For many Serbs, the appeal of the show was purely escapist. But eventually the series’ second life took a strange turn: Nick Slaughter became a hero, of sorts, to the anti-Milosevic movement. On Nov. 17, 1996, mass protests broke out in the country in response to Milosevic’s attempt to manipulate local elections. The protests took place throughout Serbia, but were at their most concentrated in Belgrade where, in the suburb of Zarkovo, sometime in the mid-’90s, a young graffiti artist had written "Sloteru Niče, Zarkovo ti kliče!!!"— a rhyme that means, "Nick Slaughter, Zarkovo hails you"—in bright blue spray paint on the red exterior of a building. According to Marc Vespi, director of Slaughter Nick for President, this graffiti (which survives to this day) inspired student protesters with “the idea of running Nick Slaughter for president.” Soon rhyming slogans like "Slotera Nika, za predsednika" ("Nick Slaughter for president") and "Svakoj majci treba da je dika, koja ima sina k'o Slotera Nika" ("Every mother should be proud to have a son like Nick Slaughter") started showing up on protesters’ banners and badges.
“It was a kind of mock-campaign, the message of which was, even a fictitious TV detective would make a better president than Milosevic,” said Vespi via email. “It was like ‘Anybody but Bush’ a few years ago. It was an expression of frustration with the leadership that the political system was providing.”
Djuricic, the actor, notes that humor was the protesters’ weapon of choice during their three-month peaceful protest against Milosevic. "That was the weapon the regime couldn't fight," he says in Slaughter Nick. “We knew that it was our joke and they didn't understand what our joke meant."
Timofejev Aleksandar, general manager and editor in chief of Belgrade’s radio and TV broadcaster STUDIO B, covered the demonstrations as a young journalist for the radio station B92, one of the few local media outlets that reported independently at the time. He says the Nick Slaughter slogans and numerous other “humorous” tactics were used to oppose the bleak conditions in which citizens were forced to protest.
“Those were demonstrations during the autumn and winter when it was very cold here in Belgrade—it was -10 or -20 degrees,” Aleksandar says on the phone from Serbia. “Every day people were on the street and a lot of them needed to have some kind of levity.”
In February 1997, Milosevic bowed to the opposition. That same year, Tropical Heat ended its run on Serbian television. Locke’s company went bankrupt in 2001, but Serbians never forgot Nick Slaughter. In 2008, fans created a Facebook fan page, “Tropical Heat/Nick Slaughter,” and its ranks eventually swelled to over 20,000 members, most of them Serbs. Two months after the page was established, Nick Slaughter himself stumbled upon it. At the time, Stewart, again unemployed and living with his son and parents, had joined Facebook to communicate with his wife, a cinematographer working in Mexico. One night he searched Tropical Heat to see if it was airing internationally and might send some residuals his way. That’s when he landed on the fan site. He wrote the administrator and got an email back detailing how Nick Slaughter became a Milosevic-era meme. "I'm famous in Serbia!” Stewart told his neighbor. Six months later, Stewart and his neighbor (filmmaker Marc Vespi) were on a plane to the Balkans.
Slaughter Nick for President, which had its world premiere at Toronto’s North by Northeast festival earlier this month, documents their June 2009 trip to Belgrade and Novi Sad where they encountered what the local press called Slaughtermania. Crowds of Hawaiian-shirted fans, front-page news coverage and autograph seekers of all ages with Tropical Heat DVDs greeted Stewart over the course of two weeks.
“Here, you’re like some kind of God—anything is possible if Nick Slaughter is somewhere in it,” one female fan tells Stewart in the film. As a baby, her father played her the Tropical Heat theme song, “Anyway the Wind Blows,” to quiet her cries.
In between documentary interviews, Stewart taped a suspect local TV ad for computer equipment, flashed his chest on a Serbian game show, planted a maple tree in Zarkovo (where “the first seed of the Nick for President phenomenon was planted,” says Stewart in the film), and attended movie premieres and fashion shows. But, for Stewart, the highlight of his visit was a performance at the To Be Punk Festival with Atheist Rap, a Serbian punk band that in 1998 released the song "Slaughteru Nietzsche.”
In the documentary, Stewart can be seen smiling broadly as the band sings: “You bring us a better tomorrow,/You make peace between nations and people/Slaughter Nick, Serbia salutes you!”