma seemed to finally have its niche, its own corner of the ring. But in the early 1980s, the tides of their fortune began to shift. Hollywood was catching on.
“The big studios started making what we were making! These movies were very lucrative. We bought a building in New York from the profits of Squeeze Play! and Waitress! Things were going — I think — very well.”
When the major studios began creeping into Troma territory with movies like Porky’s, Lloyd and Michael started searching for something else: a new niche.
Lloyd continues, “Michael saw a headline in either Variety or Hollywood Reporter saying that Hollywood had decided that horror films were no longer profitable,” So… part of our gestalt is to do what the experts say not to do.”
While horror was uncharted territory for Lloyd, comedy wasn’t. The marriage of these two genres morphed into what would soon become their first real success: 1984’s The Toxic Avenger.
At first glance, The Toxic Avenger might present as a gross-out, low-budget film rife with cartoon-like toxic slime, a gruesome, mutant crime fighter and a ridiculous plot. And of course, it is exactly that — but there’s more to this Troma classic fermenting just beneath the slimy surface. Baked into the fabric of every film that Lloyd makes is a message designed for either social or political commentary: “I like pissing people off. I like stirring the shit. I like being subversive.”
The messages vary but generally stick to a certain theme: a giant “fuck you” from Lloyd to the elites (as he defines them).
“The corporate elite, the bureaucratic (congressional) elite and the labor elite: the labor leaders. Those three elites suck dry the little people of Tromaville of their economic and spiritual capital. That’s what the basis of every Troma movie is.”
Lloyd’s process is this: He becomes “engrossed” and obsessed with one issue ad nauseum, eventually channeling his criticism through film. For Toxic Avenger, his target was a wide one: anti-environmental corporate entities.
“My wife and I had done a lot of camping in very isolated places and we saw a lot of garbage: McDonald’s stuff. In those days, it wasn’t biodegradable, y’know? You go to a swamp and it’s full of beer cans, styrofoam cups.”
The idea came to him in bits and pieces. Before the film was a fully-formed concept, he had been playing with the threads of several ideas.
“I could go on for an hour… but I wanted Frankenstein to live; I wanted a happy ending!” he said. “I wanted to make a funny movie, make sure we got something important in the movie and blah blah blah. It was at the Cannes Film festival that I got the ‘eureka!’ epiphany.”
Lloyd’s “eureka!” moment, in a word: putrid. In three: super fucking putrid. But also hilarious, eventually leading to what became The Toxic Avenger. The cult-classic’s charm might be hard to see for some — but it’s certainly there, buried under layers of blood, guts, slime and whatever else.
With Toxic Avenger, Lloyd played out his fantasies of environmental vengeance against the corrupt elite. Our central protagonist, Melvin, mutates into a radioactive beast after a group of teens at a health club bully and chase him out of a second floor window, directly into a vat of open (yes) toxic waste. As the skin melts off of his body, he grows several feet in several minutes. From then on, Melvin is recognizable only as Toxie. Throughout the rest of the film, Toxie takes it upon himself to clean up Tromaville from the morally corrupt characters plaguing the streets. From shoving someone into a pizza oven, turning someone’s head into a milkshake and squishing a drug-pusher’s head in gym equipment, The Toxic Avenger ushered in a new era for Troma — while simultaneously setting the tone for almost every other Troma film to boot.
Later films wouldn’t shy away from these grotesque uses of practical effects, nor would they scale back on the absurdity of their plots. 2006’s Poultrygeist takes a jab at the poultry industry using zombie chicken-people and a Colonel Sanders-esque central villain. Class of Nuke ‘Em High takes aim at environmental catastrophe and bureaucratic incompetence through a gang of radioactively mutated high school students. Overall, Lloyd makes these films for younger audiences, to both entertain and to point his own spotlight on issues that he sees to be the most important.
Unsurprisingly, Lloyd’s next target seems to be one of his biggest yet: streaming. Specifically, Netflix. In 2019, Troma announced that its streaming service, Troma Now, would soon be available, hosting every film that Troma has made or distributed. And that list is long. Besides their own in-house films, Troma has also been responsible for distributing other filmmakers’ movies. The most notable example is arguably Cannibal: The Musical, a musical telling the true story of Colorado prospector Alfred Packer who, after he and his team get lost in the Colorado mountains, resorts to murdering and eating the members of his party. Filmmakers Trey Parker and Matt Stone would go on to create the animated series South Park just four years later for their thesis film at the University of Colorado.
“After its completion, we were rejected at every film festival (except the Denver film festival where my aunt Marilyn worked),” writes Parker in the forward to Kaufmnan’s book Make Your Own Damn Movie. “Then Troma called. They had seen the film and were interested in the distribution rights.”
However, upon further discussion during a business lunch at Del Taco, the situation looked rather bleak.
“Odds are you’ll never see a dime,” Parker recalls Lloyd telling the pair.
When Parker and Stone asked Lloyd why they should let him distribute the film, Lloyd allegedly offered this response: “Well, I just think Cannibal is a really great movie and people should see it. I mean, you guys made it so that people would see it, right?”
Films like Cannibal: The Musical help to ensure that Troma’s reach extends far beyond its own films, and its newly minted streaming service cements its availability to future generations. It’s all right there, in your web browser. Over 45 years of shit-stirring waiting for your perusal. But Lloyd won’t be around forever, and a legacy will eventually be left behind. Lloyd, however, feels optimistic — confident in his audiences and the films he’s made over his 50+ year career.
“Certainly… The movies we made are, uh, terrific. So there’s no denying that. Tromeo and Juliet, Terror Firmer — we just toured Texas with that movie, and the people loved it. It was way ahead of its time.” Lloyd clears his throat. “Our movies are timeless. They don’t age. That will be our legacy.”