Neither especially well-crafted nor completely inept, Death of a Snowman is less interesting as a film than as an artifact. You might hope that a low-budget crime drama shot in and around Johannesburg, South Africa, during the apartheid years would deal explicitly with political conditions in the segregated country. Instead — perhaps because of government censorship or fears of political reprisals — Death of a Snowman has only the whiff of racial tension about it, as whites and blacks doubt, disbelieve and double-cross one another from start to finish.
The film stars Ken Gampu as Steve Chaka, a reporter on the crime beat for a black Johannesburg newspaper. He's covering developments in the case of an organization calling itself War On Crime, which is taking out local gangsters, vigilante-style. Chaka's a good reporter, and his even-handed coverage of War On Crime earns him some brief face time with the group's shadowy leader. It also earns him the suspicions of the local police captain (Peter Dyneley), who suspects Chaka is involved with the group even though Chaka's good friend on the force, Lieutenant Ben Deel (Nigel Davenport), vouches for him repeatedly.
Reading between the lines, this squares somewhat with South African history. Protests against the apartheid regime were ramping up, especially after the Soweto uprising in 1976, and black-owned newspapers were suspected by the government of fomenting anti-apartheid sentiment. In 1977, Stephen Biko died in police custody, black-consciousness groups were banned, and a black newspaper called The World was shut down by the government. Provocatively, The World is one of several Johannesburg newspapers that gets a "special thanks" shout-out in the film's end-credits scroll, which is fashioned to resemble the cover of a Weekend World edition.
Death of a Snowman is about cops and robbers, not racism, but still it gives off a subtle but unusual vibe that's somehow suggestive of the rifts in South African culture. There's a fundamental cynicism to the movie that's common to exploitation flicks — it turns out War On Crime isn't trying to make the streets safe again, but is instead trying to clear out the competition so that it can have the city to itself — but the film prizes Chaka's street-level experience and integrity, elevating him to hero status by the film's climax.
Oddly, some of the best material in the film involves a shaggy white hitman named Johnson, a peripheral character who gets to spout weird, pseudo philosophical lines about the trajectory of a bullet and the duality of an assassin's inner life. (He's played by Bima Stagg, also the film's screenwriter, and I couldn't help but get the sense Stagg wrote the part with himself in mind.) Johnson's scenes tend toward gratuitous padding, but they're staged with some flair. He enters the film in a nice action scene involving a pick-up full of chickens. Later on, his relationship with his hapless girlfriend, Heather, gets an inordinate amount of screen time but culminates in one of the most striking passages in the whole film, set at a deserted airport gate.
But too much of the movie is bedevilled by those demons of the low budget: somewhat stiff performances, bad post-sync sound recording, and often a too-murky image — especially during the film's final reel. Proceedings are padded out by some hubba-hubba business involving a couple of Chaka's buddies in the U.S. who help him track down War On Crime's identity while slobbering over a co-worker's tits. That said, MVP is probably veteran film editor Alfred Cox, who brings his scary-movie credentials from years of work cutting Hammer horror films to bear in several scenes, notably a well-executed chase involving the cop Deel, another War On Crime henchman, and a sweet little girl in the crossfire.
Trevor Rabin, who would later go on to join a reincarnated Yes, is in charge of the ersatz-funk musical score, which kept making me wish the filmmakers had slipped in some native South African pop music instead. That's another problem here — instead of playing up its unique origins, the film instead seems to want to blend in with the style of exploitation filmmaking that was already successful in the U.S. The result is barely out of the ordinary as low-budget action goes, but it's worth the sit.
B-movie completists will find the new Synapse Films DVD — the film's first home-video appearance under its original title (rather than the alternate sobriquet Soul Patrol or Black Trash) to be indispensable. The source seems to be a somewhat battered 35mm release print, which isn't great, but it's good enough for a movie like this. The picture is "windowboxed" to an oddball aspect ratio of about 1.73 within 1.77:1 frame; I'll assume Synapse has its reasons. The monaural soundtrack, encoded as Dolby Digital 2.0 is fine — it's a little bit noisy in spots, but it's easy enough to make out dialogue. (I prefer mono to be encoded as 1.0, so only the center speaker puts out sound, but I guess I'm in the minority on that score.) A decent theatrical trailer is also included. A film like this actually begs for a special edition to put it in some context, but it's hard to complain about the lack of special features on an obscurity like this. Just another nice presentation from Synapse.