Death Race 2000 (1975)
“Across the town the traffic is MURDER”
Director: Paul Bartel
Cast: David Carradine, Sylvester Stallone, Simone Griffeth
Synopsis: In a dystopian future, a cross country automobile race requires contestants to run down innocent pedestrians to gain points that are tallied based on each kill’s brutality.
It’s almost impossible to watch Death Race 2000, the tacky, violent satire released in 1975 by King-of-the-Cheap-B-Movie Roger Corman to cash in on public anticipation of Norman Jewison’s Rollerball, without thinking of the 1960s cartoon show Wacky Races, in which each week a selection of drivers and their navigators participated in a cross country car race filled with all manner of perils. That’s because everything about this high concept, deliberately trashy movie is so cartoonish that at any moment you expect to see one of the drivers race past a steep cliff atop which an emaciated coyote is frantically attempting to push a precariously perched boulder. Come to think of it, that’s probably what we would have seen if Corman’s budget hadn’t struggled to equal the bill for James Caan’s hairdresser on Rollerball.
The story takes place in America in what was then the future year of 2000. Following a traumatic economic crash in 1979, the United States has disintegrated and been replaced by the United Provinces, a semi-fascist state where the major parties have merged into the Bipartisan Party which also controls a unified religion. To distract the populace from the nation’s problems, the government promotes a number of gladiatorial style contests, the most popular of which is the Annual Transcontinental Road Race, a three-day event in which the contestants earn points for killing pedestrians.
The racers all seem to represent eras of violence: there’s Nero the Hero (Martin Kove) and his navigator Cleopatra (Leslie McRay) from Roman times, the Neo-Nazi Matilda the Hun (Roberta Collins) and Herman ‘The German’ Bosch (Fred Grandy), and cowgirl Calamity Jane (Mary Woronov) from the Wild West and her sidekick Pete (William Shephard). The key competitors, however, are Machine Gun Joe Viterbo (a pre-Rocky Sylvester Stallone) and the busty Myra (Louisa Moritz), who style themselves upon a 1920s gangster and his moll, and the masked mystery figure Frankenstein (David Carradine) and Annie Smith (Simone Johnson). Clad in black leather, Frankenstein is the nation’s favourite, but the driver is actually just the latest in a number to have assumed the role in order to give the country a ‘hero’ figure. But Annie is also not what she seems: she’s actually the granddaughter of Thomasina Paine (Harriet Medin), the leader of a group of rebels who plan to sabotage this year’s race by killing all the competitors apart from Frankenstein, whom they plan to kidnap as he is known to be a friend of Mr. President (Sandy McCallum), the figurehead of the United Provinces.
The racers roar around strangely deserted roads in their heavily stylised motors, selecting whichever route they feel will enable them to be first past each day’s finishing post. Any members of the public unfortunate enough to get in their way quickly find themselves becoming roadkill to boost a driver’s points total. Deafness appears to be a blight on the population of this 2000 because, apart from a gaggle of cynical nurses and doctors who pay the price for leaving a bunch of crippled geriatrics in the path of the racers, most of the drivers’ victims fail to hear the thunderous roar of the motors as they approach. There are a few exceptions, however; thrill seekers such as a matador complete with cape who challenges a car as if it were a bull, and a trio of denim-bedecked good ol’ boys whose game of chicken has comically bloody consequences. One by one, however, the racers fall victim to the traps of the resistance until only two couples — Frankenstein and Anna, and Joe and Myra — are left. Although it can’t have been intended, it’s actually the relationship between Myra and Joe that is infinitely more interesting than that of their last remaining competitors. Myra finds Joe’s frequent tantrums highly amusing, while he describes her as ‘a very large baked potato.’
It’s fun to see Sylvester Stallone as an out-and-out bad guy shortly before he hit the big time with Rocky. Given the enthralling realism of the fight scenes in that movie, it’s kind of ironic that his physical confrontation with Frankenstein is so poorly choreographed and directed. But then, such shoddiness is to be expected from any movie in which Roger Corman is involved, as is the crap dialogue (provided by Robert Thom and Charles B. Griffith from an original story by Ib Melchior), choppy editing, and the appalling quality of the acting (Stallone and Carradine are ok, but everyone else is horribly over-the-top apart from Simone Griffeth who is simply bad in every way).
It’s difficult not to like a movie like Death Race 2000, though, simply because it never pretends to be something that it’s not. It’s a cheaply made exploitation movie designed to appeal to petrol heads who like a generous helping of female nudity and bloody violence added to their dose of throbbing motors. This movie has all of that, with the majority of the female cast members spending most of their non-race scenes either naked or in various states of undress. With regards to the violence, the deaths of the members of the public unfortunate enough to cross paths with one of the racers are depicted with a kind of gleeful exhiliration in a splurge of vivid red that isn’t quite as graphic as it seems at first, but which is no less effective for it.
Death Race 2000 does attempt to make some satirical points. It’s impossible for it not to dwell on the public’s appetite for violence, but it also makes a deliberate decision to highlight the cynicism of televised sport in catering to this appetite. The incongruous manner in which TV presents the race to the public is defined by the characters of the three TV presenters who report on the action: there’s the manically excitable Junior Bruce (Don Steele) and his stylistic opposite the deceptively calm Harold (Carle Benson), and the fawning Grace Pander (Joyce Jameson). The cynical practice of misinformation employed by governments desperate to distract the public from its problems is also explored, but with less pizzazz or commitment, and there’s no arguing that Death Race 2000 also works best as a straightforward exploitation pic. Bare breasts and violence were Corman’s specialities, and like some unscrupulous government in an unimaginable dystopian future, he knew that they were the only ingredients required to distract the public from their woes…
(Reviewed 4th August 2013)