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The untold truth of The Garbage Pail Kids Movie

The 1980s were a particularly fruitful time for kid-centric entertainment. On TV, they had action-adventure sagas like Transformers and He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, and children could keep the fun going by buying up all kinds of related merchandise, like collectible stickers and action figures. In fact, both the Transformers and He-Man franchises would ultimately expand into big-screen movies, proving that kid stuff could attract paying audiences to movie theaters. And in 1987, along came another extremely popular childhood pastime writ large as a motion picture — The Garbage Pail Kids Movie.

The film was based on a series of trading cards published by Topps, and they were loathed by parents and loved by kids for the exact same reason: They were disgusting, depicting an ever-growing collection of grotesque characters with gross names that matched revolting character traits. For example, there was skin-optional Unzipped Zack or Jay Decay, the rotten corpse. However, the movie, starring a bunch of actors in unsettling costumes, didn't match the success of the card line. In fact, it was a critical and commercial flop for the ages. Here's the behind-the-scenes story of a truly "trashy" movie.

The card series publisher didn't care about the movie

Filmmakers behind The Garbage Pail Kids Movie had their work cut out for them, transforming a popular and iconic property without any sort of narrative through line into a cohesive movie that made sense. Nowadays, when a brand extension takes the form of a movie, representatives of the original product advise filmmakers on how to properly and credibly make a film that stays true to the tone and the characters. However, The Garbage Pail Kids Movie may seem a little disjointed to viewers because Topps, the company that published the Garbage Pail Kids cards, didn't contribute very much. 

"Topps definitely didn't want us spending our valuable time on anything that might interfere with getting the next series out," Kids co-creator and artist Mark Newgarden told Flickering Myth. "With these license deals, it was always a case of 'take the money and run.' There was never any semblance of quality control once Garbage Pail Kids passed to another entity." Newgarden didn't see the film's script until production was well underway — too late to change anything, in other words. The artist wanted to help out with the movie, but he believes that Topps CEO Arthur Shorin "would have never permitted it."

The director made The Garbage Pail Kids Movie for the paycheck

While Garbage Pail Kids cards were the passion of countless schoolyard ne'er-do-wells, The Garbage Pail Kids Movie wasn't exactly a passion project for director and co-writer Rod Amateau. The filmmaker had been bopping around Hollywood since the 1940s, performing stunts on the original Mighty Joe Young and landing his first directorial assignment on the 1951 movie The Bushwackers. When he made Kids, he was in his 60s, looking to retire, and he needed to make sure he would be properly taken care of during his final years. Enter The Garbage Pail Kids.

Interestingly, the movie wasn't Topps' idea but Amateau's, and he optioned the rights to the Kids from the company. "It's important that minor directors like me," Amateau told Flickering Myth, "fill their pension fund and their health and welfare." Star Mackenzie Astin told Mental Floss that working on the movie ensured Amateu would enjoy Directors Guild benefits for the rest of his days. And with co-writer Linda Palmer, Amateau quickly knocked out a script — intending at first to make a made-for-TV movie — and just two months later, shooting was underway.

Whether by choice or because he directed a major bomb, Amateau virtually retired after The Garbage Pail Kids Movie, never helming another project before his death.

Mackenzie Astin tried to quit

Not counting all the people covered in prosthetics and animatronics, the primary actor in The Garbage Pail Kids Movie was Mackenzie Astin, starring as likable teen and Garbage Pail Kids ally Dodger. Astin is part of a small Hollywood dynasty, brother of The Goonies and The Lord of the Rings actor Sean Astin and the son of Oscar-winner Patty Duke and John Astin, best known as Gomez Addams on TV's The Addams Family. Mackenzie Astin was offered the role and took it, simply because he was eager to move from TV star (he'd been a cast member of The Facts of Life for three years) to movie star. 

"I was a fan of the cards," he told Mental Floss. "I know I was more enamored with the idea of starring in a movie than focused on whether the material was worth investigating." But long before the movie became a legendary flop, Astin's father knew it was a potentially career-killing misfire. "The contracts were signed by the time my dad had a chance to look at the script," Astin said. "He did everything he could to get me out of it. Like, 'Dude. This is not a good idea, son. I know what I'm talking about.'" But there was nothing the Astins could do — Mackenzie had agreed to be in the film, and his contract was airtight.

How The Garbage Pail Kids Movie picked its Tangerine

Apart from Mackenzie Astin, the other primary unadorned human actor in The Garbage Pail Kids movie was Katie Barbieri, who played a fashion designer and love interest with the quirky name of Tangerine. Like Astin, she'd had little experience in film before production began. Her only movie work to that point was a tiny role in Ferris Bueller's Day Off. Similar to Astin, she'd worked mostly in TV sitcoms, with guest spots on '80s fare like Silver Spoons and The Bronx Zoo. 

Interestingly, she wound up with a major part in The Garbage Pail Kids Movie not through the usual agent-and-audition-channels but because of producers' lack of foresight and their casual, if not unprofessional, approach to casting. "As it happened, they hadn't cast 'Tangerine' yet," Astin told Slash Film. "So when I got the part, they asked if I knew any actresses around 15 or 16, and I was like, 'Well, as a matter of fact ... my girlfriend Katie Barbieri is an actress.'" But then things got awkward and weird. "I was probably trying to sow my oats," Astin said, implying some mistreatment of his girlfriend and co-star. "We broke up about halfway through" filming."

Mackenzie Astin had a hard time being in such a bad movie

Being a part of such a notorious and poorly received movie marked a psychological nexus point in the life and career of star Mackenzie Astin. "Having this be part of your childhood, it's a little bit icky," Astin told Slash Film. "But especially as it relates to me coming from an acting family," he added, referring to how parents John Astin and Patty Duke and brother Sean Astin all made well-received projects early in their careers, whereas his first film wound up as "a terrific stool sample." 

The actor says it haunted him for years, until he "got old enough to stop giving a s***" and just accept the movie for the spectacular dud that it is. It was a particularly cathartic experience for Astin to hear actors Paul Scheer and Jason Mantzoukas savage The Garbage Pail Kids Movie on How Did This Get Made?, their popular bad film podcast.  "For an hour and 45 minutes, I f***ing giggled and giggled and giggled," Astin said, ultimately feeling "good about this experience that [he'd] felt bad about for a number of years."

How the Garbage Pail Kids came to life

Greaser Greg, Ali Gator, Valerie Vomit, and the other Garbage Pail Kids are a combination of performers in 80-pound character suits, topped with specially crafted foam and latex costume heads that were loaded with radio-controlled puppet parts and animatronics. None of it operated smoothly. Effects artist William Butler used acrylic paint — not a substance that allows for flexibility — and it hardened upon drying. After finishing the heads and placing them on the actors, that's when things got especially grotesque. 

"As the mouths opened up," Butler told Mental Floss, "they ripped on both sides like the Joker." Actor Kevin Thompson (Ali Gator) said scarring around the mouth of his character's head is visible throughout the movie, as replacements weren't really an option. "We only had one head each," Thompson explained, "and if it got ruined, production got shut down, so you had to make it durable."

Not only were the masks difficult to wear, they were a threat to the actors' health. The film was shot in a warehouse in California where temperatures reached the triple digits. The actors had trouble seeing and hearing with the heads on and could run short on oxygen if they had them on too long. And the things seemingly had a mind of their own. "The metal roof screwed with the radio controls," Thompson said. "All of a sudden, the eyes would start whirring around in a circle."

It's one of the worst-reviewed movies ever made

Garbage Pail Kids in trading card form were extremely popular with children, but plenty of parents certainly found them tasteless, grotesque, and awful. When the cards were adapted into the 1987 The Garbage Pail Kids Movie, critics universally sided with the upset parents. The film is one of the most abysmally reviewed entertainments of all time, and it has retroactively compiled a rare zero percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes, meaning no professional film watchers like it even a little bit

In fact, critics both in 1987 and after have taken great delight in expressing just how much they hate The Garbage Pail Kids movie. TV Guide called it "a stunningly inept and totally reprehensible film," Richard Freedman of Newhouse News Service labeled it "an ugly, brutal, humorless exploitation flick," while Felix Vasquez Jr. of Cinema Crazed thinks everyone should watch the film once but only if they're "masochistic and morbidly curious."

Additionally, Garbage cleaned up at both major "bad movie" celebrations of the era. It was nominated in three categories at the Golden Raspberry Awards with Worst Original Song (for "You Can Be a Garbage Pail Kid"), Worst Visual Effects (for the animatronics), and Worst New Star (for the Garbage Pail Kids). At the Stinkers Bad Movie Awards, it was nominated for the big prize of Worst Picture, but it lost to Spaceballs.

There's a ton of lost Garbage Pail Kids Movie merchandise

Consumer goods branded with the name of a big movie bring in extra revenue to offset the production costs of a film while also serving as promotion. In other words, regular folks pay to help advertise. Like most every film with mass appeal, and specifically an audience of children in mind, The Garbage Pail Kids Movie arrived with a merchandising blitz in play. Or rather, plans were in the works to unload a bunch of Garbage Pail stuff on the public, but it never quite happened on a large scale. 

Released in the late summer of 1987, The Garbage Pail Kids Movie opened in just 374 theaters. (Compare that to another 1987 film, Beverly Hills Cop II, which debuted in 2,326 locations.) Because the movie wound up with a minuscule theatrical release, the merchandise rollout was equally understated. A soundtrack album on vinyl and cassette quietly hit record stores, as did a 45 featuring the songs "Working With Each Other" and "You Can Be a Garbage Pail Kid." Some of the few theaters that actually screened The Garbage Pail Kids Movie passed out a set of four postcards featuring film characters Ali Gator, Valerie Vomit, Nat Nerd, and Windy Winston. As the film bombed, staggering to a gross of about $1.5 million, not many people showed up to collect those postcards, nor did they rush out to buy the tie-in album. As a result, both pieces of merchandise are collector's items.

It helped kill off the card line

The first line of Garbage Pail Kids cards hit stores in 1985, and the final one was released in 1988, not long after The Garbage Pail Kids Movie briefly played in a few hundred (and mostly empty) theaters. Three years is a long time for a fad to last, particularly one mostly adopted by kids, and it's possible the brand was on its way out anyway. But the gross and extraordinarily rejected movie might've put the lid on the trash can, so to speak. 

Publisher Topps prepared a 16th series of Garbage Pail Kids cards, set for release in 1988, but the company opted to not even bother with the cost of mass printing them and sending them out, seeing as how the failure of The Garbage Pail Kids Movie indicated that the demand just wasn't there anymore. Also speeding up the end of the line for the trash can children? The premature death of a TV spinoff. In 1987, CBS caved to protests from parents' groups and canceled a Saturday morning Garbage Pail Kids cartoon show before it even aired ... and it was scheduled for just a few weeks after the theatrical debut of The Garbage Pail Kids Movie.

Plans to reboot the Garbage Pail Kids were trashed

The Garbage Pail Kids hasn't been a hot franchise for more than 30 years, dormant in part because of the short lifespan of fads and because The Garbage Pail Kids Movie was so poorly received in every way. Nevertheless, Garbage Pail Kids remains a recognizable brand for which millions have fond nostalgia. And in 21st century Hollywood, that makes it ripe for an adaptation into a film ... again. 

In 2007, The Tornante Company, a multimedia endeavor run by former Disney head Michael Eisner, bought Garbage Pail Kids publisher Topps. Five years later, Tornante announced that it would exploit one of its acquired properties and create a brand new Garbage Pail Kids movie. A short film and viral video maker known only by the name PES signed on to direct from a story he co-wrote with Michael Vukadinovich (Runaways, Kidding). More than eight years later, however, it still hasn't been filmed, so the idea of a Garbage Pail Kids reboot might've been thrown in the garbage.