Street Trash (1987) Review

I’ve recently been thinking about Paul Verhoeven‘s cyberpunk classic, Robocop. A remarkably unaged film, and yet a time capsule of its era. It’s powered by a volatile energy that simply refuses to hold back, depicting a meaningless future of rash violence and soulless materialism. For me, Robocop can be summed up by the death of Emil Antonowsky (Paul McCrane). Emil’s a goon who, after attempting vehicular murder against our hero Murphy, is covered in toxic waste. The resulting sequence is both disgustingly graphic and wonderfully cathartic, unpalatable to politically correct sensibilities.

This increasingly incoherent preamble leads me to Street Trash – an experience that seeks to be the very definition of politically incorrect. An utterly puerile film, which is exactly what this oh-so-serious world needs right now.

Street Trash is what horror buffs call a ‘Melt Movie’: the ‘body horror’ film if it took place during a heatwave, and somebody forgot to turn the fans on. Any film hoping to qualify as a melt movie – its parents must be so proud – needs to feature graphic representations of human flesh liquefying and bubbling. In this respect, you could call The Wizard of Oz (1939) a tame precursor to the genre.

The main difference between the body and melt sub-genres of horror is that the former earnestly plays up man’s fear of physical degeneracy, while the latter is a juvenile gross-out, becoming horrifying through attrition. In Street Trash’s case, it becomes a matter of whether we’re able to endure this exploration of grime and human filth. Similar in spirit to slap-stick, cartoonishly violent affairs such as Evil Dead II, Bad Taste, and Brain Dead.

The plot (if one can call it that) concerns a batch of toxic, woefully old wine called Viper that is being sold cheaply to the homeless population of Manhattan. Viper being the alcohol equivalent of the collection of Saprogenic sweat under a sumo wrestler’s folds of fat, it produces all manner of bizarre effects in its drinkers. People deliquesce, explode, break down, and fall apart; anything that can be done to transform the human body into a work of modern art.

Street Trash explores the epidemic of Viper and the subsequent toll this takes on a city life, as the crazed homeless engage in lewd, vicious acts – public brawling and chasing nude couples out of their homes. We are given the impression that the city is fighting a losing battle to a lawless, amoral section of society, one which doesn’t have anything to lose and as such have the stake in the struggle. It’s like The Twits with more boozing and stylised displays of nudity.

But director J. Michael Muro is too fixated on the depravity of the homeless to weave a compelling narrative out of Street Trash. There isn’t a traditional narration just a series of incidental encounters. Which is a shame, as there is potential to explore the othering of the homeless here; how their being treated as trash has led to a metamorphosis of sorts. He even wastes Bronson (Vic Noto), a traumatised Vietnam veteran and leader of the scrapyard community. Having the lawless disenfranchised become militant would have given the necessary plot structure.

As it stands, Street Trash is an exploitative display of the terrible (yet delightfully childish) acts to which the homeless are apparently inclined. It’s like Friday Nights at my local Subway store – a load of angry young men fighting over a sandwich.

The point of the movie isn’t, however, to make us feel for the plight of the homeless, or even to have them serve as the source of the horror. No, Street Trash is purely about how far it can take its puerile sensibilities. Which is why I like it. It’s not a scary film in the usual sense; we aren’t sat with bated breath as the protagonist explores some poky hovel with hundreds of hiding places for the monster/killer.

What makes Street Trash a daunting experience is how gleefully it shows off its bleak, misanthropic world-view. This is a world where marauding men carry women off to be brutally gang raped, or where a game of ‘keep away’ is played with a dismembered knob. A world in which people knowingly drink substances that cause their insides to ooze out in a rainbow of gore. Out of context, it sounds utterly nihilistic. But in the film’s world, this is all played for entertainment.

Writer Roy Frumkes claimed “I wrote it to democratically offend every group on the planet,” and it shows. Just like Robocop, Street Trash gains power from its willingness to push the buttons of society with an outlandish view of death and morality. The mesmerizing use of colour to simulate gore gives the film an unique appearance; it too can sing a rainbow – a rainbow of death. Seeing a man slowly melt away into a toilet bowl – his flesh a liquefying blue and green matter – is a rather unforgettable experience. As is watching a decaying woman tear through her chest and let the sludgy pink remains of her breast ooze out.

Street Trash aims for colour not just the grotesque and is all the more memorable for it. It has a rich biopunk palette of striking greens, purples, and blues, which help to elevate the bodily mutilations into an art-form. The aforementioned genitalia throwing scene serves as the perfect summation of Street Trash.

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