For half a century, the 72-year-old co-founder of Troma Entertainment — the world’s oldest independent film studio — has been the enfant terrible of comedy horror, a low-budget Abbott and Costello for the gross-out crowd.
Troma’s iconic B-movie back catalogue includes such squelchy, sanguinary delights as “The Toxic Avenger,” “Surf Nazis Must Die,” “Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead” and “Tromeo and Juliet.”
The movies — mainly shown these days in art house theaters and on college campuses — haven’t made money since the 1990s but Troma’s mutants have become icons of American schlock culture.
“Troma has left a big mark on the countryside of the moving images industry. But we are not that well-known,” laments Kaufman, who describes the studio he founded with university friend Michael Herz as “jalapeno peppers on the cultural pizza.”
Troma was a stepping stone to Oscars glory for Oliver Stone and Kevin Costner as well as a filmmaking hothouse for James Gunn (“Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 1 and 2”) and Trey Parker and Matt Stone (“South Park,” “Team America”).
Other luminaries whose early work can be found in Troma’s library of self-produced and acquired movies include Robert De Niro, Dustin Hoffman, Vincent D’Onofrio, Samuel L. Jackson and Eli Roth.
Not for the thin-skinned or politically correct, the filmography is a Pandora’s box of cannibalism, radioactive goo, bodily fluids and pneumatic breasts, not to mention relentlessly mocked racial, religious and sexual stereotypes.
AFP caught up with Kaufman at his oceanside hotel as he visited Los Angeles for the west coast premiere of his latest opus, the onerously-titled “Return to Return to Nuke ‘Em High: AKA Vol. 2.”
– Disco-dancing chicken –
The second part of an $800,000 revisiting of Troma’s 1986 classic “Class of Nuke ‘Em High,” it deals with environmental degradation, bullying, anti-LGBTQ prejudice and school shootings, all in the inimitable Troma style.
The movie reunites fans with Tromaville High School classmates and lovers Chrissy and Lauren, who battle fellow students who have turned into vicious mutants after eating contaminated tacos as part of a corrupt school meals program.
“Poultrygeist,” a satire of the chemical-industrial food complex, focuses on a fast food restaurant built on a native American burial ground that sparks a disco-dancing chicken-human hybrid zombie apocalypse.
“The Toxic Avenger,” considered by most to be Kaufman’s finest work, stars 90-pound (40-kilogram) weakling Melvin Junko, who falls into a vat of chemical waste and emerges as Toxie, New Jersey’s first superhero.
Pretty much ignored upon its release in 1984, it eventually proved to be Troma’s breakthrough into the mainstream consciousness, celebrated by arthouse types from Greenwich Village to Tokyo.
It has spawned three sequels, a stage musical, a Marvel comic, video game and a children’s cartoon series, and is due to be inducted into the US Library of Congress this year.
“The people in Tromaville are… perfectly capable of running their own lives but they suffer,” Kaufman says.
“They are victims of a conspiracy of the labor elite — labor leaders who make millions of dollars while the constituency is eating dog food.”
To say Kaufman is outspoken would be to under-sludge the radioactive pudding. A twinkle in his eye, he enjoys pulling the rug from under establishment figures he considers pompous or corrupt.
The Troma hashtag for the ballet dress-wearing Toxie — #MeTutu — is a provocative nod to the entirely serious #MeToo movement against sexual harassment that is likely to offend as much as it amuses.
– ‘We’re like Bambi’ –
But the free-speech advocate has sincerely-held beliefs about the way Hollywood — that “small number of devil-worshipping international media conglomerates” — runs things.
“Ninety-nine point nine percent of the people in the movie industry are just scum of the earth — stupid, incompetent, dishonest, the worst,” he says.
His evidence of the “filthy” showbiz culture, he says, is the sycophantic embrace of disgraced movie tycoon Harvey Weinstein while he was sexually abusing with impunity.
Paradoxically, he refers to the reaction to the scandal variously as “The Ox-Bow Incident” — a 1943 movie about the injustice of mob lynching — and the “Red Scare,” a reference to post-World War II paranoia over communism infiltrating US society.
“How many naked people have been in our films? Thousands. In fact I’ve been naked in my movies. The point is we’re like ‘Bambi’ compared to the way the scum of this mainstream is,” he says.
Kaufman reveals that his own stars audition naked but adds that his female casting agent or another witness is always in the room.
His daughter Charlotte, who has acted in many of his movies, was the director of photography on the latest and had to excuse herself while he pranced naked in a send-up of the notorious “Silence of the Lambs” Buffalo Bill scene.
It was Kaufman who gave childhood friend and fellow Yale student Oliver Stone his first movie job, producing the 1973 erotic crime story “Sugar Cookies.”
“I knew when we were in grade school that Oliver Stone would be great, either as something constructive great or an axe murderer,” he told AFP.
“And it turns out he’s one of our most talented and, certainly in my lifetime, one of America’s greatest directors.”