1986 was a hugely important year in genre cinema—part of the five-year stretch between 1982 and 1987 that arguably makes up the best run of genre movies in history. Major studios and major filmmakers like Fox, James Cameron, David Cronenberg, and John Carpenter were turning out genre classics. New voices like Fred Dekker and John McTiernan were introducing themselves to audiences. Franchises like Friday the 13th, Star Trek, and Psycho were still going strong on the big screen. And in the middle of all this, America’s longest-running independent studio, Troma, cemented their very specific and wholly original cinematic voice with Class of Nuke ’Em High.

Troma co-founder Lloyd Kaufman had already been producing and directing films for over a decade—first art films and then a series of outrageous sex comedies like Waitress! and Stuck on You!—but it wasn’t until 1984’s The Toxic Avenger that Kaufman more or less established Troma’s house style. With that film, Troma found the right mix of gore, sex, broad slapstick comedy, cartoonish acting, and righteous political messaging. If this combustible combination of Tromatic elements was first put into effect in The Toxic Avenger, it’s Class of Nuke ’Em High that formally codified them two years later. If Toxic Avenger is the film that built the House of Troma, Nuke ’Em High is the studio passing the inspection.

A movie that looks and feels like Mark Lester’s Class of 1984 after it’s been force-fed three pounds of Pixy Stix and PCP, Class of Nuke ’Em High finds Kaufman (under the pseudonym Samuel Weil) taking over as director from Richard W. Haines (of Splatter University fame), who was let go after the start of production. As the only film on Kaufman’s résumé co-directed by anyone but fellow Troma co-founder Michael Herz, there is a slickness to Nuke ’Em High that almost borders on commercial; whereas the majority of subsequent Troma movies appeared to be made for those fans already converted, Class of Nuke ’Em High was accessible to anyone who picked it up at the video store based on the title and cover box.

The movie’s most Tromatic moments feel isolated throughout: there’s the opening sequence, in which the school nerd spits up toxic waste, jumps out the window, and dissolves on camera; there’s the dream sequence in which the two square lovers (Gil Brenton and Janelle Brady) mutate after smoking some irradiated pot; there’s the memorable scene in which Brady’s character gives birth to a fish monster through her mouth. The scenes in-between these set pieces dial back on the usual Troma eccentricities to resemble something that, if hardly typical, could still be seen in other low-budget exploitation movies in the ’80s.

Class of Nuke ’Em High cleverly allows us to find comfortable footing before it fully assaults us with grotesquerie and weirdness. Troma has always cannily smuggled their particular brand of lewd, gore-soaked insanity within the larger framework of a familiar genre: The Toxic Avenger is their superhero movie, Tromeo and Juliet their Shakespeare adaptation, Troma’s War their (duh) war movie, Poultrygeist their musical. Class of Nuke ’Em High is Troma’s teen movie, borne out of the popularity of John Hughes’ works that came to define the 1980s. It has all of the familiar tropes and conflicts of an ’80s teen movie: the burgeoning romance of young lovers; the social strata that includes nerds, jocks, punks, etc.; class conflict, bullying—you name it. But because this is Troma, these familiar signifiers are doused in toxic goo and monster fish babies, and the results are something at once recognizable and “other.” It exists in the space that only Troma movies can.

Like most Troma films, Class of Nuke ’Em High has concerns that extend beyond its horror comedy construction. It’s right there in the title—this is a movie that deals with the atomic scare of the 1980s. America was living in fear of a nuclear war breaking out. Nuke ’Em High was released the same year of the greatest nuclear power plant disaster in history: the Chernobyl explosion. There had been no shortage of films addressing the fear of living in a post-nuclear apocalypse, but Nuke ’Em High is one of a few genre films that consider the ramifications of living side by side with nuclear power, as a plant has been comically built right next to the high school. There’s nothing realistic about the ways Kaufman and Haines play the effects out, but the anxieties the film projects are very real. Our young people are being poisoned, the film suggests. Our babies are destined to be tiny fish mutants.

Okay, it can’t all be prophetic.

Alongside The Toxic Avenger, Class of Nuke ’Em High is the only other Troma title to spawn a series of sequels: Class of Nuke ’Em High 2: Subhumanoid Meltdown in 1991 and Class of Nuke ’Em High 3: The Good, the Bad and the Subhumanoid in 1994. Neither is directed by Kaufman and features a new set of characters and events unrelated to the original film.

The original would be more or less remade, however, with 2013’s Return to Nuke ’Em High Volume 1, which creates an origin story for the evil punks known as The Cretins and turns the young lover subplot into a romance between two high school girls. While their backgrounds have been updated for the 2000s—not only are they now a same-sex couple, but they are also more politically involved and motivated—they still represent a kind of normalcy within the Troma universe. Funny that in both the sequel/remake and the 1986 original, the independent studio known for embracing cinematic anarchy stops short of siding with The Cretins. There’s a difference between being an outsider and just being an asshole.

After nearly 30 years, Class of Nuke ’Em High holds up as well as any ’80s exploitation movie this side of Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo. With its mohawked punks and nuclear dread, it’s a film that’s very much of its time, though the teen movie conventions and Troma’s penchant for slimy gore, juvenile humor, and wanton sexuality keep it relevant even today. Troma would continue to make movies even sillier, grosser, and/or more transgressive than this one, but with the fallout now settled, Class of Nuke ’Em High still stands as one of their best.


This retrospective is part of our Class of 1986 special features celebrating a wide range of genre films released thirty years ago. In case you missed them, we have links to our other Class of 1986 pieces, and to read more exclusive interviews and articles about flicks from ’86, click on the DEADLY Magazine cover image below:

  • Patrick Bromley
    About the Author - Patrick Bromley

    Patrick lives in Chicago, where he has been writing about film since 2004. A member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Online Film Critics Society, Patrick's writing also appears on About.com, DVDVerdict.com and fthismovie.net, the site he runs and hosts a weekly podcast.

    He has been an obsessive fan of horror and genre films his entire life, watching, re-watching and studying everything from the Universal Monsters of the '30s and '40s to the modern explosion of indie horror. Some of his favorites include Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde (1931), Dawn of the Dead (1978), John Carpenter's The Thing and The Funhouse. He is a lover of Tobe Hooper and his favorite Halloween film is part 4. He knows how you feel about that. He has a great wife and two cool kids, who he hopes to raise as horror nerds.