Roger Ebert famously claimed to have walked out Surf Nazis Must Die after 30 minutes. Fellow Hoosier film critic Richard Propes, on the other hand, gave it 3.5 stars and a positive review in his school newspaper that has since been lost to time. I see the former as an easy rejection, the latter as a genuine endorsement. It’s no surprise I’m more aligned with Richard on this one. To me, Surf Nazis Must Die may be a piece of shit, but it’s an entertaining one with a badass synth score and a central revenge plot that feels appropriate in the year of our lord 2022.
A dystopian backstory is quickly established: An 8.6 scale earthquake hit Los Angeles. Millions are homeless. The atmosphere of despair leads to the rise of criminal youths, including the Surf Nazis, a white supremacist group led by Adolf (Barry Brenner) and his group of swastika-wearing thugs.
“Who rules the beaches,” he screams to his group. “SURFERS!”
“Who rules the surfers?” “SURF NAZIS!”
Adolf and his Surf Nazis fight against other surfer gangs for control of the beaches because that’s just what gangs do. Some of his followers are true believers, others “good kids” pulled into his orbit. Smeg (Tom Shell) has a mother (Bobbie Bresee) who desperately wants him to quit hanging around on the beach with the bad boys. There are a few girls in the group, none more active than Eva (Dawn Wildsmith), Adolf’s love. Love triangles and inter-group conflicts abound, performed with the highest degree of professional acumen by a cast that probably got pulled right off the beach for a few days shooting.
The first act is admittedly pretty dire — except for the surfing sequences. The soundtrack, featuring a synthesizer score by Jon McCallum, is beautiful and foreboding in equal measure. It’s best employed by director Peter George over footage he captured of surfers riding the waves, their black wetsuits emblazoned with red swastikas. It’s not deep or even particularly offensive work. As far as exploitation goes, there are much more thoughtfully nasty uses of Nazi iconography and crimes. Those surfing scenes, with that music, are oddly soothing.
What starts pretty dire picks up the pace when the Nazis kill a local Black man, Leroy (Robert Harden), for no real reason. Unfortunately for them, Leroy’s mother, “Mama” Washington (Gail Neely), has no patience for her retirement home and no scruples about killing the shit out of some Nazi trash. For the final act, Mama goes on a killing spree, taking out the racist gang one by one in increasingly outlandish ways. Her final kill is delivered with a one-liner for the ages. Given the cultural moment in the United States over the last half-decade, a movie about an elderly Black woman taking vengeance on right-wing youths might have a place in the contemporary conversation — if you can get past the first 30 minutes.
Surf Nazis Must Die arrives this month on Blu-ray with a new collector’s edition from Troma Entertainment. Like many Troma films, the HD transfer doesn’t really mean anything; these were cheap movies when they were made, and they continue to look pretty cheap. It beats a VHS scan, of course, but it’s still pretty grainy.
Special features include an intro by Troma founder Lloyd Kaufman, a behind-the-scenes documentary, deleted scenes and an interview with Peter George. It also contains promos for other Troma releases. For fans of Troma, this feels like an essential home video release.