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Melbourne Classics: Romper Stomper

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Geoffrey Wright’s Romper Stomper is a film that stirred up significant controversy upon its release in 1991. The British Anti-Nazi League protested its screening in London, whilst in Australia prominent film critics like David Stratton denounced it as a celebration of racism. Yet others, like Stratton’s counterpart Margaret Pomeranz and Triple J reviewer Peter Castaldi, praised the film and rejected the notion that it sympathises with the racists it portrays.

The film follows a band of neo-Nazi skinheads and their path of self-destruction. Their self-appointed leader Hando (Russell Crowe), is based on notorious Melbourne neo-Nazi Dane Sweetman. Hando leads his flock on a series of violent missions through Footscray’s backstreets, during which they meet Gabe (Jacqueline McKenzie), a troubled drifter who has just left her partner. Their lives are soon changed forever when Vietnamese youths fight back, forcing the Nazis to flee the area and embark on a crime spree that will be their ultimate undoing.

The skinhead ethos explored in the film is similar to that of A Clockwork Orange. Much like Alex and his Droogs, Hando and co are plagued by the desire to assert their masculinity through ultra-violence. Their menacing world view and fetish for brutality is punctuated by an eclectic soundtrack that includes both an original classical score, and fast-paced oi! punk.

Romper Stomper reflects the broader political climate of Australia at the time. In the early nineties, tensions around Asian migration were on the rise. An economic downturn, coupled with increasing immigration, prompted small fascist groups to assert their presence. Brunswick’s Sydney Road became a magnet for such groups, where in 1994 they attempted to hold a public meeting at Brunswick Town Hall. They were soon shut down by anti-racist protesters, as were their other attempts to gain a hearing. Romper Stomper’s lengthy street-fight brings to mind the real-life incident in which a Nazi bookstore in Fawnker was trashed by an angry crowd, as its skinhead occupants sought refuge on the roof.

Melbourne’s Western suburbs are featured heavily in the film. The gritty industrial landscape of Footscray captures the economic mood of the period. The economic recession of the early 90’s led to high unemployment and increased living expenses. Warehouses were abandoned as oil prices soared. Romper Stomper embellishes this derelict atmosphere as the screen is littered with images of broken windows, boarded up shops and overflowing trash cans.

Romper Stomper explores the extreme world of a fringe subculture. For some, it is a brutal yet well-executed exploration of the dark side of humanity. For others, it does nothing more than romanticises racism. It is up to viewers to decide for themselves, but whether you like it or hate it, the film is undeniably a Melbourne classic.


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