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Death Race 2000 Review

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by Chris McEneany Jul 3, 2010

    Death Race 2000 Review

    “Frankenstein! Frankenstein the legend, Frankenstein the indestructible! Sole survivor of the titanic pile-up of '95, only two-time winner of the Transcontinental Road Race... Frankenstein! Ripped up, wiped out, battered, shattered, creamed, and reamed (!) ... a dancer on the brink of death... Frankenstein, who lost a leg in '98, an arm in '99! With half a face and half a chest, and all the guts in the world, he's back!”

    In 1975, two prescient SF short stories were adapted for the big screen. Both depicted futuristic societies in which the masses were held in check, very much as they were with the old gladiatorial Roman arenas, by enormously popular bloodsports that quelled their dissatisfaction with strict authoritarian rulers. Both were social satires. Both were outrageously inventive and violent. Both went on attain hugely justified cult status, and both were the recipients of rather lamentable re-imaginings in recent years. One was a deliberately po-faced but fascinating combination of gentle class observation and ferocious action, exploring the might of the individual as opposed to the blind obedience of the sheep-like masses. The other dissected the very same thing - the superstar status and the myth of celebrity - but did so in a completely wacky, way-out and irreverent manner. One was Norman Jewison's iconic, but also pretentious Rollerball. And the other was Roger Corman's insane black comedy Death Race 2000.

    Although Rollerball is the better film, minute-for-minute and scene-for-scene, Death Race 2000 is much more enjoyable.

    Based on Ib Melchior's dangerously serious tale, The Racer, this satirical classic of automotive carnage was made on the quick and very cheaply by the king of low budget exploitation, Roger Corman, who spotted something “hot” and radical about the story. Melchior was probably more renowned for his fanciful SF adventures set on distant worlds, like the great Robinson Crusoe On Mars, The Angry Red Planet, Planet Of The Vampires for Mario Bava, and Journey To The Seventh Planet - all of which were derived from his elegant and exotic prose. But the wonderful thing about the writer and director was that even with his feet firmly on terra firma, he was just as exuberant in his imagery and allegory. The story is simple - in the United States of the future (well, the past, actually, from our point of view) is governed the corrupt Mr. President (Sandy McCallum) and a very shady media and religion cult that idealises death on the roads, courtesy of the annual Transcontinental Death Race. Celebrity drivers and their co-pilot navigators must hurtle from New York to New Los Angeles in a series of high-octane legs, and the winner is the one who not only survives the ordeal, but who has killed the most pedestrians along the way. The sport is a national obsession with the participants idolised in a manner akin to Olympian Gods. The premier driver is Frankenstein (David Carradine), a leather-clad road warrior who rides in a green reptilian dragon-car. With most of his body cut, severed, broken and demolished, he is reputedly a patch-work of skin-grafts, metal bones and limb-replacements. Scars fill the cracks in his black, Rick Baker designed face-mask, zombie-eyes peer out in unparalleled arrogance and superiority. And, yet, he is adored and women throw themselves at his feet. Frankenstein is the Crown Prince of Death on the roads. But, as much as his popularity grows and the population don't seem able to get enough of the carnage, a rebellion is brewing. An underground movement of rebels are determined to destroy the Race and all those who participate in it to bring about a new order - one that is not blinded by the corruption of an authority that is clearly mad, and smitten with a force-fed diet of ultra-violence to divert them from their own plight. However, even if they ultimately want peace, the rebels are prepared to kill to get it.

    And they have people working for them right on the inside.

    Directed by his friend, the clever and incredibly witty Paul Bartel, Death Race 2000 is the film that not only plucked David Carradine from TV fame and catapulted him into the movies but also gave a shot to an underdog who would go positively stratospheric with his very next project - another little sporting movie that would go by the name of Rocky. Although frequently mentioned as only being a guest player in this fast and vibrant wheel-spinner, Sylvester Stallone is actually one of its greatest elements and another “you saw it here, first, folks” claim to fame for the Cult of Corman. In fact, the Corman/Bartel allure was such that many great names eventually surfaced through their filtration system, and not only actors. Look no further than James Cameron, Joe Dante, John Landis (who even appears in the film as an ill-fated pit-crewman), Martin Scorsese and even Francis Ford Coppola, who all cut their teeth working on the nuts 'n' bolts, overcome-and-adapt ethic that Corman's make-do mentality instilled in all those around him. The free-wheeling attitude that the exuberant and prolific producer engendered on the set was such that a genuine family atmosphere was evoked in front of, and behind the cameras. He had a knack for getting his cast to do almost anything for him, and this was a result of his own profound understanding of everything that went into making a film. By the time he came to producing and overseeing Death Race 2000, he'd performed literally every task involved with getting a movie put up on the big screen. Without a doubt, he proved his technical, intellectual and artistic worth with his audacious series of Edgar Allan Poe adaptations in the 60's, and his style of economy and vision combined became a template that many would seek to emulate. With uncanny foresight, he would latch onto trends seemingly just before anyone else, although he would probably achieve his most lasting notoriety with the low-budget schlockers that hopped between genres such as his prison-chicks and teen-rebel flicks, subversive little dramas that added a salacious vein of sleaze into the mix.

    With liberal amounts of sex and nudity adorning the film as well some gleefully gruesome inserts of maimed and mutilated road-kill, Death Race 2000 certainly fit that bill. Brilliantly, the man-and-machine and, indeed, woman-and-machine ego-trip isn't actually undone by this counter-culture attack on media manipulation and sham religion. Unashamedly, Corman's film actually seems to celebrate as much as condemn this delight in death. The message for peace is there, all right, but you really get the impression that he would rather the Race remained. Paul Bartel, on the other hand, loves the anarchic stupidity of the whole thing. Appearing, very appropriately, as a mad doctor in the film - the bizarre surgeon who basically keeps Frankenstein alive and in, well, as few pieces as possible - he adds to the wonderfully screwball nature of the plot. Think The Cannonball Run, but with tits 'n' bums and the odd head-squishing.

    David Carridine has a great time with the part of the stitched-together superstar, who is allegedly more machine than man. There is a great distinction between Frankenstein, the driver, and Frankenstein, the man, and Carridine does well with both the deadpan, almost cyborg-like assertiveness of the one side, and the soulful, more reflective innocence of the other. Whilst nothing is actually spelled-out, it is clear that he is merely a puppet who has grown resentful of his lot in life. He may be the best at what he does, but even he has begun to tire of the fame and the monotony of bloodshed. When he is appointed a brand new navigator, the delectable Annie Smith, played by Simone Griffeth, his world-view is challenged. He finds that he is as attracted to her as he is distrustful of her. Something isn't right and, just like James Caan's indestructible Jonathan E in Rollerball, he can sense that he has now gone so far into the realms of myth that his true place in the world has been lost. He can also sense that this Race might well be his last. But he won't go out without a fight, no matter what. He was one last job to do before he throws down his black gauntlets.

    “Here he comes ... Machine Gun Joe! Loved by thousands, hated by millions!”

    As Frankenstein's main nemesis, Machine-gun Joe Viterbo, Stallone is utterly brilliant and he steals every scene that he is in. Playing the heavy suits his early macho arrogance to a tee. His character's vanity and pride are colossal obstacles that Stallone is able to make stunningly comedic, yet still credible. His whip-taut temper and childish tantrums are fabulously amusing and, in a great deal of ways, Machine-gun Joe could have appeared much later on in his career as something of a cool in-joke. You also have to remember that, right at this time, Sly was writing Rocky, so considering that he was already making grandiose plans of his own, his performance, poles apart from the very character that he was no-doubt living and breathing for much of the time, and would unarguably change his life, is so inspired. It is also terrific to see him standing there, atop his giant blade-festooned Mob-mobile, letting rip with a Thompson sub-machine-gun, his mouth twisted into that iconic droopy snarl of ballistic fury so familiar from the Rambo franchise. But his frequent howling of consternation - “SONOFABITCH!!!” - as yet another scheme goes belly-up, or when someone puts him down is just beautiful. Stallone rules action cinema even to this day. And this film just goes to prove that, in actual fact, he always has done.

    As well as Martin (Karate Kid) Kove, who would also star opposite Sly in Rambo: First Blood Part II, as the camp and narcissistic Nero the Hero, we get two foxy chicks who put the pedal to the metal with as much testosterone as our two leading speed-freaks. Roberta Collins is the luscious Aryan uber-babe, Matilda The Hun, a Teutonic blonde who cries “Blitzkrieg!” with every slaying. Check out her goofy co-pilot, that “Goafer” from TV's The Love Boat. Then, of course, we get the mighty Mary Woronov as Calamity Jane, a brazen, hollering trail-blazer clad in cowgirl leathers and riding a vehicular buffalo with massive, pedestrian-skewering horns on the bonnet. Woronov was no stranger to the low-budget indie exploitation scene and, very reassuringly, has remained within the genre ever since, with Ti West's slow-burn occult chiller The House Of The Devil (see my BD review) proving that she still has that hard, lean malevolence that made her stand out from the usual brigade of Drive-in bimbos. Lurking jjust behind the scenes, we have the leader of the rebellion, the grandmotherly Thomasina Paine, played by Harriet Medin. Corman delivers a picture that is all about machismo ... and it is to his, and Paul Bartel's credit that the women provide at least half of the dosage.

    “She was a great, dear friend of mine and I shall remember her forever howling down that freeway in the sky, knocking over... the angels.”

    But the satirical fun doesn't end with the main players and their wild rivalries, in-fighting and high-speed squabbling. The opiate of sanctioned murder is spiked all the more by the media front-line of round-the-clock TV presenters Junior Bruce and Grace Pander, who feed rumour, disinformation and gossip about the Race, the competitors and all the death, sex and chaos that roars through every mile. Junior Bruce, a sure-fire template for Austin Powers, was played by over-the-top radio deejay, The Real Don Steele. His pulverising, non-stop barrage of almost musical zeal was the way in which he actually performed on-air anyway, but Corman managed to wrangle his off-the-wall verbosity into some astonishingly effervescent sound-bites. “Of course it's violent! That's how we like it! Violent, violent, violent!!!” With his safari suit, billowing pink scarf and high leather boots, he is the epitome of camp. But Don Steele supercharges his way through the movie with as much energy as any of the homicidal race cars. Grace Pander, on the other hand, is the simpering, patronising gossip queen who preens and fawns at every opportunity, sucking-up to the drivers, and dropping enough bogus acid into the collective public psyche to paint the diabolical truth about the shot-to-hell society totally out of the picture. Joyce Jameson, who plays her, is having a right old time of it, too. Bookending every introduction with “A dear friend of mine ...” becomes a delightfully saccharine and cloying conceit that makes the teeth itch. Jameson is terrific and between her, Don Steele and the deadpan Walter Cronkite-lite/Howard Cosell newsman and voice of the people, Harold (a fantastically straight-faced Carle Benson), they more than take care of the “other half” of the film.

    “Who built this stinking road? If I ever get my hands on him, I'll rip his heart out!”

    For such a thrown-together and ramshackle affair, Death Race 2000 is actually quite a well designed and structured film. The 2nd Unit action team under Chuck Griffith and Lewis (Cujo) Teague certainly had their work cut out. The race sequences are dynamic, violent and comic, but they are all very well accomplished despite the modicum of cash that fuelled them. Filmmakers George Miller and George Ogilvie always cited the road-rage epic as the key inspiration for their immortal Mad Max series. The American love-affair with the car had long been a cinematic attraction. Hot-rod flicks had had their turn. Gangsters roared around the city streets with gun-barrels sticking out of the windows. Bullitt and The French Connection had powerhoused their way into automotive history with their ground-breaking chase sequences. James Garner and Eva Marie Saint had even brought glamour to Monaco's race track in John Frankenheimer's 1966 Grand Prix. The car was seen as the evolution of the horse in many more ways than just a means of transportation. It was status. It was power. It was sex. The souped-up motors in Corman's smash-em-up were nothing more than second-hand VW's, cars that could be easily stripped down to their chassis and customised. With their engines at the back, there was ample opportunity to let their creative imaginations run wild with the extra space for fabulous designs for each of the notorious racers. Horns, guns, spikes and even dinosaur fangs for Frankenstein! Cameras mounted on the bonnets were nothing new, of course, even by this stage, but there is a genuine rawness to how Bartel, Corman and their 2nd Unit went about capturing the speed and chaos of the Transcontinental. With only Woronov actually anchored onto a trailer and being pulled by a truck - the visual credibility of which is a lot more convincing than in many variations seen even today - the rest of the cast appear remarkably confident at the wheel. It is fun to note that the shots looking back at the divers as explosions go off either side of them, the backgrounds blurring into the middle distance behind the cars, were copied, wholesale, by the likes of The A-Team, Knight Rider and Streethawk years later. The aforementioned Mad Max movies, too, share many similar speed-visuals. And the conventional under-cranking of the camera, to enhance the appearance of high speed, looks a damn sight more accomplished than many of the more celebrated purveyors of motor-mayhem, including the first two Mad Maxers. Corman even found a one-off experimental plane - it is built virtually back-to-front - for the lengthy and impressive aerial assault sequence ... something that, itself, may have placed the seed in George Miller's head for the Gyro-Captain in Mad Max 2.

    “If they scatter, go for the baby and the mother!”

    The crazy, Looney Toons approach to the action and the vibrant rivalry of the competitors is pure Wacky Races, or even, when you take on board the various ridiculous attempts that the rebels make to ambush the racers, Wily Coyote. There is even a face painted tunnel entrance that leads to the edge of a cliff! How can you not love it? It's an ACME Corman Cult Classic!

    And the costumes are splendid, too. Jane Ruhm was incredibly eager to get involved with the production - she even designed those novel and very 70's titles - and her designs for the characters are as purely comic-book as the cars and the action. Visually, the film is eclectic. Corman's scrape-together skills mean that weirdly massive boudoirs - actually empty conference suites in convention halls - still look oddly fitting, even though all he has added are a few potted plants, crazy standing lamps and a great big bed. But since the film takes place mostly on the road, the environs of LA (and the San Fernando Valley, especially) standing-in for most of the rest of America, the limited scope for sets is hardly even noticed. Right at the beginning, when we see the cars lining-up for the start of the race, Corman and Bartel incorporate a little matte-painting in the background behind the genuine race-track that they are filming at, that shows a vast futuristic citadel with towering spires, complete with monorail and throbbing green train travelling along it. Not convincing in the least, this nevertheless shows that they wanted to inject some of that great SF imagery that adorned the plethora of genre books in the fifties and had been intricately composed in many classic films via model-work, painted glass and coloured boards. Although done on the cheap and somewhat laughable when you first see it, I wish the film actually had a little bit more of this sort of thing sprinkled throughout. Considering that we commence the film with an attempt at the epic and the large-scale, it seems a shame that it doesn't, at least, end that way as well.

    “How does it feel to know you're gonna spend the rest of your life in pain? The rest of your life is about a minute and a half.”

    The violence was something that condemned the film in many critics' eyes at the time. But, really, how on earth you can take any of the lampoonish slaughter that fills each leg of the race seriously is beyond me. Very akin to Rollerball's infamous rule changes, the points awarded for pedestrians slain by the racers keep getting upped. Nobody is immune from being run down - children, OAPs, devoted fans, rivals, priests, the wheelchair-bound patients from a hospital, and even the racers' own pit-crew! A devious nod to the smitten cults of loss of identity, so prevalent at the time, is given via the obsessive disciples who are willing to sacrifice themselves beneath the wheels of their idols. There is even a matador - actually played by Assistant Director Lewis Teague - who thinks that he can outsmart and outmanoeuvre Calamity Jane! But the sequence that everyone remembers is when Frankenstein, in a rare moment of righteousness opts to swerve away from the line of decrepit geriatrics and, instead, ploughs through an assortment of giggling doctors and nurses who are hiding behind a hedge, reversing the theme of the so-called Euthanasia Day ... and proving, at the same time, that he may be developing something of a conscience.

    Although the film came out at the same time as Rollerball, the notion of a future society channelling its people's aggressive tendencies via organised violence had actually been done before, with Sweden's Gladiatoerna (aka The Peace Game) from 1969, for instance, it had never been quite so colourful, nor quite so damn entertaining. For a message-film, which Melchior's intentions for the story had been all along, it sure made the very thing it was ostensibly condemning seem incredibly attractive. Harmless, even. Now that's subversive, folks.

    Even beyond Mad Max, Death Race 2000 directly influenced Stephen King's concept of fatal sports in The Running Man, although Roger Corman's “future-rebellion versus the corrupt ruling authority” theme would find even greater purchase in Paul Michael Glaser's movie adaptation of the novella starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. It is also conceivable that David Cronenberg was inspired by one crucial physical gag that we see during the last act, when he gave James Woods a “hand”gun in Videodrome. Watching the film today, it is not hard to see how close we are to such relentlessly grim spectacles as Death Races and killer sports becoming acceptable. Society does love violence. And it loves it to be captured on film too, so that it can be enjoyed again and again. Which is exactly what I recommend that you do with Death Race 2000 on Blu-ray.