Thursday, December 2, 2010

DVD REVIEW: Death of a Snowman (1978)


STUDIO: Synapse Films
RATED: Unrated
GENRE: Blaxploitation, Crime
DIRECTOR: Christopher Rowley
Country of Origin: South Africa
CAST: Nigel Davenport (Lt. Ben Deel), Ken Gampu (Steve Chaka), Peter Dyneley (Captain), Madala Mphahlel (Luthor "Snowman" Daniels), Bima Stagg (Johnson)
TAGLINE: Rougher and Tougher Than Anything You Have Seen Before.

PLOT: Master criminals meet violent death in Johannesburg, South Africa, a city wrought with organized crime. Steve Chaka (Ken Gampu), an ambitious news reporter, learns that these deaths are from the hands of an all-black vigilante group known only as “War on Crime”. Teaming up with Lt. Ben Deel (Nigel Davenport, CHARIOTS OF FIRE, A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS) of the local police department, Chaka investigates anonymous tips regarding future “hits” and ends up fighting for his life to uncover the truth behind the vigilante killings! 

FILM: DEATH OF A SNOWMAN aka SOUL PATROL aka BLACK TRASH is a  gritty grindhouse crime thriller that takes place in the crime-infested city of Johannesburg, South Africa. It's the late-70's and newspaper reporter Steve Chaka (Ken Gampu) is following anonymous leads given to him by a mysterious figure calling himself 'War On Crime' (Madala Mphahlel) who's wiping out organized-crime under the guise of a vigilante cleaning-up the crime plagued city. What's really going on is that he's a heroin pusher merely eliminating the competition one by one with the help of some white assassins. The film has all the earmarks of a sleazy 70's exploitation film -  worn print, scratchy audio, rough editing, awesomely  crude dialogue and a pretty swanky 70's soundtrack. The film starts off on the good foot as tow truck slams into the car of a crime boss and the gunman emerges from the truck and pumps a few rifle shots into the car. Cue the disco tunes and roll opening credits.

There's a good cast of characters including Chaka the ambitious crime-beat reporter looking to get to the bottom of the War On Crime mystery. Chaka is good friends with Lt. Ben Deel played by Nigel Davenport (CHARIOTS OF FIRE, A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS) who works alongside Chaka on the case despite the fact that his Capt. suspects Chaka may in fact be War On Crime. Their friendship is not overly developed but enough so that you understand their mutual trust. The film's writer Bima Stagg gives a decent turn as the shaggy-bearded, laid-back hitman Johnson who espouses some fun second rate Zen-like wisdom like a stoned philosophy major who carries an over-sized hand cannon ("Each man kills the thing he loves, to coin a phrase."). Stagg is also the writer of the Thomas Jayne vehicle STANDER (2003), another South African set film telling of the true story of African police officer turnbed bank robber Andre Stander, another good watch there.

The film is full of sweaty action including Lt. Deel giving chase by car to one of the War On Crime's henchman (who looked like AC/DC's Bon Scott ) who's just blasted a suspect Deel is tailing which leads to a foot chase and  the two lobbying shots back and forth putting a young girl in the crossfire. The car chase and gun play are not particularly well filmed but it's shot fast and loose and makes for an entertaining watch. Eventually Chaka discovers the true nature of War On Crime and that he's being used as a smoke screen in the press which pisses him off to the point that he himself becomes a bad-ass vigilante that culminates in a one-man killing spree that leads to an thrilling final confrontation between Chaka and the War On Crime.  The final few minutes of the film take place in a warehouse and are shamefully under lit which makes the action difficult to follow who's doing what to whom but it's pretty bad-ass regardless. Even Chaka's father takes up an axe and starts swinging away, fun stuff.

DVD: Thanks to Synapse Films we get DEATH OF A SNOWMAN (1978) in an anamorphic widescreen 1.66:1 aspect ratio transfer that looks ...pretty worn and dinged-up to be honest with a mono soundtrack. These grindhouse prints weren't treated with a lot of respect so I guess we're just lucky to have 'em. The only supplemental material is a theatrical trailer. The DVD is Region 0 and playable in all regions. Would have loved to seen some interviews or a featurette on shooting a blaxploitation film in South Africa at the time, but ya get what ya get, right?

VERDICT: DEATH OF A SNOWMAN is action-packed and very entertaining which is what one hopes for with grindhouse cinema.  It probably tries to be a bit too serious for it's own good but still manages satisfy. Sure, it's trashy cinema but it's a cool rough and tumble romp. A recommend from me. *** (3 out of 5 stars)