There is a lot of bad that can be said about this 1987 Troma Entertainment film, so let’s get it out of the way first and then focus on the interesting bits. It’s got very low production qualities, some of the acting is so wooden that you’d think the performers were cabinets, and its central premise and title are pure shock value. None of the people involved went on to do anything of any significance, it’s not notable for inspiring any other specific works, and it’s basically 81 minutes of musings strung together on one very daft idea. Serious Critics hated it then, Serious Critics hate it now, and Roger Ebert lasted 30 minutes before junking it in as he was bored.
However, if you ignore all of that, it’s actually quite an enjoyable film.
Firstly, the central premise is well realised and realistic. An earthquake has ravaged the LA Coastline, leaving beaches and seafronts in a state of disrepair and decrepitude. This has left space for surfers to try to take control of the areas, partly for petty crime and mostly for control of the waves. Although this gives the film a quasi-futuristic setting, those “in the know” of California surf-culture would recognise this sort of territorial violence’s place in history.
In the late 70s and early 80s, places like Venice Beach and The Biltmore Pier had problems with localist gangs “protecting” their surfs, and many of these groups had members involved in such criminality. The film plays well with these themes, showing the inland world being relatively unaffected by the situation and most beach users being uninvolved with the posturing and politics. It also demonstrates those living in the surf gang world were essentially scavengers living apart from mainstream society in abandoned locations. Again, this is similar to the squats and beach-living found on the Pacific Coast when the 70s recession hit. It might not quite live up to the introduction’s hype, but you can actually believe the gangs live like that because people have done similarly in the past.
The other well-realised element is the Nazis themselves, in that they are egomaniacal pricks who just gob on with random pseudo-Nazi bullshit. They are supposed to be objectionable lowlifes – and they are, giving themselves names like “Adolph”, “Eva”, and “Mengele” for no reason other than because they think it sounds cool. It’s bullshit and bravado to make up for the fact that they live miserable existences by stealing from regular people, and they just hate to make themselves feel better. It’s a merry band of trumped-up tossers, fighting with anyone they can find (and within themselves) for ownership of a big heap of bugger-all. To make them even more pathetic, we find out via the self-titled “Smeg” – who lives at home with his middle-class mum in his middle-class neighbourhood – that Adolf’s real name is “Ricky Johnson” and comes from that same background. Yup, these are rich kids playing Nazis like the dickheads they are.
On the other side, we have the best thing about this film, the absolutely impeccable performance by Gail Neely as Eleanora Washington; retiree, widower, and ultimate badass! We first meet her being moved into her new home, due to the earthquake, with her son Leroy. Then, after her son gets killed by the Surf Nazis for being African-American whilst on “their” beach, she’s a gun-wielding, motorbike-riding wind of savage vengeance. Yes, it’s an inherently ridiculous role, but she pulls it off with perfection. The most amazing bit is her quietly sitting on the porch, knitting away with the Bible and a gun on her lap, looking lost over the senseless death of her son and determined about what she will do about it. The other most amazing bit is every time she kills a Nazi, because they’re Nazis, and she does it in a range of ways that are constantly amusing and frequently wide. I honestly haven’t chuckled this much since the theatre scene in Inglorious Bastards.
But wait; there’s more! There is also a bit of a surf movie going on, as all of the gang cast can actually surf. It’s not the most incredible footage nor does it have the greatest moves you can see, but the tunes are thumping and there is a joyful authenticity to watching realistic surfing going on. In fact the whole soundtrack by Jon McCallum is pretty decent, mixing synth horror with surf and touches of metal. There are also a number of shots through the movie which stand out as a cut above the rest, with a single take long shot of Adolph and Mengele yelling at each other in an abandoned hanger being especially evocative of how little their kingdom actually holds. A few of the sequences of the gangs hustling and ripping each other off are also quite fun and well performed, in a low-life living a low-life manner.
So, it’s not a classic movie, it only has one performance that will stick with you for a long time, and it’s “high concept” is probably better in your mind than in its full execution, but it is undeniably fun to behold. Yes, having an elderly black woman Eleanor Washington go on a Nazi killing spree in the final 15 minutes is probably responsible for 95% of that. The Surf Nazis, like all Nazis, must die – and you must watch it happen, because you can’t deny Treasure when someone finds it.