Things in New York are About to go Down the Toilet…
Ostensibly this horror-comedy is about a liquor store owner who inadvertently sells some toxic hooch to the local homeless population, and the horrific effects it has on them. It causes anyone who drinks it to dissolve into garish neon colored sludge—or in one notable exception, explode—leaving a big sloppy mess behind for others to clean up. I say ostensibly, because the first 20 minutes and the last 20 minutes or so do revolve around this killer booze; but in the middle of the film, this angle is almost completely forgotten about. Instead, we’re given a glimpse into the inner workings of this substrata of society—from their struggles to survive, to dealing with law enforcement, coping with the abuse handed out to them by the more privileged, and even avoiding a psychotic war vet among their numbers. This description may make it sound like STREET TRASH veers into drama territory, but have no doubt, this is all stylized and dialed way up so that it never ventures outside of sheer exploitation.
An epic and quirky cast, garishly gooey special effects, fantastic locations, and a manic intensity all work in favor of this cult classic. The script is meandering, tasteless, and even offensive, but there’s such a hardworking earnestness here that I can’t fully trust someone who actively dislikes it.
Back in the 1980s, New York was a far cry from the tourist-friendly location it is now, and the filmmakers made fantastic use of their location. The city looks like a bombed-out wasteland, which is rather fitting since so many of the derelict denizens resemble extras from a post-apocalyptic thriller. Half-standing buildings, crumbling walls, and mountains of litter pepper every shot. Perhaps the only set piece that had to be constructed was the refuge made of tires that some of our characters call home. Everything else seems as if it were already in existence, just waiting for some industrious crew to take advantage.
There are a lot of characters in this film, and none of them are exactly what you would call fleshed out, but every one of them has some sort of quirk or nuance that sets them apart from the rest. There’s absolutely no blending together of the characters, no matter how small the parts may be. That’s a sign of good scripting, and generally solid performances all around help matters as well.
The gore effects courtesy of Jennifer Aspinall and company are colorful, practical, over-the-top, and absolutely fantastic. The scenes where they really get to shine are some of the best in the film, such as the previously-mentioned hobo explosion, and when the first homeless man to imbibe the poison liquor melts into a toilet, as depicted on the poster image. But there are great scenes that don’t rely on the effects, too. The movie opens with a fun and complex chase scene that involves everything from fire escapes to garbage trucks.
There is a lot to snicker at and enjoy here, but be forewarned that it is decidedly not politically correct. There are racist jokes, sexist jokes, ableist jokes, and multiple shades of sexual assault are played for laughs. It’s an equal opportunity offender, and my old adage about not watching exploitation offerings expecting political correctness still stands, but the tastelessness may be a bit much for some people. It’s on par with early Troma films all the way around, but in general much better made.
STREET TRASH was written by Roy Frumkes, who also has writing credits on horror film THE JOHNSONS (1992), the first three entries in THE SUBSTITUTE franchise (1996-1999), and he has a small part in this film as “Melted Businessman”. It was directed by James M. Muro, who has otherwise been relegated to directing television episodes. He is best known in the industry as a steadicam operator, which he operated here as well, and that goes a long way in the visual appeal of the movie. He went from shooting cult classics like SPOOKIES (1986), BRAIN DAMAGE, MANIAC COP, and SLIME CITY (all 1988), to Hollywood hits like FIELD OF DREAMS (1989), DANCES WITH WOLVES (1990), TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY (1991), and TITANIC (1997), among many others.
There are far too many great characters to discuss them all here, and far too few of the performers went onto real careers in the business. Instead, we’ll briefly touch on the best of the best, and those who did manage to break through.
One of the best actors here was Mike Lackey, who played the character of Fred with a cool naturalism like a Greenwich Village folk musician. Unbelievably, he never acted again, but did contribute to the makeup effects for I WAS A TEENAGE ZOMBIE, just as he did here, the same year. Similarly, Bill Chepil who played Bill the Cop and had some of the best lines (“I can’t do a five dollar investigation on five cents worth of shit!”), never appeared onscreen again.
Vic Noto, who played shell shocked Vietnam vet Bronson with a drunken intensity, had a number of smaller roles in film and television. Astute viewers may have caught his uncredited cameo in VIGILANTE (1983) and DEATH WISH 3 (1985), and his appearances in vampire/mafia mashup INNOCENT BLOOD (1992), Nick Cage comedy caper TRAPPED IN PARADISE (1994), and Netflix’s comic book series DAREDEVIL (2016).
The grotesque owner of the junkyard, Frank Schnizer, was played by Pat “R.L.” Ryan, who had a small role in FIGHTING BACK (1982), played the mayor in Troma’s THE TOXIC AVENGER (1984), and also appeared in CLASS OF NUKE ‘EM HIGH (1986) and MANNEQUIN (1987).
By far the best performance here was from James Lorinz, whose fast-talking wiseacre doorman character never fails to amuse. He appeared in a number of smaller parts through today, and wrote and starred in the mob comedy WHO DO I GOTTA KILL? (1994), but is most well-known for his portrayal of the male lead in the fabulous FRANKENHOOKER (1990).
If I had my way, the nameless doorman would be the star of an entire series of films where he finds himself in an unusual situation way over his head. Like Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis rolled into one.