Of Boobs and Blood

He claims to be blacklisted and close to busto. Thirty years in the film biz, with a cult bigger than David Koresh's and a disemboweled body of work that would make any studio boss blood-red with envy, and still he kvetches in a voice so eerily similar to that of Mel Brooks. The cable networks, which once loved him, will no longer run his movies; the video-rental giants, particularly Blockbuster, will no longer stock his product; St. Martin's, which has published his two books, treats him like crap. Lloyd Kaufman, one half of the squished-brain trust that founded Troma Entertainment 29 years ago and made midnight-movie icons of such big-screen freaks as the Toxic Avenger and Sgt. Kabukiman, has no shortage of complaints. Ask, and you shall receive hours' worth.

"The big devil-worshiping international media conglomerates have killed everybody," the filmmaker says at the beginning of this interview, during which he will drink cups of coffee far less caffeinated than he. Part of Kaufman's image is that he looks nothing like you would imagine; the maker of movies filled with "copulation, depravity and excess" dresses in real-estate salesman drag, all sports coat and tie. "You will not find too many independent movie studios that are more than a year or two old. Troma's the baron. We're going into our 30th year next year, and we've created a little brand, but we've never been famous, and it's never been more difficult."

Do not argue with him or present facts that hint at the contrary. Do not tell him that scads of good reviews in respectable publications, for such films as Terror Firmer and Citizen Toxie: The Toxic Avenger IV, give the impression he is famous and profitable. Do not present him with published reports that say his $500,000 films sometimes make well into the eight figures once home-video and foreign sales figures are tallied. Do not tell him you were under the delusion that Troma, with its sure-fire formula of naked women and buckets of blood and miles of entrails and mouthfuls of juvie humor, had become a brand name worth a small fortune. He will disagree, with the passion and paranoia of a man who firmly believes there are people out there digging him a grave and carving him a tombstone.

"It's never been worse," he insists. "We're more prolific, but there's basically economic blacklisting, which is basically what happens to independent movie companies. In other words, I don't think you'll see any Troma movies in Blockbuster. And not just from Blockbuster, but HBO and Showtime. HBO is Time Warner, Showtime is Viacom. Bill Clinton was a real pimp for these giant conglomerates--and his gang got rid of a lot of the laws that protected against deregulation, so that now Rupert Murdoch can own every station in Dallas if he so desires. These days, the only independent movies you get in New York, for instance, are from a division of Disney or a division of AOL Slime Warner."

Spoken like the son of an attorney--especially one who, according to The Wall Street Journal several years back, pioneered the shareholder lawsuit. Lloyd Kaufman talks into the tape recorder like a man trying to convince a jury to convict, or at least keep him from swinging from the gallows.

But Kaufman, now in his mid-50s, has always presented himself as a great contradiction: the straitlaced lunatic, the bow-tied Ivy Leaguer with a fetish for gore and boobies, the father figure of the freak show. He went to Yale in the late '60s as a Chinese studies major; as he writes in the foreword to the new book Underground U.S.A.: Filmmaking Beyond the Hollywood Canon, "I had expected to become a social worker who could do good things like teach people with hooks for hands how to finger paint." Instead he wound up rooming with the co-chairs of the Yale Film Society, and his college education consisted of watching Alfred Hitchcock, Samuel Fuller, Jean Renoir, Ernst Lubitsch and other masters of the medium. He claims that after slitting a pig's throat in Chad, Africa, for his first film, "I realized offending people was what I yearned to do."

At first, Kaufman and business partner Michael Herz, who is rarely seen in public, went for sex romps (Waitress!, The First Turn-On!!), because the late '70s and early '80s were good days for soft-core sinema. In '85 they came up with their franchise player, the 98-pound weakling reborn in a vat of contaminated waste. By Tromeo and Juliet in 1996 and the semi-autobiographical Terror Firmer three years later, Troma and Kaufman were accruing deservedly good reviews--you could only vomit from laughing so hard at these movies--and turning to the Internet and DVD, among the first studios to do so. "I really didn't get DVDs, then we started exploring it," Kaufman says. "I had a lot of experience with VD, that's for sure. Got a shitload of VD. So it was not that hard to put the 'D' in front of one thing, and now we've got the magnificent collection."

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky