I generally have little interest when it comes to American remakes of foreign films. I am however fascinated when other countries reinterpret and remake U.S. films and dabble in primarily American genres. So when I got wind that Synapse was releasing a South African Blaxploitation film, my curiosity was instantly piqued. I knew that Blacula was born there and that Shaft went there in ’73 but I was unfamiliar with any Blaxploitation production that had originated and been filmed in Africa. Accustom to seeing such films playing out with Detroit, New York City or L.A. as their settings, I was curious how a picture working in the Blaxploitation genre would play out with the largest city in South Africa as its backdrop? How closely would the picture follow its funky roots and how apparent would an American influence be visible, if at all?
Newspaper reporter Chaka (Ken Gampu, THE NAKED PREY) just had the story of the decade fall right into his lap. With crime, drugs and prostitution overrunning the streets of Johannesburg, a vigilante organization has stepped forward with a mission to rid the city's streets of any and all criminal elements. Calling themselves "War On Crime”, this secretive organization uses Chaka as their means of publicizing their intentions and promoting their actions, such as the recent execution of a local crime boss. With the bodies to back up their claims, Chaka initially rallies around “War On Crime” as they are providing results that local law enforcement have been unable to deliver. Chaka’s association with “War On Crime” however leads to a rift in his friendship with Lieutenant Ben Deel, played by Nigel Davenport (CHARIOTS OF FIRE, PHASE IV). Lieutenant Deel knows Chaka to be a good man but fears that “War On Crime” is using his friend, and that their motives are not nearly as noble as they claim to be. Working by themselves and as a team, Deel and Chaka dig deeper into the mystery that is ‘War On Crime”, uncovering a plot filled with shootouts, back stabbing, hippy hit men and the funkiest soundtrack since SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER.
DEATH OF A SNOWMAN suffers the same fate of so many crime films before and after it; it gets you hooked and then around the 50 minute mark it starts to gets talky. The film opens with a shocking death and an interesting plot-driving question, who is “War On Crime”? It then runs with said premise at a steady, if not at times disjointed pace, but eventually that momentum starts to fade. The pace slows down and the film's shortcomings begin to become much more evident and the story becomes increasingly predictable, so much so that the conclusion is almost a moot point. Looking back on a film it’s never a good sign when the first things you recall about it are its flaws. The only thing that stands out about SNOWMAN’s conclusion is that it is so poorly lit that the action is barely recognizable. Chaka’s ever so convenient contacts in New York also stick out like a sore thumb as they stand little purpose other than to uncover the true identity of “War On Crime” just before the final act. Deel and Chaka spend the better part of 80 minutes trying to uncover the “War On Crime” identity and two knuckleheads from N.Y. upstage them with little more than 5 minutes of screen time between them. The New York angle does however provide for a nice bit of eye candy in the form of “Beverly” so I can’t completely discredit its inclusion.
DEATH OF A SNOWMAN is fun, don’t get me wrong, but it is also nothing new and will feel very familiar to fans of Blaxploitation or crime films of the 1970s. Switch Johannesburg for Los Angeles and you’d barely know the difference. This may be why I felt so underwhelmed by the picture as very little, if any South African culture can be felt in the production. Action scenes play out nice and the acting is solid by the two leads, but nothing about the production feels in any way unique to the Blaxploitation genre. The character of Chaka is played quite aptly by Gampu and while he isn’t exactly playing against type here, Nigel Davenport delivers an enjoyable performance as Lieutenant Deel. Throughout SNOWMAN, Davenport, who was recently interviewed for the latest issue of Shock Cinema (#39), reminded me of "The Most Interesting Man in the World", seen recently in ads for Dos Equis. I kept hoping he would tell Chaka to “stay thirsty my friend.” The reporter/cop dynamic is nothing new but Davenport and Gampu play well against each other and, along with the film's disco funk soundtrack, prove to be the glue that holds this picture together.
Released on VHS under the alternate title BLACK TRASH, via the Liberty Entertainment Group, LLC in 1988, and as SOUL PATROL, Synapse Films upgrades DEATH OF A SNOWMAN to DVD with an anamorphic (1.66:1) widescreen transfer that I’d be willing to wager looks better than anyone involved with the picture ever thought possible. Dirt and debris are present but are far from overwhelming and while colors tend to lose some of their shine on occasion, overall the film looks more than serviceable given its rarity. As previously mentioned there are several scenes, such as much of the film's conclusion, that are criminally under lit and difficult to make out but you could hardly fault Synapse for such production faults. The English speaking Dolby Digital Mono track is equally as serviceable though far from mind blowing. There are few instances in which you may have to strain to hear dialogue but the ultra funky soundtrack blasts through loud and clear. The disc’s sole extra is the film's original theatrical trailer which is book-ended by footage not found in the feature itself. (Jason McElreath)
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