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A trippy trip back in time

Death by Toys specializes in repurposed action figures, 80s nostalgia, and a bestselling empty box you have to see to believe.

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Dan Polydoris watches comfort movies—"a lot of 80s horror"—while creating for Death by Toys. - MOLLY HARRIS
  • Molly harris
  • Dan Polydoris watches comfort movies—"a lot of 80s horror"—while creating for Death by Toys.

Death by Toys is a microcosm of 80s weirdness. Dan Polydoris, the Chicago-based online shop's founder and supreme leader, is a collector with a capital "C." As he explains it, his passion for toy collecting started early: during his childhood in the 80s, when Steven Spielberg had an iron grip on pop culture and Saturday morning cartoons had a godlike status among the youth of America. "It was a time when the show and the toys had a relationship that they don't really have anymore," Polydoris says. "Back in the 80s, it was such a formula of 'make a TV show and make the action figures to go with it.'"

The dichotomy placed toys and television shows on equal footing. "It was backwards," he says. "Rather than making action figures to promote the show, it was like, 'let's make these toys [like He-Man] and make a TV show to promote the action figures.'"

Death by Toys began in 2010 as ChicagoToyCollector.com, where Polydoris catalogued his love of 80s merchandising and nostalgia. While waiting for the birth of his son (and in lieu of a project to pass the time) he repainted Star Wars characters to look like Nintendo figures.

"I used junkers," he assures me. I nod, assuming this is a Star Wars character. It turns out junkers are cheap versions of popular action figures, and an Internet search verifies Polydoris's estimate that there are millions of them floating around eBay and at flea markets. Polydoris posted the recast Star Wars/Nintendo figures to Chicago Toy Collector for fun, and a story about them was soon picked up by the video game website Kotaku. Almost immediately, he started getting requests to purchase the figures, and a company was born.

"The first time I got real weird with stuff was when I took some cotton balls and made The Fog as an action figure." Polydoris was expecting pushback from customers unwilling to spend $35 on cotton in a plastic shell, but the figures sold out in minutes.

In 2015, he renamed the site Death by Toys, and the creations grew even more abstract.

"I went from painting intricate tributes, to putting garbage inside of other garbage and then gluing that to another piece of rectangular garbage." He pauses. "People were cool with it, though, horror fans in particular. They just get [it]."

As Polydoris is walking me through his workroom, we come upon a small tube TV. He tells me he bought it at a sample sale for $1. It is a marvel of 80s engineering, in that it is a giant square and must weigh at least 94 pounds. It looks decorative, a relic from a different time that seems incapable of being able to function in this day and age; like if a dinosaur suddenly appeared at a job interview with the ability to type 85 words per minute.

Polydoris assures me that it works, and he regularly watches it while he is working.

"A lot of comfort movies," he says. "A lot of 80s horror." For him, it appears the comfort movies are 80s horror.

His current work is a mix between elaborate pieces and absurdist comedy. He's started working more in tropes, as he describes it. A collection so popular he can't keep it in stock is Deadbeat Dads. If you peruse the package for Deadbeat Dad, it is nothing. Actual nothing. The Deadbeat Dad has gone out for cigarettes and is not in the box.

It is one of his best sellers.

Polydoris has also moved from creating products about pop culture to creating products for pop culture. He has developed custom toys for the 1997 direct-to-video short horror film Coven, the Seth Meyers Netflix special Lobby Baby, Bleecker Street's The Art of Self Defense, and artist Jan Hakon Erichsen (who you have probably seen on Instagram popping balloons with knife contraptions that would put Rube Goldberg to shame).

The company is growing. Type "death by . . ." into Google and "Death by Toys" appears second, preceded only by "death by a thousand cuts." On the Death by Toys site, page after page shows Jehovah's Witness Playsets, Thanksgiving Blankets, an Action Figure Body Bag, and a Vintage-Style Buff Luke Skywalker, ranging in price from $30 to $120 . . . all sold out.

"I think people love them because it speaks to a stereotype that people get."  v

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