I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

Surf Nazis Must Die: A Study in Good Bad Filmmaking

by Chris Martin
Sept. 30, 2016
Some titles are inescapable. The Day the Earth Stood Still, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, and Don’t Look Now all carry that spark of burning curiosity that is the basic draw of all genre films. They give you an effect or a demand without revealing the subject of the action. We don’t know why the Earth stood still, or what Alfredo Garcia did, nor do we know what we can’t look at now and why not, but in all these cases the less known about the subject makes the film that much more appetizing. Surf Nazis Must Die may reveal too many of its cards at the forefront, despite the fact that its commanding, declarative tone does raise, arguably unneeded, questions. Its absurd power is too great to hide behind such things as nuance and subtlety. Swastikas on wetsuits and switchblades on surfboards cannot, and should not, be hidden behind a curtain of restraint. Life is too short to keep flamboyantly dressed surfing fascists out of the limelight.

Let me address this right off the bat, despite everything I’m going to say beyond this point, Surf Nazis Must Die is a bad film. By most accepted cultural barometers of film quality this is not a good one. The acting is atrocious, the concept is absurd, and there is little to no budget. That being said, it has considerably more going for it than most B-movies that are consumed in the age of internet irony for their so-bad-its-good qualities for several reasons. Surf Nazis Must Die deserves to be discovered in the big barrels of DVDs for $2.50 a pop, but it was always meant to be there and it works!

Despite the fact that it was released by Troma Entertainment, a production and distribution now notorious for its string of campy, violent, racy comedy/horror films, Surf Nazis Must Die was produced outside of the Lloyd Kaufmann bubble of self-aware winking and exploitative excess. Its premise and title make it fit right in on the Troma filmography, but once you get into it, Surf Nazis is better than the vast majority of its associated titles.

As Troma rode the wave of modest success that was Toxic Avenger, Kaufmann depended on his awareness of how schlocky and exploitative his output was more and more to avoid criticism that his work was getting boring. As long as you had at least one character wink into the camera, knowingly joining in on the fun of a bad film, the joke could carry on. Decades after their golden age, Troma acolytes are still brandishing the torch of irony, regularly picketing the Cannes film festival demanding awards for Toxic and other more notable films from their catalog.

Part of Surf Nazis success is just that it avoids this pitfall of Troma by never being anything but a bad film. The production team, vaguely named the Institute, present to you a film free of ironic smirking. I’m sure they were aware that they were producing crap, but they kept their heads down and did they best they could. They may not have had much going for them regarding a large budget, or good performers, or much talent, but what they did put in was effort. That and knowing their limitations and pushing as far as they could with the material they had.

Although the film needs little explanation beyond its title, if you aren’t sold by those four words than nothing else will, I’ll present a quick recap. An earthquake rocks the greater Los Angeles area, leaving the metropolitan area in a state of anarchy and large areas of the city without police supervision. Colorful gangs take over the beaches and rule them as much as petty criminals can rule stretches of sand that people like to relax on, by occasionally stealing stuff. One particularly notorious and violent gang is the Surf Nazis. They love vaguely referencing the Third Reich, graffiti, and surfing. They eventually get killed after every other surfer gang sort of bands together to weaken them and a vengeful old woman finishes them off. This last sentence occurs in the last 15 minutes of the film. The previous 65 are spent following the Surf Nazis around as they scrounge for material, vie for position among the other gangs, and surf.

What’s interesting about the film is how low the stakes are and how pathetic the Surf Nazis, and every other gang are. In the Warriors a film that Surf Nazis directly cribs from, the opening act establishes the raw power that the many street gangs possess. Their presence threatens the entire NYC police force if brought under one unifying leader. The Surf Nazis can only exist because their are no police. A single cop with a revolver could arguably take on the Surf Nazis, who inexplicably are able to run a biker drug ring and spend time meticulously crafting customized weapons but don’t possess a single gun. Beyond this, the majority of their crimes are petty theft and some extortion. The gang is repeatedly presented as struggling to survive on a very basic level. The leader, Adolph, angrily berates an underling, Mengele after he returns with no money, “How are we supposed to live?!” Later they are shown spit roasting what appears to be a small dog. Their only true violent crime beyond attacking other surf gangs, the murder of Leroy Washington, directly leads to their downfall after Leroy’s mother wipes them all out with a single gun and grenade. The youngest Surf Nazi’s mother identifies the fearsome Adolf as A Warriors-esque scene of Adolf trying to unify all of the other surf gangs “under the swastika” fails immediately.

You could make the argument that this degree of desperate, pathetic measures by the Surf Nazis is based on a budget that couldn’t allow them to be more spectacular, but especially the last example wouldn’t be difficult to shoot with the same results as the Warriors scene, with all the weaker gangs banding together and hailing their allegiance to the Führer of the Beach. They did not do this because the Surf Nazis are supposed to be pathetic. Any gang of six people trying to imitate the Third Reich while surfing all the time on a shitty beach and living in squalor in a dilapidated WWII bunker would be pathetic. The film’s premise might be stupid, but the writers understood their limitations and kept the story within a framework that allowed it to work on their budget. Rather than shrug and wink at the knowing audience attuned to irony, they go in completely straight faced and make the best damn bad movie they can.

Additionally, for this sort of B movie, it has a few other things going for it. There are some truly well blocked shots. The surfing footage, done by a professional surfing photographer, is at times hypnotic. The soundtrack, played really really high in the mix in most scenes, is a delicious blend of heavy synths and distorted guitar. This sound has recently resurged with electronic producers such as Powerglove, Com Truise, and Perturbator and provides this wonderful strange energy to every montage (the first official pressing of the Surf Nazis soundtrack will be released on vinyl in September (I will be buying it.)) The cinematographer made the best of their shooting location, which the director Peter George said was colloquially named “Cat Box Beach” on account of the smell, shooting against dense layers of graffiti and mural art. In one inspired shot, Mama Washington pins a young gang member against an embankment with a large mouth painted on to it. A dramatic cut back reveals the whole face to be the iconic anguished man from the album cover for In the Court of the Crimson King.

One single sequence that stands out is the death of Leroy. After the good citizen attacks Adolf and wrestles him to the ground, the gang leader’s large reflective sunglasses reveal the three thugs observing the fight. Then, in the moments leading up to Leroy’s death, the action is interspersed with Leroy’s mother walking towards the camera in a long dark hallway. She is so out of focus at first that she barely holds a human form. Then as the killing blow is brought down on the innocent Leroy, his mother appears in large, solemn detail, as if the murder summoned her into the world, and it is revealed that the hallway is in fact a morgue where she is about to identify her sons body. The shot of her confirming his identify is then interspersed with shots of Leroy frolicking on the beach. An actual Troma release would happily play the murder scene for all of its gory worth, showing every detail of Leroy’s demise in cheap special effects. The film outright avoids the gore, despite showcasing some bloody effects later in the film, and tastefully cuts away. The film called Surf Nazis Must Die actually attempts to have some emotional weight! There are clear signs of cinematic life in this bad movie!

I’m happy that Surf Nazis exists. Even in the sorry state that its in. A Good Bad movie has a wonderful ability to present film in a tone that you have never experience before. When a filmmaker with no budget and little talent does their very best to make something with strong conviction, they can produce something surreal, exciting, and in its own way, good.

Christopher Martin recently graduated from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst with a degree in English and a specialization in Film Studies. Shockingly, he is currently underemployed. In his free time Chris likes to read old science fiction novels, enjoy what little nightlife Western Massachusetts has to offer, and watch as many films as possible. He also spends too much time on Tumblr.