Troma’s 1984 cult classic The Toxic Avenger is notorious for its cartoonishly extreme violence (including a little boy’s head being crushed by a car), abundance of sex and nudity, onslaught of offensive humor, and overall tone of anarchic vulgarity. A gleefully perverse hybrid of superhero film, monster movie, and splatstick Grand Guignol, it originally received the dreaded X rating from the MPAA (an R-rated cut with about four minutes removed was later made available on video). Now, when I said the movie had “cartoonishly extreme violence,” I meant that it was so extreme that it couldn’t possibly be taken seriously, not that it actually resembled a cartoon. Yet seven years after the movie was initially released, Toxic Crusaders made its television debut.
Based on The Toxic Avenger, this animated series was actually how I was introduced to Toxie as a kid. When I later went back and watched The Toxic Avenger as a teenager, I was delighted and floored to discover that one of my favorite childhood cartoons had been based on that. Yes, Toxic Crusaders is a children’s cartoon — not the kind of adult-oriented animated series that’s commonplace today, but a program specifically made for children and aired during children’s cartoon blocks on Saturday mornings and weekday afternoons. And it got everything that came along with that: a toy line, a video game, a board game, coloring books, officially licensed Halloween costumes…all the merchandise you would expect a children’s cartoon to have in the early ’90s.
While Toxic Crusaders remains somewhat of an anomaly just in terms of the sheer gap in explicitness between the cartoon and its source film, children’s cartoons based on already existing horror-themed properties were not exactly rare at the time. HBO’s Tales from the Crypt series (itself inspired by the famously gruesome EC Comics series) inspired the kid-friendly animated version Tales from the Cryptkeeper. There were cartoons based on Attack of the Killer Tomatoes, Beetlejuice, Teen Wolf, and of course Ghostbusters (entitled The Real Ghostbusters for reasons I won’t get into here, and believe it or not much more horror-oriented than the movies). And while they didn’t get animated series, there were still toy lines produced for R-rated movies like Aliens and Predator that were marketed to children and advertised during children’s programming on TV. So while The Toxic Avenger is by far the most extreme example, horror-comedies and sometimes full-fledged horror movies were known to inspire children’s products during this era.
So this got me thinking: what other ’80s horror movies could have made for fun children’s animated series during this time period? I mean, sure, if The Toxic Avenger could get a kids’ show, then just about anything could, but which ones had concepts and characters that would have really translated well into the world of children’s cartoons?
Before I start making my suggestions, please keep in mind that I’m specifically talking about theoretical cartoons that could have been made in the late ’80s or early ’90s, not cartoons that I’d like to see made today. ’80s and ’90s Saturday morning cartoons are so far removed from today’s typically more sophisticated approach to animation (animation in general has seen a huge shift towards being embraced by adults as opposed to just being “kids’ stuff,” as it was viewed back then). Saturday morning cartoons were usually cheaply produced, shoddily animated, and did not generally contain much in the way of longterm narrative arcs, ongoing character development, or what one might be tempted to label “good writing.” I suppose if you wanted to be a grump about it, you could say they were more products than actual series, each episode almost entirely self-contained and designed to be an easily digestible distraction for kids to enjoy on a purely visceral level so they could then beg their parents to buy them all the accompanying merchandise. There really was a popular perspective that any given episode of a Saturday morning cartoon was little more than a thirty-minute commercial for the toys.
And that’s a fair perspective when it comes to most of the cartoons that were produced back then, honestly. But there is something about that type of cartoon that is singularly endearing in a way. Yeah, sure, maybe kids didn’t learn anything from them (aside from some tacked-on messages they threw in occasionally, undoubtedly at the behest of the network executives), but I’d argue that doesn’t necessarily mean they “rotted your kids’ brains,” as the popular expression goes. They were routinely inventive with the character designs, settings, and often the sheer lunacy of them, to the point that I’d say even if the writing was rudimentary and purely functional at best, these cartoons fed the imaginations of the kids who watched them, and that’s a virtue in and of itself. They weren’t shows kids watched to find out what was going to happen next week, but they were shows that provided kids with a loose framework in which to act out their own stories. You know…with all the toys and play sets that their parents bought them. Hey, I never said it wasn’t all about merchandising. Just that emphasizing toys over intelligent writing and educational value isn’t entirely a bad thing. Or at least that’s what I tell myself now to assure myself that my mind was not rotted by watching them.
So now that I’ve clarified what I mean by a Saturday morning cartoon, here are eight ’80s horror movies that I think could have easily made for some good ones. As always with the lists I write, this isn’t a ranking. I’m just listing them alphabetically. So don’t fuss over which suggestion would be “better” than another. I would have liked to see all eight of these cartoons equally.
I’m cheating a little bit here, because while the original 1982 classic Basket Case could make for an interesting animated series itself, I think the more fun cartoon would come from its 1990 sequel, Basket Case 2, which introduced a whole colorful cast of uniquely designed oddities to support Belial. For those of you who haven’t seen the film(s), Belial is the monstrous conjoined twin of protagonist Duane. They were cruelly and unwillingly separated in youth, leading ultimately to a gruesome revenge plot that drives the narrative of the first movie. The second movie focuses on Duane finding Belial a home where he can finally be accepted, which turns out to be a community of other so-called “freaks.” The character designs definitely lend themselves to being adapted into cartoons (and toys), and there’s a lot to work with in terms of tacked-on messages about acceptance. Like The Toxic Avenger, Basket Case is infamous for its sexual and violent content mixed with perverse humor, and if it translated well into an irreverent, scatological cartoon for Toxic Crusaders, then I have no doubt Basket Case: The Animated Series could have worked as an irreverent, scatological cartoon following the adventures of Belial and friends as they attempt to live their lives on the outskirts of society — though obviously a far less seedy portrayal of society than in the films.
Probably the most popular anthology horror film of the ’80s, Creepshow was a collaboration between horror icons George A. Romero and Stephen King that was inspired by EC Comics series such as Tales from the Crypt and The Vault of Horror. The success of the film undoubtedly led the resurgence of Tales from the Crypt as an HBO series later in the decade, which in turn inspired the aforementioned kid’s cartoon version Tales from the Cryptkeeper. That series was only moderately successful (though it actually holds up quite well, I think), but had it been more popular, could this string of inspiration have come full circle and resulted in a Creepshow animated series? Yes, I know it would basically have been the same format as Tales from the Cryptkeeper — an animated horror anthology series for kids — but whereas that show was adapted from old issues of EC Comics, imagine what we could have gotten with a mixture of original stories and short-form Stephen King adaptations, like the Creepshow films were. Children of the Corn might have been a stretch to adapt into an animated series, but as a single half-hour episode? That could have been fun. Ideally King and Romero would have been involved in some way (probably as executive producers), and I have no doubt in my mind that had this existed, it would have provided kids with some great little animated horror shorts.
The Evil Dead
Look, the original The Evil Dead is an NC-17-rated masterpiece of low-budget insanity, and there’s no overstating its greatness and importance. Evil Dead II took the insanity to a new level of splatstick nirvana, emphasizing the humor even more and turning its protagonist Ash into a one-liner-spewing hero who has become one of the most iconic characters in all of horror. So I mean absolutely no disrespect when I say that the entire premise and tone of the series are perfect for the Saturday morning cartoon treatment. You already have a hero who is tailor-made to sell toys (he’s got a freaking chainsaw for a hand, for one), a strong foundation of slapstick comedy (which was a major feature of cartoons during this time), and seemingly endless possibilities for all sorts of interesting villains not just with the Deadites, but really with any monster or demon imaginable since there’s also a time-traveling element in the series. Ash going on adventures through time fighting all sorts of demons, Deadites, and monsters? Obviously it would have been much lighter on violence than the movies, but are you seriously telling me that wouldn’t have been the grooviest cartoon ever?
This one seems like a no-brainer to me. In fact, I’m kind of surprised that there wasn’t really a cartoon based on Gremlins. Joe Dante’s darkly comedic “family” monster movie (“family” in quotations because it’s actually quite dark for a family movie and famously played a big role in the creation of the PG-13 rating) takes so much inspiration from the gleeful chaos of old Looney Tunes and Tex Avery cartoons — especially in the sequel, which literally begins with a Looney Tunes cartoon — that not much alteration would have to be made to turn this into an irreverent Saturday morning cartoon with limitless potential for zany inventiveness. The concept is such that it could work as either a show featuring the human characters of the movie with Gizmo acting as the sole good Gremlin OR, if they had really wanted to get kooky, a show with no human characters and just an entire cast of uniquely designed Gremlins (the sequel already provided a bunch of different ones to work off of). I mean, Gremlins 2 is divisive enough that I’m sure there are plenty of people who wish the ideas for that movie applied to a kids’ cartoon instead of a movie, so there’s that. Just listen to the Gremlins theme song and tell me you can’t imagine that playing over some wildly creative opening credits for an animated series ala Beetlejuice. It’s such an obvious fit that I am genuinely upset it never happened. Granted, they probably would have eventually turned Gizmo into an insufferably annoying mascot who serves no purpose other than to be cute like they did with Slimer in the later seasons of The Real Ghostbusters, but that’s beside the point. They already went part of the way there by making a Gremlins-themed cereal, so the lack of a cartoon just seems like a huge missed opportunity in retrospect.
The Monster Squad
Another no-brainer, and another family movie that isn’t really a family movie (seriously, have you watched this recently?…there’s a ton of stuff in it that’s way inappropriate for kids). So you have a group of six kids, each of course representing one of the classic tropes of ’80s kids’ adventure movies: the leader, the nerdy kid, the cool older kid, the fat kid, the kind of weird younger brother, and the cute younger sister that the boys don’t want around but is kind of low-key the most resourceful of the group. And they fight classic monsters in suburbia. What else do you really need for a Saturday morning cartoon premise? The Monster Squad was arguably a cash-in on much more successful movies of its type like The Goonies, but it underperformed at the box office and didn’t develop a substantial cult following until much later. Had it been more successful upon its release, it’s not hard to imagine that an animated series could actually have happened. Or at the very least some toys. What kid wouldn’t have wanted a Frankenstein doll that said “Bogus!” when you pulled the string on its back?
If you were not already familiar with this movie (I say that like everyone is, which is likely a highly dubious assumption), and you looked at that poster and saw the title, I bet you’d be at least somewhat liable to believe anyone who told you it was a children’s cartoon. But nope. It wasn’t. It’s a schlocky part-monster, part-slasher movie that utilizes virtually every conceivable ’80s trope but doesn’t seem to actually understand any of them, resulting in being its own weird mess of a movie. I don’t say that as a bad thing, by the way. In fact, I fucking love this movie, and you can read all about my love for it here. But clearly this movie was intended to spawn some kind of franchise, or at least some merchandise. The titular Neon Maniacs are basically glorified trading cards. The movie’s loose enough on plot that a cartoon inspired by it would really have no obligation to remain true to any strict lore of the source material. This movie has no discernible lore, really. But it sure does have some cool-looking monsters that would have been perfect for a crazy late ’80s or early ’90s kids’ cartoon. Of course, the Maniacs don’t talk in the movie, but that could easily have been changed for the series. Get Frank Welker, Maurice LaMarche, and Jim Cummings in there and let them work their magic. The movie’s lack of fame and success wouldn’t have been an issue. They probably wouldn’t have even advertised that it was based on a movie. In some alternate reality, Neon Maniacs might be known primarily as a Saturday morning cartoon, for all I know. It’s totally possible that’s how it would have worked out. If CBS or some other network had just put these character designs in a Saturday morning cartoon circa 1989 and just let them run amok in an animated version of San Francisco populated by some radical high school protagonists, there really wouldn’t have been any way to fail. The toy line would have sold, at the very least, and they’d be going for upwards of $60 each on eBay now. Guaranteed.
A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors
Freddy Krueger had transcended the horror genre to become a full-blown pop culture icon by the end of the ’80s. He was the most popular Halloween costume of 1988…no, not just for adults. For kids. More kids went trick-or-treating as Freddy on Halloween 1988 than any other costume. All of the movies were R-rated, so in theory kids weren’t supposed to be watching them (although even in those pre-internet, pre-streaming days, there were plenty of ways around that), but obviously that didn’t matter. Every kid knew who Freddy Krueger was. He was that big. So in truth, the lack of any real kid-oriented Nightmare on Elm Street content was a missed opportunity. Oh, don’t get me wrong, there was plenty of Freddy merchandise sold with kids in mind, even aside from the Halloween costumes. But as far as something kids could watch without having to sneak around their parents? Nothing. And it’s a shame, too, because it’s not like it was impossible. You just take the concept of the third (and arguably most popular) entry in the series — the last of the Elm Street kids banding together to fight Freddy in their dreams using their own unique powers — and run with it. And with Freddy already being as popular as he was with kids even without any kid-friendly content, children would have jumped all over something Freddy-related that was actually made for them. Freddy wouldn’t have been saying “bitch” nearly as much, but it still could have been really fun. And just imagine all the inventive settings they could have come up with for the dreamworld given the endless possibilities of animation. Plus they already had Dokken’s theme song that they could have used for the undoubtedly awesome opening credits. It seems like too good an opportunity to have slipped by, but alas…
Of all the potential cartoons I selected for this list, this is the one that would probably have to deviate from its source material the most, and the results would have in all likelihood been absolutely ridiculous, but I can’t help it. I can’t help but be endlessly amused by the prospect of a Re-Animator animated series aimed at children. Dr. Herbert West: The Re-Animated Series, it could have been called. It could have followed the macabre misadventures of Dr. West (who would still be played by Jeffrey Combs, I’ve decided…he’s voiced characters in children’s cartoons before, so why not?) and his grotesque creations, aided always by his sidekick, the talking dismembered head of Dr. Carl Hill. I don’t know where it would have gone from there, but I certainly would have wanted to go along with it for the ride. Herbert West is just such a good character that I have no doubt in my mind he would have worked even as a Saturday morning cartoon antihero or villain. I don’t know. I don’t have nearly as clear a idea of what this show would have been like as I do for any of the other movies on this list, but nevertheless the mere concept is hilarious and oddly intriguing to me. Which is a damn good start for any Saturday morning cartoon of that era.