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.
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
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
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.
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!
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.
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