Whether you agree with me or not, the 1990’s were an amazing decade of titanic hit and sinking duds at the movies. (I know, the puns bad.) For me, the coolest, if not the best film, of the nineties was arguably Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994). The worst? Surely it has to be Kevin Costner’s Waterworld (1995) or Batman and Robin (1997) starring George Clooney. But somewhere in between are the forgotten gems that we all wound up forgetting. Yes, these are the lost or underrated films I often watch on my own that none of my friends ever give a second thought to. There are, of course, too many to mention, and my forthcoming series is only a snapshot of some of those films that sorely deserve some sort of recognition. That said, my approach to this article is simple. I will take one film from every year of the nineties that I truly appreciate (for whatever reason) and believe merits mention. Without further ado, Romper Stomper (1992) is the third film installment in my mixed bag of underrated movies of the 1990’s.
Romper Stomper (1992)
Given the horrible scenes in Charlottesville, Virginia, with the hate marches and violence in August, I’ve been a little hesitant to reveal my next movie in this series. After some thought I decided I didn’t want to shy away from not including it in my series because it is one of those important films that reminds us of how vile and misguided we are unfortunately sometimes as a society.
In 1992, a brave film-maker shot a low-budget movie called Romper Stomper arguably the most controversial and deeply confronting Australian film of the 90’s. Its release in mid November saw an outcry from sections of the Australian public with its graphic violence, cruelty, and racism. (In England, for instance, the film was picketed outside the cinemas.) Even critics were bewildered by what they saw, a far cry from Australia’s favourite film that year, Strictly Ballroom. SBS TV’s (Australia’s multicultural and multilingual broadcaster) two most revered film critics, David Stratton and Margaret Pomeranz, arguably best summed up what most critics were feeling, with their polar opposite views over the controversial film back in 1992:
“This is in no way a pleasant film experience. It is relentlessly psychologically violent, almost nauseatingly so on occasion. However it is one of the finest films to be made in this country in recent years.” – Margaret Pomeranz.
“I profoundly disagree with you […] In these volatile times, with racism on the march again all over the world, this is a dangerous film.” – David Stratton.
The harrowing opening of Romper Stomper sets the scene for a tumultuous introduction to a right-wing gang of skinheads, who feed off their own hatred and fear of the Asian communities and immigrants living in their suburbs. The measures they take are truly frightening and toxic.
Central to the films gloomy setting is the emerging romantic relationship between its three main protagonists, the Mein Kampf inspired leader Hando, played by Russell Crowe, his loyal lieutenant Davey (Daniel Pollock) and Gabe (Jacqueline McKenzie), a fragile young wealthy incest victim. Essentially, as the relentless violence escalates around this trio, their own flawed relationships and what they believe in, begins to fail leading to the dramatic closing scene of the film.
I personally cannot stress enough that Romper Stomper is an extremely uncomfortable film to watch. (To be honest, I was originally going to use the movie still of Russell Crowe’s character Hando standing in front of a swastika as my header image, but I felt so ill-at-ease with that idea that I chose instead a less divisive image.) But strangely it attracted a largely youth audience to go and see it. I was one of those young people who saw it at the time of its release. Not so much because I was excited to see it, but because I was asked to review it for my university elective for sociology. There was no cheering, screaming or jeering, but a sobering rude awakening. As the end credits rolled, the energy and adrenaline expelled by the film’s protagonists gave way to explicable silence of movie-goers as they walked out of the theatre gobsmacked and drained.
For many Romper Stomper (back in 1992) had put neo Nazism in the spotlight and just maybe proved once and for all that it was a truly vile movement. The idea that hate breeds hate scared a lot of people and so it should have. At the time, here in Australia, it had definitely hit a nerve with the broader Australian community especially in the face of unrest about Asian immigration. We have seen this cycle repeated decade after decade in many countries around the world. Today, far-right groups worldwide, which include many politicians with xenophobic sympathies, are obsessively focused largely on Muslim groups and other illegal aliens in their communities as the enemy. This isn’t just happening in Europe, but in America and believe it or not, in places like Mongolia. In Mongolia, for example, Mongol nationalists with Nazi sympathies are trying to drive out foreigners, mainly Chinese investors and ten of thousands of Chinese workers, which these nationalists believe are taking Mongol jobs.
Over the years, Romper Stomper has been seldomly hijacked by loonies. However, there are two ugly incidences that stick out. One involved the brutal murder of a prison inmate by a crazed racist, who referred to Romper Stomper in a letter, the day before he beat his cellmate to death. The other incident involved a self-described white supremacist, who murdered a small group of African-American worshippers, in a Charleston church in 2015. Upon the alleged discovery of a website run by Dylan Roof were disturbing images, which included one of actor Russell Crowe’s character, Hando, in a bloodied scene.
These two examples are disturbing to say the least and even more astonishing is the thought that a modern-day series on cable television is revisiting Romper Stomper in a spinoff series set 25 years later with hatred for Asian immigrants now replaced with society’s phobia with Muslim Australia. Personally, I have to question the timing of bringing back the ideas of such a provocative film as Romper Stomper. Many will argue this new spinoff series is as relevant as the original film was twenty-five years ago with a world confronted with the politics of hate and re-emergence of right-wing activism. So it seems we are set again to react to everything the original brought in terms of its blatant taboo themes.
Critically, Romper Stomper’s realism and relentless action, the deafening raptures of heavy metal music and the blood and gore of Romper Stomper, which by the way borrows heavily from A Clockwork Orange, made this one of the most brutally honest and engaging films of its day. For better or worse, I believe, Romper Stomper ultimately led to other notable films such as American History X (1998) and The Believer (2001) to be made. But, is Romper Stomper nowadays a silent sleeper and does it deserve its status of being an underrated film here in my series? I think so. It’s limited appeal (for obvious reasons) has made this film one that we aren’t going to flock to see time and time again. It is arguably Australian cinema’s ugly sister and one of those films that audiences by large want to hide. And I don’t blame them.
Photo credit: The header movie still image from the film Romper Stomper (1992) is courtesy of Film Victoria. I make use of the images under the rational of fair use. It enables me to makes an important contribution to the reader’s understanding of the article, which could not practically be communicated by words alone by placing the key characters of the film, played by (left to right) actors Daniel Pollock, Jacqueline McKenzie and Russell Crowe into the frame. I am not the uploader of the YouTube clip embedded.