Death Race 2000 (1975)
David Carradine (Frankenstein), Simone Griffith (Annie Smith), Sylvester Stallone (Machine Gun Joe Viterbo), Mary Woronov (Calamity Jane), Roberta Collins (Mathilda the Hun), Martin Kove (Nero the Hero), Don Steele (Junior Bruce), Joyce Jameson (Grace Pander), Sandy McCallum (Mr. President), Harriet Medin (Thomasina Pain)
Totalitarian Government, Economic Crash
“My children, whom I love so deeply, it has been my duty in the long and difficult years since the world crash of ’79 to serve you as best I could. Never before in history have the masses foregone all comfort so that the spirit of genius might thrive and seek the golden key to a new time of plenty in the fertile fields of minority privelage. And now, my children, the drivers are ready, the world is waiting. Once more I give you, what you want.” – Mr. President.
In 1975 the movie Rollerball premiered. The film was part sports movie part dystopian sci-fi drama about a world where a ruling class controls all and a lead, a particularly skilled star player of a violent sport, strikes back against this ruling class defiantly doing the only thing he knows how, play the game. It was a damning send-up of classism, capitalism, and humanity’s love of violent spectacle and also a very serious film. Just a couple of months prior to the release of Rollerball, Death Race 2000 hit the scene.
Though the basic premise is largely the same, the plot trajectory and set-pieces of Rollerball and Death Race 2000 are very different. Where Rollerball is somber and brutal Death Race 2000 is hokey and ridiculous, yet just over 40 years later despite there being a lot of love for both films it’s Death Race 2000 which is more fondly remembered. Why is that? Is it simply nostalgia? Are people that shallow? Or is there something about Death Race 2000 which cuts to the heart of its damning message?
Death Race 2000 is based on an almost impossible to find short story by writer Ib Melchior. The story concerns a racer in a cross-country road race where winning is based not just on who finishes first, but how many pedestrians each racer hits on the way to the finish line. The racer kills a man and faces his bereaved loved one, as he goes on he’s haunted by the reaction from the grieving woman and when he has a chance to score a ton of points by hitting a group of children at a crosswalk he chokes. The end of the story involves a confrontation with the woman from earlier, he tells her that he’s not a killer and she mocks him for being a cowardly racer. The story was inspired by a real-life incident: Melchior attended a car race where a driver crashed and burned to death in his car, he was up in the VIP box with the driver’s grieving widow whose tearful response was in sharp contrast to the giddy fans gleefully snapping photographs of the carnage below.
Death Race 2000 goes it’s own way. While more than one would expect is lifted from the story (the points system listed by Junior Bruce is taken almost word-for-word from The Racer), the film takes the concept to absurd excess. Our dystopian future is comically over-the-top with fans waving Nazi flags, an actual religion seemingly built around the big race, the fact that the cars’ navigators are actually there to pleasure the drivers sexually as well as navigate and ensure that the vehicles are in good working order.
The drivers themselves are out of some twisted adult-oriented version of The Wacky Races. First up is Nero the Hero (played by the sadly underutilized Martin Kove), dressed as a Roman Centurion and driving a car that looks like a lion. Next Calamity Jane Kelly (Night of the Comet’s Mary Woronov) in a car shaped like a bull. Mathilda the Hun (Roberta Collins) a Nazi in a car shaped like a World War 2 bomber, her navigator is named Herman the German and she yells “Blitzkrieg!” whenever she gets a kill. And what would Wacky Races be without Dick Dastardly? That’s where Sylvester Stallone, mere minutes from actual fame, comes in as Machine Gun Joe Viterbo an Italian-American gangster type with a car sporting dual Tommy guns and a massive Bowie knife on the front. Loved by thousands and hated by millions, Joe is the petty rival of the star of our show Frankenstein. Frankenstein (played by David Carradine fresh off his time in Kung Fu) is a man so battered and torn up by years of racing that he’s more machine and scar tissue than man; dressed in a gimp suit and driving a car that looks like a dragon.
There is a serious plot underneath all the hokum, involving a resistance group that is attempting to put a stop to the race for good, going so far as to planting one of their members as Frankenstein’s navigator. But a sense of over-seriousness would sink this movie quickly, pointing out plot holes like why anybody would be anywhere near a roadway during a big national road race where people are hit by cars every year.
In a special feature on Shout! Factory edition of Death Race 2000 Ib Melchior recounts being at first horrified by the changes to his story but soon realizing that by making it a farce it just hammers the point home that much harder. There is so much that is so much camp on display. There’s a group of tough guys playing a game of chicken where they see who can stand in the way of one of the racers longest before chickening out and jumping down a nearby manhole. There’s a hospital that holds a Euthenasia Day during the race each year where the more hopeless elderly patients are wheeled out into the middle of the street for the racers to find. There’s an actual bullfighter with a cape who challenges Calamity Jane’s car.
Then there’s Junior Bruce and Grace Pander, our media personalities for the film. Grace Pander is a delight, sort of a Barbara Walters type who conducts interviews, she’s always so cloyingly happy and refers to each of the racers as a dear friend of hers. At one point she can be seen congratulating the widow of the first race victims. The real star, though, is Don Steele as Junior Bruce. Steele’s pitch-perfect broadcast voice, jovial attitude, and ridiculous safari jacket/ascot outfit make him a gold mine of gallows humor. He has probably the best line in the film where he says that it was too bad that the film’s first victim was only 38, making the audience think that he’s actually about to acknowledge the horrific reality of the race, only to come back in with “if he’d only been just two years older he would’ve been worth three times the points!”
Then there’s Mr. President, a demagogue who soothingly reminds the crowd how wonderful the world is now that he’s eliminated minority rights (I don’t think there’s a single person in the movie who isn’t white) and set up his barbaric government based around a bread and circuses road race. It’s not as if the rebels come off any better though, they’re played with equal cartoonishness and portrayed as reckless. Thomasina Pain has a very snobbish air about her that never fails to put a big goofy grin on my face.
To be honest this whole movie is just a grown up Hanna Barbera cartoon, with lots of blood and nudity, which makes this movie catnip for the 13-25 year-old demographic. It would be easy to dismiss this film as just campy lark but that would be doing it a disservice. The balance of zaniness, false gravitas, dark undercurrent, and cheery tone is masterful, this whole movie is a tightrope walk and though the last third of the film gets pretty wobbly on that front there are still some great deadpan lines like from Frankenstein (after showing his navigator the grenade embedded in his robotic hand):
“Is that a grenade?”
“A hand grenade.”
“I don’t want you to die.”
“It’s my life’s work.”
It really should be no surprise how well this movie works considering that Paul Bartel, one of cult films’ most underrated filmmakers, directed and legendary cult figure Roger Corman produced.
Then of course there’s the cast. I’ve already talked up Don Steele’s greatness but I also have to give the nod to David Carradine. Frankenstein is easily the most ridiculous among a group of extremely ridiculous characters if only because he’s the only one we’re meant to take seriously. Carraddine plays Frankenstein’s straight-faced lunacy to the hilt, deadpanning some of the film’s most hilarious bits. Everything about Frankenstein is already funny but in giving a portrayal of the man that shows just how seriously he takes himself it becomes one of the best understated comedic performances of all time. Bartel and others involved know how to play this up as well, the constant allusions to Frankenstein as a sex symbol (everyone knows that Robert is the sexy Carradine brother!) just double down on the laughs.
The yin to Carradine’s yang is, of course, Sylvester Stallone as Machine Gun Joe. Joe is the picture of the petty cheating cartoon villain, patently ridiculous it’s as though he’s doing an impersonation of Joe Pesci doing an impersonation of Jim Brewer doing an impersonation of Joe Pesci. Some of his line readings are a bit mush-mouthed or flat but it’s pretty easy to tell that he was on the cusp of fame at this point in his career (this may be the film where the droopy firing-a-machine-gun lip from the Rambo films originated.) The biggest joke of the film seems to be how little of a threat Joe actually poses, he’s a wimp when it comes down to it and that also goes in line with the children’s cartoon theme.
Mary Woronov and Roberta Collins deserve shout-outs too. Collins is a goofy delight for her limited time on-screen and Woronov manages to be the only one of the racers (other than Frankenstein in the third act) to actually be sympathetic. The real shame is that glorious scenery chewer Martin Kove is taken out of the movie with only a handful of lines recited, I feel like he really could have done amazing things with a bigger part.
As I said things get a bit too serious in the third act: we find out that Frankenstein is trying to kill the president so that he can take over the country and make America great again (because that’s how becoming the president works in this world I guess), the rebels go after Frankenstein in earnest, a relationship develops between Frankenstein and Annie. It’s not boring or bad, but it lacks the fun of the first two acts and it didn’t quite hold my interest as well. The one serious detail I really did like is that we find out Frankenstein’s injuries are almost all fake and he’s just one of many Frankensteins raised over the years to be the perfect driver and take over the mantle when the previous one is killed.
Death Race 2000 is gold. Funny, poignant, magnificent. It’s no wonder that George Miller drew on this film as inspiration for Mad Max and The Road Warrior. This is a movie that’s very much of its time and timeless, it’s no wonder that its popularity has persisted as long as it has. Now I feel I should address recent news that Death Race 2050 is in production. I am cautiously excited but this movie was massively better than most of Roger Corman’s output and the fact that he, Stallone, and Martin Kove are about the only people involved with the original film still alive I feel like the chances of the sequel even approaching the quality of the original are slim.
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