Some cult movies earn their rep­u­ta­tion because they excel in a par­tic­u­lar gen­re and oth­er cult movies earn their cult rep­u­ta­tion because they defy gen­re clas­si­fi­ca­tion alto­geth­er. Street Trash is a good exam­ple of the lat­ter cat­e­go­ry. It is often con­fined to the hor­ror gen­re because of cer­tain ele­ments of its premise but it’s so much more: it com­bi­nes grind­house thrills, gory hor­ror shocks, black humor of the dark­est vari­ety and even some allu­sions to Dodes Ka’Den and Huckleberry Finn.

In one of the more unique sto­ry hooks to emerge from ‘80s cult cin­e­ma, the premise of Street Trash revolves around poi­son hooch. A liquor store own­er who ped­dles cheap booze to a pri­mar­i­ly tran­sient crowd find­ing a rot­ten crate of some­thing called ‘Tenafly Viper’ in his cel­lar. He starts sell­ing it to bums, who dis­cov­er the hard way that what is inside the bot­tle will cause them to melt (and in some cas­es explode) into piles of acidic, mul­ti­col­ored goo.

But that’s not all that is going on here: in fact, Street Trash has a sur­pris­ing­ly char­ac­ter-dense sce­nar­io. Runaway broth­ers Fred (Mike Lackey) and Kevin (Marc Sferrazza) are our nom­i­nal heroes, but we also have a gonzo Vietnam vet dere­lict (Vic Noto) who has flash­back night­mares about vam­pire Vietcong, a tough cop (Bill Chepil) try­ing to stay on top on all of the bowery’s crimes and a wiseass door­man (James Lorinz) whose habit of goof­ing off gets him in trou­ble with his mob­ster boss (a pre–Goodfellas Tony Darrow). The lethal hooch finds its way into all the­se sub­plots, mak­ing for may­hem of both grue­some and mor­dant­ly humor­ous vari­eties.

The result­ing film is as con­fronta­tion as it is bizarre. In addi­tion to the mul­ti­col­ored melt­downs, Street Trash also crams every sort of devian­cy pos­si­ble into its run­ning time: rape, necrophil­ia, cas­tra­tion, and gold­en show­ers all get their day in the sun here and each is played for gal­low laughs of the tack­i­est vari­ety. It’s the kind of movie where the vic­tor of a fist­fight shows his con­tempt for his oppo­nent by vom­it­ing on him. Simply put, this is not for casu­al view­ers or cult cin­e­ma dilet­tan­tes. It is nasty and unapolo­get­i­cal­ly so.

That said, if you have a strong stom­ach and a grim sense of humor, this film tells its odd­ball sce­nar­io with high lev­els of style and inspi­ra­tion. Roy Frumkes’ often seems like it might slip into nar­ra­tive anar­chy, par­tic­u­lar­ly given all the dif­fer­ent tones it embraces, but there is a solid dra­mat­ic thru-line that pulls the episod­ic sto­ry­line togeth­er. It’s an expan­sive, gen­er­ous script that gives many of its char­ac­ters room to shine — a par­tic­u­lar­ly great bit is a moment when Burt (Clarence Jarmon) unde­takes a shoplift­ing expe­di­tion at a gro­cery store — and the result is full of sur­pris­es from start to fin­ish.

The ensem­ble bring­ing this tale to life is also par­tic­u­lar­ly impres­sive. Lackey gives a pret­ty dar­ing comic per­for­mance, fear­less­ly div­ing into the dark mate­ri­al with­out fear of alien­at­ing the audi­ence, and Sferazza offers a nice­ly under­played coun­ter­point that gives the film its core of human­i­ty. The oth­er leads sup­port this core nice­ly: Chepil was a real ex-cop who brings action hero-style cred­i­bil­i­ty to his character’s macho per­sona and Noto brings a fear­some Method inten­si­ty to his junk­yard vil­lain.

That said, the bit roles are every bit as indeli­ble as the leads: Darrow and Lorinz are the obvi­ous scene-steal­ers, doing some hys­ter­i­cal­ly fun­ny improv riff­ing as the war­ring boss/doorman duo. Nicole Potter offers a fear­less turn as the dam­aged “winet­te” girl­friend of Bronson, Jane Arakawa is love­ly as the one per­son sym­pa­thet­ic to the run­away broth­ers and Jarmon offers a win­ning comic turn rem­i­nis­cent of the Richard Pryor stand-up char­ac­ter Mudbone. Fans of Troma films will be amused by an appear­ance from R.L. Ryan, who is delight­ful­ly sleazy as the junk­yard boss.

Even bet­ter, direc­tor Jim Muro and cin­e­matog­ra­pher David Sperling give the film a stun­ning visu­al gloss for a low bud­get effort. Together, they cre­ate a look that brings a vibrant sense of col­or to the slum locales, giv­ing them a sort of gut­ter poet­ry. The rest­less, prowl­ing cam­er­a­work enhances the film’s ener­gy, par­tic­u­lar­ly the fre­quent Steadicam shots. It’s worth not­ing that Muro did the Steadicam work him­self and lat­er became an in-demand steadicam oper­a­tor for direc­tors like James Cameron.

Finally, Jennifer Aspinall’s psy­che­delic gore effects are spec­tac­u­lar — the count­less melt­downs have an almost Dali-esque touch to them. The results are some of the most unique make­up effects in any hor­ror or cult item from the ‘80s (and that’s say­ing a lot).

In short, Street Trash is the kind of film that should be approached with cau­tion — but any­one brave enough to explore the sin­gu­lar niche it occu­pies will be reward­ed with gen­re-defy­ing shocks and thrills beyond their wildest dreams.