As with any holiday, Valentine’s Day is an excuse for genre nerds to cozy up and switch on a romantic – or at least tangentially romance-related – classic movie. In my household some favorites include; Overboard, My Bloody Valentine, and the obvious best choice – 1997 Troma Films classic: Tromeo and Juliet – a Valentine’s romance movie that I’d argue deserves inclusion on everyone’s V-Day watch list. After all, in 25 years, its appeal has only grown. And why wouldn’t it? It includes just about everything you could need! Romance! Passionate sex scenes! Decapitations! Incest! Even a compelling female lead! Plus, if you’re a traditionalist who is pining for some Romeo and Juliet, why not enjoy the greatest love story ever told in what is easily its best adaptation – and I mean that without any irony.
It’s clear that director/co-founder of Troma Studios, Lloyd Kaufman himself had a respect and a vision for the original text, stating in his book All I Need to Know About Filmmaking I Learned from The Toxic Avenger, “Shakespeare was a shit disturber. His plays had sex and gore and risqué humor. They may be tame today but back then they weren’t; it was even illegal for his plays to be performed within the city limits of London. The Bard was a regular 2 Live Crew.”
Kaufman knew from the get-go that Troma and Shakespeare were meant for each other and wasn’t about to let Troma’s low-brow rep exclude the studio from tackling it. Tromeo and Juliet even goes so far as to use much of the play’s original dialogue – although it’s often improved upon in ways that only a Troma movie can call them improved (“Parting is such sweet sorrow.” “Yeah, totally sucks.”) This is obviously, in part, thanks to the work of a young James Gunn (yes that James Gunn of Guardians of the Galaxy, Slither, and Peacemaker fame – are you really that surprised?) , who was hired to pen the script after Kaufman had read that Gunn had vomited during a live performance piece. “A publicly vomiting writer!” Kaufman exclaimed as his reasoning, and the rest is star-crossed, kismet history.
Tromeo and Juliet is a great time from the moment the incomparable narrator, Lemmy Kilmister of Motorhead, rattles off “Two households”. In true Troma fashion, it packs every moment with a degenerate’s smorgasbord of debauchery. A constant assault on your sense of decency, there’s rarely a moment of exposition without the inclusion of a slapstick fight, cartoonish violence, nudity, or bodily fluids/functions while still managing to feel like a very lived-in 90’s time capsule movie. Those of us who lived through the 90’s have endured the rehashing of some highs and lows, but the “90’s vibe” here is deliciously inescapable: mesh shirts, pleather and plaid, CD-ROM porn, and even a close-up nipple piercing. Tromeo and Juliet leans so hard into its era, it’s like an impossibly self-aware period piece.
In a 2017 interview with Vice, Gunn stated that the nostalgia “…was intentional. When making the movie, I was thinking back on Valley Girl, in which everything is so overly 80s. I wanted people to look back at this movie and think it’s so ridiculously 90s. I knew at the time that we were making a movie that was so of the moment that it would be dated in five years—hopefully, in a cool way that makes you enjoy that datedness.” As a result, the movie manages to feel more timeless than other stylistic 90’s features (Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet comes to mind) in that it comes off less “self-consciously” 90’s.
The film never leans into an apathetic “gen-x attitude” common to the era either. Tromeo wears its absurdity and crudeness on its sleeve, scoffing at any hint of pretension; downplaying its high-minded ambitions despite the quality being entirely present. There’s an admirable earnestness that permeates the movie where nothing feels placed merely for shock; there’s a truth to it. Even the reveal that the dark secret threatening to keep Tromeo and Juliet apart is that they’re actually brother and sister doesn’t feel like a cheap gross-out gag. It’s constantly foreshadowed, including in an early scene between Sammy Capulet (played by Sean Gunn — again, are you actually surprised?) and his sister Georgie who he propositions explaining “The way the world is now, we’ve got gang bangers, we’ve got perverts, we’ve got anorexia, everything’s in style. If we just throw a little incest into the mix, pretty soon the world will be like one great big hug.” (Plus, it’s actually not an entirely unlikely scenario – siblings who have not grown up together often fall prey to genetic sexual attraction!)
Gag inducing as it may be for most, it actually makes logical sense that, unaware of their relation, the two would be drawn to one another. All the elements of sincerity and shock work together without undercutting each other and the tone remains consistent throughout and, most importantly, the script strikes the balance of pushing the envelope and telling a compelling story.
The timelessness of the script extends to other creative choices. It would have been easy enough to include the Que family as another powerful household equal to the Capulets, but featuring the Que patriarch as a ruined (and farting – constantly farting) man helps the movie to resonate today in that it speaks to a larger issue of class struggle and exploitation.
There’s a homegrown, punk rock sensibility to the film through it’s music choices as well. Rarely do music selections match such efforts so perfectly (Repo Man comes to mind). The world-building of a feud set in Manhattan’s 90’s subculture is enriched by selections from artists like Super Nova, and Wesley Willis and the Ass Ponys that transforms a hundreds years old English assignment into a living breathing house party you attended once with a bottle of Skol Vodka.
What truly cements this film as a Valentine’s Day classic, however, is the casting of Jane Jensen as Juliet Capulet and Will Keenan as Tromeo Que. The charge between the two leads radiates off the screen; their animalistic physical chemistry almost over the top in its enthusiasm – magnetic enough that you can’t help but root for them. According to Kaufman, the pair supposedly agreed not to have sex until after the movie, a choice Kaufman says a “sex-crazed pervert like me would never have thought of in a zillion years.” Whatever they did, it worked. Thankfully the movie never gets too syrupy sweet as Troma is seemingly incapable of holding back, featuring numerous fatal head injuries and a joke about a pedophiliac priest.
So charming is the bond between Tromeo and Juliet, that even as the relationship dooming secret of their siblinghood is revealed, we can overlook one of the greatest societal taboos to admire their inbred, mutant family’s cookout in Jersey and revel in their happily ever after. Keenan’s Tromeo exudes a sensitive sweetness that rises above multiple amputations. His believable naïve longing for true love, exploited by a dismissive and promiscuous Rosy, and his kind tending to his farting, alcoholic father make him the perfect match for imprisoned and abused Juliet. When the pair get matching tattoos of each other’s names, Juliet is shown laughing through the process while Tromeo sobs in agony, it’s both a great sight gag and a sweet character moment.
Of all of the story’s enduring touches, the choice to give Juliet a heroic turn was perhaps the boldest and most impressive take. It would be easy to phone-in the character of Juliet as an object of infatuation whose memorable actions include pretending to kill herself and then actually killing herself. As a movie-going audience, we’re all-too-familiar with the unremarkable ingenue archetype, whose sole purpose is to be pined after. This Juliet thankfully wasn’t lazily stuffed into such a box – or, well, just a plexiglass one.
Instead, Troma’s Juliet is desire-filled, passionate and empowered. We see that she has a rich fantasy life (even if it leads her to call a phone sex operator played by Troma favorite Joe Fleishaker, who decidedly does NOT look like Tromeo). Disinterested in her fiance, a meat mogul by the name of London Arbuckle, she has a sexual affair with her family’s pierced and tattooed cook before confessing that she longs for more. In her fantasies she dreams of a beefcake dreamboat, and gifts us, the audience, with an unforgettable, slimy, drooling penis monster – perhaps the last great moment in puppetry in cinema. (Thanks for nothing, computers!)
When her flop-sweat and underwear-clad creep of a dad still tries to force her to marry London, she has no control over her situation until she removes her beauty from the equation. When she visits the apothecary, rather than a potion for sleeping death, he gives her a vile stating it’s “sure to scare the shit right out of any meat freak who admires too much your surface and not enough the person beneath.” When it takes effect, she’s repulsive, a human-bovine hybrid, complete with cloven feet and swinging horse dick. It decidedly scares off her London, as she’s become the livestock he exploits for profit. Tromeo is undeterred by her hideousness, for his love really is unconditional – perhaps in the familial sense after all.
When Juliet has to fight her father for the freedom to marry her heart’s desire, she and Tromeo team up; weaponizing feminine products like curling irons and bobby pins. Tromeo, a true ally, isn’t afraid to fight with tampons to topple the patriarchy. He comes to her aid, but taking control of her own destiny, she does the heavy lifting (e.g. lifting a tube TV and smashing it over her dad’s head).
It’s not lost on me that the crudeness of this film means it would be dismissed by a vast majority of audiences seeking a love story, but I’d argue this is the least cynical take on Romeo and Juliet that exists. Troma, Lloyd Kaufman, and James Gunn undeniably believe in the power of love – incest and electrocutions be damned! So, I implore you, on this anniversary of the BEHEADING of St. Valentine, pop in Tromeo and Juliet with the person your heart most desires and just be grateful that you’re (probably) not blood-related.