Color, 1975, 89m.
Directed by Lee Frost
Starring Rod Perry, Charles Robinson, Phil Hoover, Edward Cross, Angela Brent
Code Red (Blu-ray) (US R0 HD) (1.78:1) (16:9)
The award for the weirdest career in American drive-in history may very well belong to director Lee Frost, who started off with a bang with the boobs-and-monsters favorite House on Bare Mountain before launching into films like The Defilers, Mondo Freudo, Love Camp 7, Chrome and Hot Leather, The Thing with Two Heads, Policewomen, and even a handful of wacko hardcore offerings, most notably the outrageous A Climax of Blue Power.
Stuck in the middle of all this is The Black Gestapo, a bizarre, violent take on the black power movement that was sweeping American cities in the mid-‘70s. The white mob has been extorting and terrorizing the population of Watts for far too long, so the People’s Army led by General Ahmed (Perry) has been set up to help the citizens fend for themselves and strike back when necessary. However, his second in command, Colonel Kojah (Robinson, aka the cheerful Mac from beloved ‘80s TV sitcom Night Court!), takes the approval to start a full security force a little too far – especially when his sister gets raped by the white goons, which starts a vicious cycle of payback and aggression with the Colonel setting up an armed compound that can’t possibly end well for anyone involved.
Sort of a racial tension take on the same ideas as Massacre at Central High (really!) about how power corrupts in contained social groups, this is the kind of film that works best if you don’t think about its social statements too seriously. The real-life internal rifts in organizations like the Black Panthers and the Nation of Islam are well documented but have nothing to do with the lurid events depicted here, which throw in enough shootings, naked women, and castrations to make sure that even the most demanding fans of ‘70s exploitation will be entertained from start to finish. Besides, it opens with Nazi newsreel footage under the opening credits, so you clearly know you're in for something that would never get made today, even by an indie. To make sure you know you’re watching a Frost film, the beloved and busty Uschi Digard turns up on Robinson’s arm, and short-lived Frost soft- and hardcore leading man I. William Quinn even drifts around as a fey accountant. Probably not the best film to break out in polite company, but definitely one you need to see to believe.
Notoriously disreputable distributor Bryanston released this puppy in theaters in 1976, after which is was presumed to fall into the public domain with a wide variety of VHS and DVD releases all culled from a pretty sorry-looking ‘80s tape master originally prepared for Unicorn Video. You’ve probably seen this one stuck in a number of multi-film blaxploitation packages, often alongside The Black Six. Fortunately the call for a fresh transfer has finally been answered by Code Red’s 2016 Blu-ray release sold directly through its store, officially licensed from Bryanston and taken from the pristine camera negative that looks like it's been sitting untouched since its release. The quality here is stunning, especially if you're familiar with this film's history; it's hard to believe it's even the same title. The audio shows its age far more with a sometimes crackly and rough texture, but it's still a thousand times clearer than we've ever had it before.
Believe it or not, you also get an audio commentary by Perry and Robinson, moderated by Code Red's Bill Olsen. The two actors have fun throughout noting the film's strong content, remarking on the frequently unconvincing mobsters, noting thematic connections to The Spook Who Sat by the Door, pointing out Frost's doggie-loving gangster role in the film, and chuckling about all the big hair and fashions, while occasionally trying to figure out what Frost was getting at with some of the more extreme flourishes. Both actors return for separate SD video interviews, with Robinson getting 10 minutes to recall getting his friend Perry cast in the film, doing method acting, enjoying the bevy of beautiful women on the set, and how the critics trashed the film on its release. Perry gets to cheerfully sit outside in the sunshine for a 7-minute reminiscence about the "beautiful" relationship between cast and crew on the film, his start as a model, and the transitional nature of cinema and acting opportunities at the time. Actor Charles Howerton, who played "one of the incompetent bad boys," also turns up for an 11-minute SD interview about how he was cast after working as a real estate salesman and had a great time shooting the film; amusingly, he spends much of his time trying to talk over a noisy lawnmower in the background as he chats about his extensive work elsewhere on the big and small screens including Up from the Depths. Other extras include a minute of random bunch of outtakes with label hostess Katarina Leigh Waters and the monster banana (from the shoot for The Pom Pom Girls from the looks of it) and the theatrical trailer.
Reviewed on June 7, 2016.