Color, 1976, 77m.
Directed by Bill Berry
Starring Roy Jefferson, Le Tari, Haskell V. Anderson III, Mike Thomas, Michael Hodge, Bryan Clark
Code Red (Blu-ray) (US R0 HD) / WS (1.78:1) (16:9), Anchor Bay (DVD) (US R0 NTSC)
Color, 1976, 77m.
It was probably inevitable that someone would come up with the idea of mashing up two popular drive-in subgenres in the mid-'70s, the "Vietnam vet gets revenge" scenario (see: Rolling Thunder) and the good ol' boy action formula ranging from Walking Tall to Gator. However, Brotherhood of Death, an indie offering from the short-lived Downtown Distribution Company (who also handled a couple of Godzilla films before this), makes things even more interesting by turning this collision into a social statement about race relations with a blaxploitation vibe (including a catchy R&B theme song) to grab the widest audience possible. What emerged remains a real curio with far more on its mind than just bullets and blood.
In the deep American South, Roy (NFL star Jefferson), his brother Junior (Kickboxer's Anderson), and their buddy Ned (Tari) decide it might actually better to head off to Vietnam than deal with the increasingly racist atmosphere at home, with combat turning them into seasoned killing machines. Back home they find the only sympathetic white person in sight is the ineffectual sheriff (Clark) while the Ku Klux Klan has now taken the area over with an iron fist. The bigoted brotherhood can commit any crime with impunity against black people, be it standard verbal and physical assault or even full-on rape, which is enough to spur the three vets into action to try to stop the tide of hatred around them.
Packed with supporting actors culled from the Washington Redskins in addition to leading man Jefferson, Brotherhood of Death is a highly effective blood boiler of a film if you can get past the lengthy and wildly unconvincing Vietnam sequences, which were very clearly shot in Maryland just like the rest of the film. The racist dialogue spouted by the white characters is pretty vicious even by the hot-button standards of the decade; seriously, try programming this with Fight for Your Life and see what happens. None of the actors have terribly demanding roles, but the performances stay well above amateur level with Anderson in particular demonstrating why he would go on to have a busy career for decades.
Brotherhood of Death first popped up on VHS from MPI in the mid-1980s and then disappeared completely until its DVD release in a reasonable but unspectacular open matte presentation from Anchor Bay paired up with One Down Two to Go. That same master is, as of this writing, available for streaming online through the usual official channels via distributor Peace Arch. However, you can easily ignore all those options in favor of the Code Red Blu-ray, available directly via its online store, which is drop dead gorgeous and blows away any expectations of how good this could possibly look. It looks like the negative's been left untouched since 1976, with the outdoor scenes looking exceptionally crisp and detailed without any digital manipulation in sight. The darker scenes now have appropriate levels compared to the overly bright previous transfer, and it's far easier to tell what's going on during the last ten minutes in particular.
Also included for comparison is the 73-minute TV version (looking much softer from a 16mm print), which understandably omits several of the stronger moments including pretty much everything involving the rape scene. Other extras include an isolated music track on the theatrical cut, a 29-minute interview with Anderson (who remembers his debut role here well and also touches on some of his other notable roles), and the original trailer, which drew in a lot of curious customers when it appeared on MPI VHS tapes throughout the 1980s.
Note: Thanks to Chris Poggiali for more detail on Downtown Distribution - "an alias of Cinema Shares during the company's busiest years (1976-1978)," created to deal with overstock titles and reissues.