The Mad Nazi Scientist Trope Traces Back to One of the Dumbest Movies Ever Made

What will those wacky Nazis try next?

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If you’re sick of seeing nothing but superhero films hit theaters, imagine going to the multiplex in the ’40s and thinking, “Great, not another damn war movie.” War dramas were pumped out by the dozens, with the occasional comedy or musical thrown in to lighten the mood. When World War II ended, new angles emerged. Servicemen readjusted to life at home, war criminals were hunted down… every conceivable story was told. The deluge continued into the ’60s, but as the war started fading into history, a new subgenre became popular: mad Nazi schemes.

Nazis and mad science go together like Mecha-Hitler and the chaingun bullets used to blow up Mecha-Hitler. Inspired by horrific real-life experiments and tales of mythical wunderwaffe superweapons that supposedly could have turned the tide, movies like The Yesterday Machine and The Frozen Dead imagined outlandish plots to revive the Third Reich with time travel and zombies. They Saved Hitler’s Brain was one of the first films to give Nazis a sci-fi twist… and it’s inarguably the worst.

First released in 1963 as The Madmen of Mandoras, the 74-minute film was dumped into drive-ins and soon forgotten. In 1968, its rights were scooped up by producers looking to sell it to the TV market. It was more profitable to televise movies longer than 90 minutes, so UCLA students were hired to tack on about 18 minutes, and the movie was renamed They Saved Hitler’s Brain, which is like rebranding The Empire Strikes Back as Darth Vader is Luke’s Father.

Madmen of Mandoras is about Nazis planning to conquer the world with deadly G-Gas from their hideout in a fictional South American country. Only one American knows the antidote, and when he mysteriously disappears, his daughter and son-in-law must track him down and save the day. In an intriguing but ultimately irrelevant twist, it’s revealed that Nazi scientists removed and preserved Hitler’s head in 1945. The movie is technically competent but about as suspenseful as a good nap, the ’60s equivalent of trying to make a quick buck by shoving The Grey Man onto Netflix.

The rebranding and added footage elevated the film to infamy, making a bad movie even worse but saving it from historical oblivion in the process. The They Saved Hitler’s Brain cut opens with a car bombing that’s revealed to have killed a second scientist who knew the G-Gas antidote. Two CID agents are assigned to investigate, but their boss has secretly sided with the Nazis. One game of cat and mouse on Ambien later and everyone is dead, preventing any conflict with the Mandoras footage that makes up the rest of the film.

Our doomed ‘60s heroes.

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It’s essentially a clunky, pointless prequel. The nameless students tasked with this thankless gig deserve credit for thinking of a quasi-believable way to graft on more story, but their work has all the amateurishness you’d expect from neophytes. Car chases begin in broad daylight but are seen at night moments later, the light jazz soundtrack is more befitting of a coffee shop than an ostensible thriller, and the banter between the male and female CID agent is wooden and cliched. The only way to make it interesting is to take a shot whenever time is wasted watching someone enter or exit a car.

Aside from looking cheap and unprofessional, there’s an obvious shift in style. The cast of Mandoras would be at home in a buttoned-up ’50s drama, but our new heroes are such ’60s clichés they probably had plans to attend Woodstock the next year. The only real twist is that an exchange like “You make terrible tea” / “I guess a man’s place definitely isn’t in the kitchen” eventually leads to a bad thriller rather than a bad porno.

The phrase “worst film ever made” gets bandied around a lot, and while the added footage certainly gives They Saved Hitler’s Brain a swing at the title, it’s just a bit too competent to truly compete. There’s a bit of ridiculous gravitas to the reveal of the machine keeping Hitler alive. Meanwhile, The King and I and True Grit actor Carlos Rivas gives the film some charisma, and lead actor Walter Stocker has some handsome competence to him. Maybe he didn’t deserve to be a star, but he deserved better than this.

If nothing else, the title delivers on what it promises.

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Watching Hitler’s Brain feels like watching the feverish birth of tropes made famous elsewhere, from the scheming South American Nazi in The Boys from Brazil to the climactic battle with Hitler’s head in Wolfenstein 3D. This wasn’t the first movie to mix Nazis with genre pulp — a comedy about zombies and their Nazi master was released in 1941! — but you can draw a line from Hitler’s Brain to the popular goofiness of Dead Snow and Call of Duty’s zombie modes, even if that line begins in shaky crayon.

It’s also distinct, if only in a way that makes it appropriate for a drinking game with friends. Hitler is often referred to as Mr. H, like he’s a laidback teacher. A man in a car is shot at point-blank range, prompting his fellow passenger to eventually notice that “something is wrong with him.” And when the time comes to rally and defeat the Nazis, our heroes simply sneak up on them and huck a bunch of grenades, a strategy that feels appropriate for, well, Wolfenstein.

Ironically, the sheer cruddiness of They Saved Hitler’s Brain makes it better known than the hundreds of far better war movies that preceded it, the vast majority of which have been long-forgotten. How many of its competitors can brag about being repeatedly referenced on The Simpsons? Most of its stars are nobodies, achieving nothing more with their careers than bit parts on Kojack. Director David Bradley never made another film. We don’t even know who some of the actors in the added footage were. But they made something memorable, which is what all movies strive to be.

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