The Low-Budget Black Comedy That Launched James Gunn's Career

Someone once said that no matter what time of day you watch Ed Wood's legendary B-movie "Plan 9 From Outer Space," it always feels like three o'clock in the morning. The mere mention of Troma movies has a similar effect on me; suddenly it's a Friday night down Blockbuster Video in the early '90s all over again. Friends are coming over with beer and pizza and all I need is something with guns, boobs, car crashes, monsters, and cheap laughs for the perfect night in.

Headed by the cartoonish figure of Lloyd Kaufman, the studio has produced and distributed a steady stream of Z-grade trash for over 40 years now, and anyone who was around during the glory days of rental will be familiar with their sleazy back catalog. The world of Troma is both wacky and cynical, populated by dweebs, perverts, knuckleheads, psychos, bimbos, scumlords, and violent morons. Any regular folks are usually just roadkill-in-waiting. Over the years, Kaufman and the gang have produced one bonafide schlock classic, "The Toxic Avenger," which is a genuinely strong piece of low-budget, no-holds-barred filmmaking. In most cases, however, the lurid titles are more entertaining than the films themselves: "Dumpster Baby," "A Nymphoid Barbarian in Dinosaur Hell," and "Blondes Have More Guns," to name just a few.

Teeth-grindingly amateurish acting is a recurring feature in Troma movies, but some famous names have paid their dues on the way to the big time, including future Oscar winners. Kevin Costner, Marisa Tomei, and Billy Bob Thornton appeared in "Sizzle Beach U.S.A," "The Toxic Avenger," and "Chopper Chicks in Zombietown" respectively. Another Troma alumni who made it to the pinnacle of Hollywood behind the camera is James Gunn, director of "Guardians of the Galaxy" and savior of "The Suicide Squad," who started out adapting Shakespeare in Troma's unique style.

Wherefore art thou Tromeo?

James Gunn was newly employed by Troma when he was tasked with writing a movie by Lloyd Kaufman. Gunn said (via Destroy the Brain):

"He [Kaufman] said,'I want you to write one of three screenplays. Either "The Toxic Avenger 4," something else you could come up with on your own, or "Tromeo and Juliet." The last one I wanted to write was "Tromeo and Juliet."' It seemed completely unappealing to me, but that was the one he wanted me to write. So I got paid $150 to write that. Once I got paid to write it I was so excited about doing it and having a movie with my name in it, I went full force... as hard as I could... basically taking over the production."

Gunn certainly got into the swing of things quickly, because "Tromeo and Juliet" is just as aggressively crude, gross, and stupid as any of the studio's other key movies. Lowlights include repetitive fart gags, a close-up nipple piercing, eye-gougings and decapitations, incest, a penis monster, and gratuitous softcore sex scenes. That's all par for the course if you buy into the whole Troma thing, but it feels incredibly plodding and one-note when dragged out to almost two hours.

On the plus side, you have Lemmy from Motorhead as the narrator, and some decent chemistry between Tromeo (Will Keenan) and Juliet (Jane Jensen), which Kaufman encouraged the actors to develop offscreen. Kaufman is credited as director, while Gunn received the more ambiguous title of Associate Director:

"I basically directed the actors. Lloyd's a director. He's basically in charge of everything but I deal with the actors and a lot of the creative stuff. It's a real partnership between us, in terms of the movie. You know with Troma, those lines are very blurred."

The beginning of something much bigger

From $150 for a screenplay to Marvel, Gunn has come a long way since his Troma days. Next, he wrote "The Specials," which followed a group of superheroes on their day off (Gunn also had a starring role), before hitting the mainstream by writing two "Scooby-Doo" movies and Zack Snyder's remake of "Dawn of the Dead."

Then came "Slither," Gunn's full directorial debut. It was a gleefully nasty return to his B-movie roots about alien slugs that do horrible things to their human hosts. It was well-received by critics as a homage to '80s splatter and you can really see the Troma influence in the gross-out gore, walking a fine line between comic excess and just plain nausea.

Gunn's next feature, "Super," retained the same off-kilter edge. Rainn Wilson starred as a loser who decides to become a superhero despite having no superpowers. While the trailer plays up the comedy, it's an interestingly dark take on the vigilantism inherent in many superhero narratives; the protagonist is just a nutter punishing any crime, no matter how trivial, by bludgeoning people with a monkey wrench.

Neither "Slither" or "Super" set the box office alight, but they announced Gunn as a promising director with an original approach. That promise landed him the gig as writer and director of "Guardians of the Galaxy." While the film clearly saw Gunn working on his best behavior, he was the perfect choice for a lesser-known IP as out-there as his own ideas.

The bold choice paid off: "Guardians" was the first film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe that felt as if it was directed by an artist with a distinct voice rather than by a committee. Lloyd Kaufman, whose Toxic Avenger was the best superhero between "Superman" in 1978 and "Batman" in 1989, must be very proud.