BROTHERHOOD OF DEATH is one of those low budget exploitation movies that promises a seemingly can’t-lose premise and then doesn’t much deliver on it. Oh well, it’s still kinda fun. With the tagline “Watch the brothers stick it to the Klan!,” it tells the story of a group of black friends (some of them played by members of the Washington Redskins, I guess) who go off to Vietnam, and become Special Forces badasses. When they get back home they discover that not much has changed. The Klan are terrorizing and raping black people and the police aren’t much help because… well, because the police here are the Klan, it’s mostly the same group of guys, just wearing different uniforms. So – much too late in the movie – these vets do exactly what Doug Llewelyn used to tell us not to do: take the law into their own hands. They apply what they learned in ‘Nam to the situation.
When we first meet them they’re driving around in a school bus like hippies, getting drunk off their asses. They get into a conflict with a guy at the gas station who’s clearly a racist piece of shit. I gotta side with them while also admitting that they started it.
Apparently they do shit like this all the time. They’re considered troublemakers around town, and since they’re the self-proclaimed “A #1 reason for [the Klan] getting back into gear” they decide to enlist as a way to lay low for a while. The Vietnam scenes definitely look like they’re shot in Maryland like the rest of the movie. There’s some stock footage and some low rent sneaking-around-in-the-grass scenes and then they’re recruited by a dude who gives them elite training about booby traps and shit. But also they smoke weed and invest in some of that good shit to bring back home and sell. They are not great American heroes, to be honest.
The drug dealing subplot is immediately abandoned and they come back home to their favorite bar, where they get very drunk on Budweiser with their friend the bartender. The next day, a black couple is playing around in the woods, about to have sex, when three rednecks come along, beat up the guy, and one named Leroy (Ron David, FIREBACK) chases and rapes the woman. “The cops don’t give a shit” and “that’s just the way things are around here” so one of our vets jumps Leroy that night.
The sheriff (Bryan Clark, later known for Folger’s ads and for playing Ronald Reagan in GUTS AND GLORY: THE RISE AND FALL OF OLIVER NORTH, WITHOUT WARNING: THE JAMES BRADY STORY, PIZZA MAN, RICKOVER: THE BIRTH OF NUCLEAR POWER and an episode of Dark Skies) comes to talk to Leroy the next day. This Sheriff Jim is a really interesting character, a sort of redneck John Wayne who has had enough of these people’s shit so he comes and gets Leroy to tell his phony story of between five and eight men (but he uses a racial slur) “rampaging” and attacking him. Then the sheriff tells Leroy off, says that he knows very well the reason he got beat up is because he’s a rapist.
The weird thing is the sheriff comes across like the hero of a western and the only guy within the system – in fact, the only white person at all – who is standing up to the Klan. And yet… the motherfucker is willing to compromise on the rape, as if it’s some small infraction! He’s going to let it go if they’ll behave better from now on.
For their part, the town’s black community makes a good faith effort to work within the system to improve things. They rally at the church and plan a voter registration drive to try to get better representation in the local government. They use the bus to bring people in. The hick behind the desk at city hall is so aghast at the line out the door that wacky ragtime music plays.
But the Klan strikes back. They burn down the church (in stock footage) and celebrate. Their top guy, county attorney Harold Turner (Rick Ellis), wears a pink robe and makes a big speech about stopping “those who would dare to defile our Christian civilization.” To them protecting Christianity means murdering a local black man named Newt Biggars (football player Mike Thomas) and pretending Raymond did it, torturing him with a cigarette until the Sheriff walks in on it and clears him by doing a powder burn test.
Later Raymond convinces the Sheriff he should do the same test for Turner, so they go together to his house. If not for my issues with the Sheriff’s handling of the rape case this would be a great mismatched duo of heroic badasses here. But it becomes a chess (or, let’s be honest, checkers) game of the Ku Klux Kops trying to create a distraction to prevent the sheriff from knowing for sure that Turner is guilty.
We finally get what we’ve been waiting for briefly at the very end. The vets (in uniform even) blow away robed Klansmen, popping up out of trap doors, catching them in booby traps, etc. Then they drive away in their bus as the funk plays. It ends on a freeze frame of what definitely appears to be a real billboard saying “HELP FIGHT COMMUNISM & INTERGRATION [sic], JOIN & SUPPORT UNITED KLANS OF AMERICA INC., KKKK WELCOMES YOU TO SMITHFIELD.” Sure enough, I read that the filmmakers traveled to Smithfield, North Carolina to film this scene because the billboard was still hanging. Can you believe that? This was in 1976! Not the Jim Crow era or the Trump era. Crazy.
This would be a really good movie to remake. Start either after or in Vietnam, have them returning home and make it a full-on action movie. Period might make the most sense, but maybe not. I guess it really doesn’t have to be a remake, it’s a generic enough premise if they leave out the school bus. Just make more movies with badasses protecting towns from white supremacists. That’s what I want to see. (Maybe in the comments we should make a list of movies about that sort of thing. BEST OF THE BEST 3 comes to mind.)
A modern version would not be likely to match the funky soundtrack by John Lewis – not the legendary civil rights hero and congressman, but the one who also did music for ODDS AGAINST TOMORROW and EMMANUELLE 4: CONCEALED FANTASY. Here he contributes typically enjoyable blaxploitation grooves and the opening and closing credits song “High Horse” sung by Barbara Lann. Otherwise pretty much every aspect of this movie would be easy to improve on.
BROTHERHOOD OF DEATH was the brainchild of producer Ronald K. Goldman, who had started as a producer of the Robert Blake movie CORKY, but otherwise only did blaxploitation: SWEET JESUS PREACHERMAN, THE BLACK GESTAPO, and one more after this, THE HITTER.
Writer/director Bill Berry only helmed one other movie, a 1987 comedy called OFF THE MARK, but he continued to work behind the scenes as various types of producers on NIGHT OF THE DEMONS 2, LEPRECHAUN 3, CHILDREN OF THE CORN 666, HOUSE OF THE DEAD 2, etc.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.