Today’s cinema adventure: Death Race 2000, the 1975 fantasy-adventure exploitation film, produced by B-movie king Roger Corman and directed by Paul Bartel, about a gladiatorial motor race taking place in a futuristic America ruled by a totalitarian government. Marked by its clearly low budget and campy sensibilities, it was (of course) lambasted by critics upon release- but has since become a bona fide cult classic, spawning numerous spin-offs in other media, countless imitators, and a big-budget Hollywood remake.
Wanting to capitalize on the publicity surrounding the then-upcoming film Rollerball, Corman found suitable source material in a short story, by sometime colleague Ib Melchior (who has a fascinating history in his own right, which you can read about here), called The Racer. Adapted into a screenplay by Robert Thom, then rewritten by Charles Griffith at the insistence of director Bartel, it visualizes a not-too-distant future in which America has been devastated by economic collapse and is under the control of an Orwellian regime (headed by a smarmy figure known simply as “Mr. President”), possessing the combined authority of church, state and media, and dedicated to a policy of “minority privilege.” Sponsored by the government is a yearly cross-country race in which contestants- paired with “navigators” who are apparently also designated sex partners- not only vie to be first across the finish line, but are awarded points for killing hapless pedestrians. Televised and spun for mass consumption, this ritualistic slaughter is further complicated by the interference of a group of rebels bent on sabotaging the proceedings and kidnapping the star driver, a mythic figure known as Frankenstein, whose survival of previous races has left him half-man/half-machine- or at least, according to his P.R.
Corman had always targeted the youth audience with his trend-savvy drive-in fodder, and by the 1970s had become associated with the counter-culture movement; Death Race 2000 struck just the right blend of anti-establishment sentiment and testosterone-fueled fantasy for his purposes. Using mostly re-bodied Volkswagens to stand-in for the souped-up fantasy roadsters driven by the race contestants, filmed on public roadways without permits, and starring David Carradine for box office insurance, the film was shot for a budget of $300,000 and ended up earning $5 million- critical derision notwithstanding.
The disapproval of 1975 critics was perhaps easy to understand. Death Race 2000 is a prime example of quickie low-budget movie making designed to attract a young and unsophisticated audience by titillating them with gratuitous violence and nudity. However, though that audience of pot-smoking drop-outs (and wannabe drop-outs) may have responded to these elements- which the movie certainly delivered- they also responded to something the establishment critics didn’t seem to notice: wrapped up in its lurid, ridiculous premise and its cheap, exploitational thrills is a core of smart social satire and subversive anarchy that captured the zeitgeist of these disillusioned flower-children; the darkly zany vision of the future presented here was clearly an over-the-top parody of the present-day world they lived in, from which the only real possibility of escape was to destroy the system from within- and this, of course, is exactly the scenario of Death Race 2000. While the movie’s well-intentioned revolutionaries are largely ineffectual in their war against the established order, and its media-hypnotized masses are willing lambs to the slaughter, its darkly wisecracking anti-hero- a trusted tool of the government and the best player in their monstrous game- is the only one who has the power to bring an end to their reign of deceit and oppression. It’s anti-authoritarian wish-fulfillment fantasy at its most unapologetic, and the sentiment that drives it is arguably even stronger today than it was then.
Despite this heavy-sounding sociopolitical subtext, the primary reason for watching Death Race 2000 is the same today as it was 37 years ago: it’s a hoot. Director Bartel brings his brand of dry whackiness to the table here, making the most of the story’s frequently ludicrous conceits with tongue-in-cheek self-parody; we don’t have to take the movie seriously because he reminds us throughout that it doesn’t take itself that way, allowing us to shut down our brains and just enjoy the absurdities onscreen. As for all that gratuitous nudity and violence, it certainly is gratuitous- and gleefully so; the movie revels in its tawdriness, delivering glossy, seventies-flavored sex and gore as often as possible without any attempt to justify it. The bloody parts, in particular, are highlighted with great delight, and they are somehow all the more satisfying for being so clearly fake; indeed, most of the carnage borders on slapstick comedy, and the truly graphic stuff is so fleeting you can miss it if you blink- because if it lasted any longer the bargain-basement trickery being employed would be even more obvious than it is already. It’s just more of the ridiculousness that gives the movie its deliberately mindless appeal; and it probably goes without saying that, by today’s standards, what we see in Death Race 2000 is pretty tame. At any rate, what 1975 critics found objectionable seems today like a pretty good recommendation for the film.
The acting here is more or less what you might expect- which means, actually, that it’s pretty good, all things considered. Each performer brings exactly what is required to their character, and in many cases adds a substantial portion of their own personality to it as well, fleshing out these formulaic ciphers and giving them a life over-and-above their roles in this twisted Wacky Racers-style scenario. Some of the faces are familiar, such as future Love Boat-and-U.S.-Congressional lacky Fred Grandy and former Warhol “superstar” Mary Woronov, the latter in particular being one of the film’s highlights with her surprisingly multi-faceted performance as one of the race’s contestants- although, in truth, Woronov’s presence in such films is always a delight, due to her ability to bring so much of her smart, sexy and sweet self into the mix, so her performance here is not that surprising, after all. For many, the biggest surprise will be the presence of Sylvester Stallone as Frankenstein’s chief rival in the race, a swaggering braggart in a gangster persona who takes everything way too seriously; Stallone, who was doubtless working on the screenplay for Rocky even as he filmed this, shows the charisma and ability that would soon make him a star, even though it’s hard to tell, sometimes, if his effectiveness here is due to his actual work or to the foreshadowing of his future screen persona. As for the movie’s star, David Carradine, he was fresh from his success on TV’s Kung Fu, and he was anxious to shed the image he had gained from it (though Corman had initially wanted anti-establishment icon Peter Fonda for the role); he gives a performance that, in another context, would probably have gained him a lot of critical acclaim, investing his brooding, bitter, bad-ass character with the depth, intelligence and humor necessary to make him not only interesting, but likeable- and, importantly, though perhaps incidentally, creates a persona that adds weight to the underlying elements that give Death Race 2000 its unexpected substance.
As for the film’s technical aspects, it manages to find a fairly coherent visual style despite its low budget, injecting its fruity satirical elements into the design in such a way that the cheapness actually seems to enhance the final effect. The costumes are a blend of cock-eyed futuristic imagining and modern-day tackiness, though its worth noting the striking resemblance between Frankenstein’s intimidating black outfit with the iconic design for Darth Vader, who would first appear on the screen a good two years later. The scenic elements are handled with a similar hybrid approach. The tinselly, cartoonish trappings of the futuristic setting are grafted onto the obviously contemporary surroundings, making its satirical connection to the present more obvious; the garish, cartoonish designs for the cars smacks of adolescent male automotive fantasy, and the fact that these re-purposed vehicles actually seem to perform is impressive in itself- in reality they were usually filmed rolling downhill after being pushed into motion, and the cameras were sped up to make it look like they were moving faster than they really were. The more elaborate effects- such as the single matte painting used to create the future New York skyline- are laughably shoddy, which of course only adds to the overall appeal, as do such obvious earmarks of the grade-Z budget as the undisguised exit door in Frankenstein’s “hotel suite” and the amateurish graphics of the various signage used throughout.
Death Race 2000 was remade a few years back, boosted with big Hollywood money but no doubt targeted at this generation’s version of the same audience. I confess I haven’t seen it; but I must say I find it difficult to believe that an A-list production would have quite the same effect as the original. Watching Corman and Bartel’s film gives the impression that you are somehow participating in an underground revolution, poking fun at “The Man” under his oblivious nose. With real money and studio backing, it seems to me such a film would have a different kind of phoniness to it, one far more insidious and subtle than the cardboard backdrops and obvious stage blood of the original- but that’s a review I haven’t written yet, though perhaps one day I will. In the meantime, I can heartily endorse the low-rent thrills of this cult-classic gem from the past; though the future it foresees is a little behind schedule, it still may come- but if it does, at least we can say we were warned.