Back in the early days of home video, when studios were much slower to release new movies, and video tapes were usually rented at grocery stores, there was a glut of exploitation titles to choose from. These were all flicks that had come out in decades earlier, and many of them were released on video under alternate titles. This is especially true of select blaxploitation titles—movies like The Bus is Coming became Ghetto Revenge, while Force Four, Charcoal Black, Brother on the Run and Savage became Black Force, Black Rage, Black Force 2 and Black Valor, respectively. And then there was Death of a Snowman, one of the few blaxploitation films to boast of being an international production, which found a home on select video shelves under the titles Black Trash and Soul Patrol.
Produced in South Africa during the height of the racist apartheid system that made segregation legal, Death of a Snowman is a unique entry into the blaxploitation genre for a variety of reasons. There were only a handful of black action films to come to the United States via other countries, and most of those were films that had started out as something else, but were then re-titled and re-edited for the American market (the best example being Mean Mother, which started out as the Italian film El hombre que vino del odio). Death of a Snowman is, however, one of the only—if not the only—movies produced outside of the United States that was specifically modeled after the blaxploitation movies that had become popular throughout America.
Ken Gampu stars as Steve Chaka, a newspaper reporter covering a series of violent crimes committed against criminals. Someone calling themselves “War On Crime” claims responsibility for the brutal murders of Soweto’s criminal empire, and promises more deaths will come until the streets are free of illegal activities. Meanwhile, Chaka’s good friend, white police detective Lt. Ben Deel (Nigel Davenport) is investigating the War On Crime murders. Deel doesn’t believe Chaka is involved in the crimes, but he does believe the reporter is being used by the vigilante organization, which tells Chaka of its actions just before they are committed. The more Chaka and Deel investigate the case, the more deadly things become, and the higher the body count, as War On Crime leaves an ever-increasing pile of bullet-riddled corpses stacking up.
Death of a Snowman falls into a very specific class of blaxploitation film in which it can’t be considered one of the A or B-films of the era—Shaft, Truck Turner, Foxy Brown—nor is it one of the low-rent Z-grade flicks indicative of the times—The Guy from Harlem, Speeding Up Time, Baby Needs a New Pair of Shoes. This leaves the film in the awkward position of being neither among the best of the genre nor the worst. Instead, director Christopher Rowley’s movie finds itself in the company of such films as Matt Cimber’s The Candy Tangerine Man and The Black Six, and Greydon Clark’s Black Shampoo—none of which should be confused with great cinema, but all of which are entertaining in their own right.
As an obviously low budget exploitation film, Death of a Snowman succeeds more often than it fails. The story is interesting—despite the fact the heroes have relatively little screen time together (perhaps a result of South Africa’s racist policies?)—and the direction is standard drive-in movie competent. The soundtrack offers a nice funky groove that helps propel the film a decent pace, and more than almost anything else, helps to establish the blaxploitation vibe.
The film is perhaps most interesting as a piece of cinematic history. It was filmed and takes place in Johannesburg, South Africa, but there is never any mention of apartheid. The film seems to gloss over politics as much as possible, and if you knew nothing of how things were in South Africa, you’d never have any inclination from watching Death of a Snowman. But if you do know about apartheid, then you begin to pick up on little traces of it throughout the film.
Death of a Snowman is also significant for its casting of Ken Gampu. One of the first black South African actors to work in Hollywood films, Gampu became a recognizable character actor who appeared in many movies shot in Africa. In film, he was most famous for playing soldiers, tribal leaders and cops, with Death of a Snowman being one of his more significant roles. Gampu was also known for his work on the stage, including his historic casting in a South African production of Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, in which he had to be granted special permission by the government to appear on stage with white actors. Years later, when asked about his performance in Of Mice and Men, Gampu was quoted as saying, “For the first time the black man was on an equal footing with the white man, and you know – the heavens didn’t fall.”
Having been released on VHS as Black Trash and Soul Patrol—both being the sort of title that cost ninety-nine cents—Death of a Snowman seldom made it on the radar of fans of blaxploitation, or any other genre of exploitation film for that matter. Terrible transfer of bad prints, combined with poor dubbing and generic box art made this movie the type that begged to be ignored. This new release now from Synapse Films finally gives Death of a Snowman some of the respect that it deserves, for even though this is not the greatest bit of exploitation cinema you could hope to see, it is entertaining and worth a watch.