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The Untold Truth Of The Toxic Avenger

The Toxic Avenger started its life as a trash B-movie meant for midnight showings. Along the way, it became a huge franchise. Not only are there four mainline Toxic Avenger movies, there's at least one spinoff, a children's cartoon, video games, toys, and an off-Broadway musical. It also helped launch Troma, one of the world's leading and most prolific independent film studios with a style all its own.

But how did this bizarre franchise get started? Well, a weird movie starts with weird people, including Troma co-founder and Toxic Avenger co-director Lloyd Kaufman and future film producer Mark Torgl. This insanely strange film has also created countless wild stories, especially behind-the-scenes antics that are more than worthy of a movie about a 98-pound weakling becoming a crime-fighting goo monster. And if you want to know more about this B-movie classic, here's the untold truth about The Toxic Avenger, ranging from the story of Tromaville to men who donned the prosthetics and became Toxie.

Troma made The Toxic Avenger in response to horror being declared 'dead'

Troma spent most of the '70s making sex comedies, including Squeeze It! and Waitress! According to The Ringer, Squeeze It! was a direct influence on Porky's, with director Bob Clark visiting Troma and asking how it got made. After the genre went mainstream and crowded the marketplace, Troma started looking for their next challenge. They found it in the headline of a trade paper.

Michael Herz and Lloyd Kaufman came across an article in a trade paper — usually listed as Variety or The Hollywood Reporter — saying that the horror genre was dead. They took that as a challenge, and it's part of what inspired The Toxic Avenger. "Horror films never die," Kaufman told Salon. "Sometimes Hollywood just has an attitude that horror is beneath them and their $100 million explosion movies." He added that a Troma horror movie wouldn't be the same kind of horror movie, say, that John Carpenter would make. "Our movies stretch you in every direction — you're scared, you're shocked, you're laughing your head off, you cry."

A brief history of Tromaville

Most of Troma's movies, including The Toxic Avenger, take place in Tromaville, New Jersey. A decent amount about the town's character can be gleaned from a steady diet of Troma, but Lloyd Kaufman connects the makeup of this town to his own views. While Kaufman has been cagey about his precise politics, in part because he's willing to attack anyone, he calls his socialist grandmother a "big influence" on him. He also makes a point (via Krypton Radio) that all Troma movies take the side of the "little guy" against overlords and entrenched interests.

"The little people of Tromaville are perfectly able to run their lives, but they are victims," he said in an interview with critic Jonathan Baz. "Firstly of a conspiracy of a labor elite, that's the labor leaders who make millions of dollars while their constituents eat dog food. Then there is the corporate elite, and we all know who they are. Finally, there is the bureaucratic elite, the Congress of the United States, who have never worked a day in their life for the most part but who all are feeding at the public trough." There's also a "revolving door" of corruption, and as such Tromaville residents "are sucked dry of their economic and spiritual capital, and sometimes they need The Toxic Avenger to save them!"

Lloyd Kaufman wanted an environmental message

Melvin Ferd becomes the Toxic Avenger after falling into a vat of toxic waste and transforming. While radiation is a common origin story for everything from superheroes to monsters — a Venn diagram where Toxie is the overlap — Lloyd Kaufman had something else in mind. He's long been an environmentalist, and he saw The Toxic Avenger as a way to make something of a statement.

Kaufman told Krypton Radio that he first got interested in environmental issues just before making The Toxic Avenger. "My wife and I used to frequently camp in the great outdoors. And no matter where we went, there was garbage. No matter how remote of a location, there would be streams with beer cans." And as Kaufman explained, this was also before fast food restaurants used biodegradable materials, so there was refuse everywhere. Needless to say, this inspired the film and the filmmaker, and Kaufman credits the environmental theme with helping keep the movie's legacy alive and eventually leading to "a delightful, environmentally correct Saturday morning cartoon for 5-year-olds."

The Toxic Avenger was meant to send up health clubs and '80s fitness culture

The Toxic Avenger was originally titled Health Club Horror, only renamed in post-production (which is why Melvin is never called "The Toxic Avenger" during the course of the film). Even so, the original name was appropriate. Melvin spends the first part of the movie getting terrorized by members of his gym and eventually gets revenge on all of them. "The health club is the perfect place to establish the bullies and to show someone who is slightly different getting bullied," Kaufman told Vice.

The idea to include health clubs traces back to Kaufman's work on Rocky, where he was the production manager for all the scenes shot in Philadelphia. (He also made a cameo — he was the bum who Rocky picked up and dropped in the bar.) He spent a fair amount of time in and near gyms, a big part of the fitness-crazed '80s. "I was hanging around gyms a lot," he explained to Vice, "and I realized that we were building up our bodies — with all of these gyms popping up and personal training becoming the new thing — but we were defiling the Earth and ruining the environment."

Toxie is known to wrestle now and then

The Toxic Avenger doesn't stay in Tromaville. He may be a hometown hero, but he goes where he's needed. He went to Japan in Toxic Avenger 2. He visited Amortville (mirror Tromaville) via a dimensional tear in Citizen Toxie. And, on and off, he's been found in our own world ... usually in a Florida wrestling ring.

Kaufman gave his blessing for a wrestler to work as the Toxic Avenger. It wasn't just him giving a passive thumbs up, either — the two won the tag team championship in Fantasy Super Cosplay Wrestling several times, with Kaufman himself picking up the pin at least once. Toxie also appeared in a Battle Royal for FEST Wrestling, wearing the Tromaville title. 

Kaufman acknowledged the similarities between wrestling and Troma characters in an interview with Vice, specifically "the way of how stories are told with bodies and action." He also counts wrestlers Dolph Ziggler and Chris Jericho as friends, both of whom "know my films intimately."

Nobody working on The Toxic Avenger knew it would be a hit

Seldom do people working on any film know how it will turn out, much less how it will be received. As a famous example, nobody working on Casablanca thought it would be anything other than an ordinary movie. The Toxic Avenger isn't exactly Casablanca, but it had a similar story. Nobody who worked on the film thought it would be anything besides a campy goofball movie quickly forgotten.

Mark Torgl told Cinemachine that, after reading the script, "I knew it would either be a huge cult film or the worst film ever made. Turns out it was both." For his part, actor Patrick Kilpatrick "thought it was the worst film in western civilization while [he] was doing it" and "had no idea it was going to become such a cult film." He recalled (via Late to the Game) that he was part of Roanoke, one of PBS's biggest productions of the era, at the same time. This led to an unusual experience — reading an issue of the New York Times to find a negative review of The Toxic Avenger on one side of the spread and a positive review of Roanoke on the other.

Troma hires local actors to play Toxie at cons

Wherever Lloyd Kaufman goes, the Toxic Avenger is sure to follow. Well, at the very least, it'll be some version of Toxie. After all, Kaufman often needs his muscle for a photo op at a convention. But on occasion, this person isn't even a Troma employee. Given the frequency with which Kaufman appears at conventions, he doesn't always have the time or money to fly someone else out. As such, the folks at Troma often recruit local talent to play Toxie for a few days.

For a prime example, take Kaufman's appearance at the 2019 Tampa Bay Screams horror convention. The Tampa Bay Times ran a piece looking for candidates to play Toxie for a bit. Festival founder Sean Donohue said that he really wanted "someone who is six feet or above and muscular. ... But everyone should apply. You never know." So if you've ever wanted to play the Toxic Avenger, keep an eye on any local conventions.

There's a history of trouble on set

Most report that working with Troma — and working on Toxic Avenger movies, in particular — is a fun experience. That doesn't mean there hasn't been strife on set, though. There have been more than a few threats, shakedowns, and other more nebulous forms of conflict.

The late John Altamura, the main Toxie performer in Toxic Avenger II and III, had a falling out with Troma after the third film. The second and third movies were shot at the same time, and Altamura claims the producers didn't want to pay him what he deserved. He stated in an interview with journalist Rod Wilbon that after allegedly dealing with some "intimidating forces," he decided the filmmakers wouldn't "get away with that," adding, "And that's why you'll never see Lloyd Kaufman or [co-director] Michael Herz at any event that I'm at."

Patrick Kilpatrick, who played Leroy in the first movie, alleged to Late to the Game that the movie was financed by the mob. He also claims he "got involved with the leading lady a little bit" — adding she got the job because of "mob financier" — but he stopped speaking with her after getting confronted by the financier's muscle in the men's room.

On top of all that, Ron Fazio, the so-called "second-string Toxie" in II and III, was unclear of the details but knew of issues between co-star Phoebe Legere's boyfriend and Altamura. Fazio knew her boyfriend had anger or jealousy issues, telling PixelProtocol that "he was causing trouble, breaking things, ripping things apart, and they actually had to ask him to leave — firmly."

The story of Mark Torgl, the original Melvin

Mark Torgl played Melvin pre-transformation in the first Toxic Avenger movie. It's a small on-screen credit, but Torgl had a bigger role behind the scenes. He first got involved with Troma a year before Toxic Avenger while a student at NYU. He answered a note on their job board to help with their movie The First Turn On! and asked to be script supervisor so he could work with the director. When the actor hired to play nerdy high schooler Dwayne in that movie didn't show up, Lloyd Kaufman gave the role to Torgl.

When it came time to cast The Toxic Avenger, Troma auditioned dozens, if not hundreds, of kids for Melvin the 98-pound weakling. Eventually, they called Torgl and said the role was his if he wanted it. He accepted and also worked once again as script supervisor. In an interview with Cinemachine, Torgl said that "the makeup [for the transformation sequence] took many hours, it was pretty uncomfortable." He also explained, "The bathtub scene was difficult as the bathtub had no hot water. And the makeup did not come off easily. Not my favorite part of the shoot." And sadly, he didn't leave the role unscathed. As he put it, "In the catch-on-fire scene, before the stunt double took over, my arm actually caught on fire accidentally. I still have a little scar from that."

There's an officially unofficial sequel about Melvin

There are four main movies in the Toxic Avenger franchise – The Toxic Avenger, followed by Toxic Avenger II and III. Finally, there's Citizen Toxie: The Toxic Avenger IV, something of a sequel to the first and a reboot of the franchise at the same time. There is, however, one more officially unofficial follow-up – Toxic Tutu. It's a Troma film, yes, but to use an analogy from another horror franchise, this isn't so much Nightmare on Elm Street 5 as it is New Nightmare.

Toxic Tutu is the brainchild of Mark Torgl, the original Melvin. He left acting behind not long after the first Toxic Avenger movie and worked behind the camera for about three decades. Around 2015, Torgl was invited to the Mad Monster Party convention, and he had one of his old film school buddies document his first-ever con appearance. They started traveling the con circuit and found out people wanted to be part of the movie. Eventually, they decided to go a step further and add a narrative. Toxic Tutu is a partial mockumentary about Torgl touring the con scene before getting kidnapped by masked gunmen who have an interest in the real toxic waste from the original movie.

The Toxic Avenger has been re-edited multiple times for being too violent

The Toxic Avenger is, to put it mildly, a violent movie. The most notorious moment is when a child's head gets crushed by a car, but that's just one of many envelope-pushing scenes. There's also the guide dog that gets shot, the politician who has his guts ripped out, and no less than one person getting set on fire. That's not even mentioning the nudity and all the other forms of obscenity.

Even though the '80s was a violent decade for movies, Lloyd Kaufman (via Den of Geek) had to crop the movie down considerably just to get an R rating, without which, a few theaters, even ones specializing in midnight showings, wouldn't touch his movie. It also received many more cuts during cable airings and home distribution, ranging (depending the market) from a few seconds of screen time to half an hour. It was only released in full on the 2000 director's cut DVD.

How Ron Fazio became the second-string Toxie

For most of the Toxic Avenger movies, at least two actors play Toxie. There's the main Toxie, who's in most shots, and the second Toxie, who does fill-in work and other secondary shots. The most prominent second-string Toxie is Ron Fazio, who played the role in II and III and took a fascinating path to ... let's call it "stardom."

Fazio had a brief NFL career before turning to acting. While looking for work, he got a job as a bouncer in New York. He recounted to PixelProtocol that while he was working at a club, "One of the coat check girls was saying she was going to be in a movie, and I [went], 'That sounds cool.'" She ended up being an extra in a Toxic Avenger movie, and he got a set address from her. When he went to visit the set, they saw his 6'3" frame and said, "We need a guy like you."

No audition needed. Kaufman asked if Fazio wanted the job, who agreed. By this point, they'd already hired John Altamura as the main Toxie, and Fazio was made the second-string Toxie. He was also given the role of an Apocalypse Inc. executive so he could show his face.