Surf Nazis Must Die (1986/1987) ***
Practically everything Troma produces in-house is obnoxious crap, but the third-party movies they distribute are more of a mixed bag. Plenty of them are even crappier and more obnoxious than the Troma Team’s own work, with the same basic sensibility, but even less talent, wit, and imagination (to say nothing of money) behind it. A few Troma distro pickups are really interesting, though. Take Surf Nazis Must Die for example. Imagine for a moment that Romper Stomper, Endless Summer, Suburbia, Stone, and The Warriors were somehow all the same film. Imagine further that running through that mad hybrid was a revenge plot that was part Mad Max and part a black, gender-flipped version of Death Wish. That’s pretty much Surf Nazis Must Die in a nutshell, but even that doesn’t fully address what a deeply strange movie this is. It’s also a parody without conventional jokes, shot and paced like a European art film, and set to a futuristic, largely electronic score that draws equally from Blade Runner, The Terminator, and Dick Dale. And incredible as this may seem coming from a movie bearing the Troma label, there’s nary a radioactive mutant to be found anywhere.
So how do you turn Los Angeles into a West Coast counterpart to Walter Hill’s New York? How about a giant earthquake that leaves the city in ruins and 80,000 people dead? In the aftermath, as is usually the case with aftermaths in these movies, criminal youth gangs rise up to fill the vacuum left by the disruption of legitimate authority. But because it was the beach communities that were hit hardest by the quake, the gangs in question are all surfers, skaters, and bikers. Mostly surfers, though.
The most formidable gang on “the New Beach” are the Surf Nazis. Led by the megalomaniacal Adolf (Barry Brenner, who had a small recurring gig as a medical examiner in the Maniac Cop series), they want more than just to take advantage of the post-quake lawlessness. Like Cyrus in The Warriors, Adolf aspires to become the law. He’s made a pretty good start of it, too. As we see when his girlfriend, Eva (Dawn Wildsmith, from Alienator and The Tomb), asserts herself over Wheels (Tom Searle, who virtually reprised this part during a walk-on in They Live) and his biker gang at the bar where they hang out, the Surf Nazis already control the local drug trade. They’ve also got an ambitious program of youth indoctrination, whereby Adolf seeks to swell his ranks in the future by convincing all the little wannabe surfers not only that they need to join a gang to enjoy full rights to the New Beach, but that there’s furthermore just one gang worth joining. And the core muscle of the Surf Nazis— the brawny Brutus (Gene Mitchell, from Skinheads and Dark City), the sadistic Hook (Joe Hile, of Deadly Friend and The Visitant), and the deranged tinker Mengele (Michael Sonye, from Nightmare Sisters and Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers)— are hands down the scariest motherfuckers on the strand. Adolf would prefer to bring about his new order in cooperation with the other gangs, but if the Samurai Surfers, the Pipeliners, and the Designer Waves don’t want to get in line, the Surf Nazis are more than prepared to destroy any rivals.
Meanwhile, an elderly black lady named Eleanor Washington (Earth Girls Are Easy’s Gail Neely) was one of those who lost their homes in the great quake, and she lacks the resources to rebuild. Her son, oil-drilling engineer Leroy Washington (Robert Harden, of Dead Girls), has persuaded her to take up residence at the Stardust retirement home, but Eleanor isn’t adjusting well. She’s too hale and feisty yet to be satisfied with the shut-in lifestyle of the other Stardusters, and she powerfully resents the loss of independence that comes naturally with institutional living. Moreover, Eleanor butts heads constantly with Nurse Withers (Dawne Ellison), whose contempt for the old folks under her care was obvious from the moment Mrs. Washington first ascended the home’s front steps. The way Eleanor reckons it, about the only thing she still has going for her is her son, who stops in to visit most every day.
Then one morning, Leroy picks exactly the wrong good deed to perform. While he’s jogging up the beach, he happens to see Smeg (Tom Shell, from Dinosaur Island and Bikini Drive-In), the first fully-fledged graduate of Adolf’s Nazi Youth, stealing a purse from a lady relaxing in the sand. Leroy apprehends Smeg and returns the stolen purse, but while he’s pondering whether a trip to the police station or a good on-the-spot pummeling is the more appropriate way to discipline the teen hoodlum, the adult members of the gang descend en masse. Tough as he is, Leroy is no match for that much sociopath, and the Surf Nazis aren’t the sort to restrain themselves when administering a beat-down to a black man.
Eleanor is both distraught and madder than all hell, but at first she has no idea which bunch of beach thugs is responsible for Leroy’s death. Smeg himself unwittingly comes to her aid when she overhears him bragging to some bikini babes about how his gang recently killed “a nigger who tried to stop the Nazi Wave.” Not surprisingly, Eleanor gets him singing like the Three Tenors in no time, and then she goes shopping. (“A ladies’ gun?!” she squawks to the proprietor of a pawn shop, “I’m more interested in something that’ll take the head off a honky at twenty paces.”) Ironically, considering whom she intends to use it on, she ends up going home with a Walther P-38. So while Adolf gears up for open warfare against the other beach gangs, he should really be worrying about the not-so-little old lady who’s about to declare war on him.
I remembered liking Surf Nazis Must Die when I watched it back in the late 1980’s, but I retained almost none of the specifics beyond Eleanor’s unforgettable dismissal of ladies’ guns. And because it was a Troma release, I went in fully prepared for it not to hold up before the passage of time and the pitiless march of maturity. Indeed, so ready was I to be disappointed that it took me aback when Surf Nazis Must Die kept getting better and more fascinatingly weird as it went along. To the best of my knowledge, Troma never handled anything else much like it. Certainly its deadpan, understated sense of humor is the furthest thing imaginable from the grossout wackiness of The Toxic Avenger and Class of Nuke ‘Em High. Surf Nazis Must Die aspires instead to the most challenging sort of satire, tweaking the thing being parodied just enough to bring its inherent absurdities to the fore, and then allowing them to speak for themselves. That’s all the more remarkable because this movie pokes fun not at one thing but at several, and the various targets don’t obviously go together. Writer Jon Ayre and director/co-writer Peter George take on revenge thrillers, parables of urban blight, post-apocalyptic dystopias, counterculture lifestyle studies, and scaremongering over youth rebellion all at the same time, and the elements they use from each genre are frequently not the ones I was expecting. For example, what were the odds that a movie which climaxes in a succession of gang rumbles and a vigilante rampage would spend most of its time lugubriously observing the contrarian folkways of the villains? Who would anticipate that a Death Wish parody switching out Charles Bronson in favor of a hefty old black lady out for blood on behalf of her son would deal so respectfully with the avenging mother’s grief? And on what imaginable basis would anyone come to this of all movies expecting so much legitimately impressive and beautifully photographed surfing footage?
There are stumbling blocks to appreciating Surf Nazis Must Die, to be sure. Practically all the acting is painfully amateurish, and most of the dialogue is clunky. The virtual disappearance of the plot through the entire midsection has won Surf Nazis Must Die lots of enemies over the years, and there’s no denying that the emphasis is oddly placed from beginning to end. But I found that most of this movie’s quirks fell into “so wrong it’s right” territory, and there are several touches along the way that reveal the genuine intelligence at work behind its pose of stupidity. The scenes of Smeg arguing with his mom (Bobbie Bresee, of Mausoleum and Ghoulies), for instance, pour bracing gouts of cold reality all over the proceedings when you least expect it. (“Adolf?! Good God, Gregory, is that what that stuck-up Ricky Johnson is calling himself now?”) Or from the opposite direction, watch how the Surf Nazis are allowed an almost touching moment of introspection after Brutus is blinded in the fight against the Pipeliners, and Adolf euthanizes him in accordance with their ideology. Notice further how George and Ayers cut off the beginning of the scene in question so that Adolf doesn’t have to admit in front of the audience how deeply having to kill Brutus has affected him. All in all, the best point of comparison for Surf Nazis Must Die might be Six-String Samurai, at least insofar as they both bring together idiosyncratic grab-bags of mismatched borrowings, and mostly do right by all of them despite the seeming impossibility of the task.