Alas, it wasn’t all that interesting work, but because the home rental business was still in its expansion phase the position I held certainly gave me the opportunity to vastly understand and explore the wide, wide, wide variety of titles coming out from all over the world. I wasn’t provided with much pre-release publicity materials as others, but video release day was usually when the stores received an incredible assortment of new tapes – many of which folks had rarely heard of – and this forced us to ‘bone up’ as quickly as we could in an era with minimal research tools. I didn’t have a Wikipedia.org to consult, and IMDB.com had never been heard of. Consequently, the greatest asset I had was to watch the film itself and form my own ‘educated’ opinion.
So when a little something something like Surf Nazis Must Die was released for general consumption, I’ll admit most of us didn’t quite know what to make of it. I couldn’t watch everything, so it was a flick I passed over to some subordinates to watch, knowing they’d share their insights with me. If I spoke with ten workers who’d seen it, then the positive/negative response was probably 50/50, but even those who spoke highly of it stressed it definitely wasn’t going to be a rental most folks would enjoy. Normally with that close a divide in the audience I’d end up screening it myself, but I never did. I was in a phase that pushed me more toward somewhat ‘high art’ and/or classics, and something marketed as so ‘punkish’ and ‘forgettable’ just couldn’t squeeze itself into my schedule.
Well, nearly four decades later, I’ve finally seen the thing. In one respect, I’m glad I waited because being somewhat older and wiser I probably found more to appreciate in it than otherwise. It’s a weirdly hypnotic experience – one that’s hard to look away from – but much like I cautioned back then remains true today: this ain’t gonna be for everyone.
From the product packaging:
“In the wake of a killer earthquake, the beaches of California have been taken over by vicious neo-Nazi punks. No one can halt the megalomanic reign of Adolf and his stiletto-heeled, leather-clad Eva, until they pick on the son of Eleanor ‘Mama’ Washington. Now she’s out for vengeance.”
I’ve often said that 1984’s Dune is best talked about by people who’ve read the source material, and that kinda/sorta captures my sentiments about Surf Nazis Must Die: it’s best discussed by people who’ve seen it and liked it.
On its face, the title is probably the most interesting and captivating element of the entire production. Its uniqueness practically compels a potential viewer to pick it up, to look it up, to read a bit more on what this curious thing is about. Essentially, that’s very good, as I found its set-up so very, very weak that I was glad I knew more about its setting as its opening vignettes did little to establish this world. Yes, that’s definitely a weakness of the narrative, but I suspect most viewers drawn to this curious oddity will give it a pass on that point.
Plus, it has surfing.
What you have with Surf Nazis is the classic revenge picture given a Fantasy-themed makeover for an audience not all that concerned with specifics. The background of these characters never figures into its premise, nor is there a stitch of character development chucked anywhere between the opening and closing credits. While many critics dub it a type of grindhouse feature, I’d stop short of making that comparison mostly because I see those films as reveling more in the excesses of sex, blood, and violence; and, factually, Surf Nazis has very little of those. Further, I’d argue what it does have is largely tame by comparison to other releases of its era. It ain’t Disney, true, but it ain’t Peckinpah, either.
But the picture’s greatest weakness is that it really starts and goes nowhere. Things happen – these beach bums decide they’re going to work together in their stand against an Apocalypse that doesn’t look all that dangerous – and folks either respond to them or they don’t. The greatest through-line to all it involves Mama Washington’s quest for justice, but – if that’s the central plot – her revenge accounts for marginal screen time in a picture otherwise preoccupied with the punks. Eventually, a conflict arises that pits these gangs against one another, but it’s all handled with so little focus and explanation I couldn’t confirm exactly what the problem was, is, or became.
Surfing isn’t a conflict, but that’s in there. Lots of it. Couldn’t say why. But it’s there.
As happens with many films that build a cult following, there are some nuggets of gold in here. Gail Neely (as Mama) does a great job fleshing out the underdeveloped hero a bit, and Dawn Wildsmith (as Eva) admirably fills out her leather garb while chewing scenery up and spitting it out. To his credit, Michael Sonye laces his scenes with just enough creepiness (as Mengele) that I suspect audiences would’ve loved to have spent more time with him. Barry Brenner (as Adolf) – the lead villain – is little more than a fit-and-trim poser, looking more like an unemployed Chippendale’s dancer than he ever does a force for evil.
And yet Surf Nazis endures. It’s the kind of film that – like a cockroach – will survive long after we’ve been turned to dust or reduced to worm food. It defies logic, but it squeezes very little of that into any of its glorious eighty minutes.
You know what it does squeeze in there? Surfing.
Lastly, if you’re looking for special features, the disc does boast a nice number of short bits, though I was disappointed to see so many of them not directly related to the film itself so much as they were the Troma company, but it is what it is. There are an assortment of short interviews, some deleted scenes, an extended interview that (curiously) plays like an audio commentary track but isn’t an audio commentary track (you’ll understand if you can find it), and some other bits. Though a bit underwhelming, I did get a few laughs from them.
Hey, no film is perfect, and I’m not even sure that anyone involved with the making of Surf Nazis Must Die ever intended it to be. On the B-Movie scale? It gets a solid C. It isn’t so much “gloriously depraved” as it is “depraved,” and it isn’t so much “deliciously campy” as it is “campy.” Performances are exactly what one might expect, and the plot – what little there is – is heavily supported by long sequences of surfers surfing. Radical.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Troma Entertainment provided me with a complimentary Blu-ray of Surf Nazis Must Die (1987) by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review; and their contribution to me in no way, shape, or form influenced my opinion of it.