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DEATH RACE 2000

One of the most popular films ever made by Roger Corman’s New World Pictures, and also one of the most overtly political. It’s pretty good overall, but don’t get your hopes up too high.

The Package
     This 1975 film was inspired by a 1956 science fiction story by Ib Melchior about a futuristic race whose participants score points for running down pedestrians and each other. Roger Corman, inspired by Stanley Kubrick’s DR. STRANGELOVE, decided to give the tale a darkly satiric edge. He definitely found the right director for such an approach: Paul Bartel, who was coming off the perverse PRIVATE PARTS, and who specialized in horrific comedy (see EATING RAOUL and SHELF LIFE) before his untimely death in 2000.
     DEATH RACE 2000 is also noteworthy for featuring Sylvester Stallone in an early role, the great Tak Fujimoto (the director of photography on FERRIS BUELLER’S DAY OFF and SILENCE OF THE LAMBS) as cinematographer, Lewis Teague (future director of ALLIGATOR and CUJO) as second unit director, and the late Charles Griffith (BUCKET OF BLOOD, the original LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS) as co-screenwriter. David Carradine, then best known for KUNG FU, headlines the film, and former Andy Warhol factory member/frequent Paul Bartel co-star (and sometime novelist) Mary Warhol co-stars.
     Corman, Bartel and Carradine returned for an inevitable sequel, CANNONBALL!, in 1976. It’s not nearly as good, and nor is the Paul Anderson’s 2008 remake DEATH RACE.

The Story
     In the “future” year 2000 war has been abolished in favor of a violent blood sport that combines Nascar with American Gladiators. It involves several racers who drive souped-up cars equipped with large knives and spikes, so they’ll do maximum damage when they hit people. The drivers actually get points for killing each other and pedestrians (children and old ladies net the highest scores).
     Among the racers are Frankenstein, a mask-and-cape wearing man with a robotic arm to replace the one he lost in a previous Death Race; Machine Gun Joe, a jerk determined to take down Frankenstein; Calamity Jane, a tall brunette cowgirl; Matilda the Hun, a Germanic bitch; and Nero the Hero, a full-of-himself tough guy. Reporting on their every move for the edification of a sycophantic TV audience is the Real Don Steele, a smarmy announcer who plays himself.
     As the race gets underway Nero the Hero is killed off early on, courtesy of a bomb placed by anti-government terrorists. Calamity Jane gets into a lengthy tiff with Matilda the Hun that only one of them will survive, while Frankenstein goes head-to-head with Machine Gun Joe--who’s determined to win “in the name of hate,” and runs down his own pit crew to score extra points!

The Direction
     With an elaborate series of action sequences crammed into a 17-day shooting schedule and an extremely low budget (both New World Pictures mainstays), it’s inevitable that quite a few nuances are lost. Many scenes that were supposed to be suspenseful merely feel drawn-out and excessive. The driving sequences, befitting the limited budget, are oft-times repetitive and incoherent. And I won’t go into the “special” effects except to mention that an early “futuristic” mat shot is almost certainly one of the least convincing of all time.
     Yet there are quite a few good things. The mixture of dark comedy and gory action is brilliantly carried of by Paul Bartel (with gore inserts shot by the second unit directors Lewis Teague and Charles Griffith). The real surprise, though, is the political content. While the film is far too cartoony to be taken very seriously, its overriding message about the dangers of media exploitation is impossible to ignore or dismiss. With the rise of reality television in recent years, don’t be surprised if this crazy movie actually turns out to be a prophetic harbinger of things to come.
 

Vital Statistics

DEATH RACE 2000
New World Pictures

Director: Paul Bartel
Producer: Roger Corman
Screenplay: Robert Thom, Charles B. Griffith
Cinematography: Tak Fujimoto
Editing: Tina Hirsch
Cast: David Carradine, Sylvester Stallone, Simone Griffeth, Mary Woronov, Roberta Collins, Martin Kove, Louisa Moritz, The Real Don Steele, Joyce Jameson, Carle Bensen, Sandy McCallum
 

     

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