Today’s entry is one of the most joyous experiences I’ve ever had watching low-budget exploitation ficks. There’s no reason anything with this title should be as fun or as genuinely interesting as this is. It’s a movie so lovingly slapdash and so clearly trying to be better than it has any right to be that it moves into the realm of actually being fantastic. Each of its brisk 80 minutes tingles with gleeful ridiculousness and has something for everybody: fast cars, naked women, wanton violence, political and social commentary, and even a pre-Rocky Sylvester Stallone. I’m speaking, of course, of Paul Bartel’s 1975 (I dare say) masterpiece, Death Race 2000. Basically, it’s Wacky Races meets Mad Max.
The film takes place in the year 2000, our old future now, at the very start of the annual Transcontinental Road Race, the popular, nationally televised grudge match wherein five cars make their way from New York to New Los Angeles, with stops in St. Louis and Albuquerque. We start on a speedway shot very deliberately to make it look packed, though in one shot you can see that there are maybe 100 people in total, where this year’s five contestants drive their cars to the starting line. The racers include the Texan Calamity Jane (Mary Woronov), the Nazi Party’s own Matilda the Hun (Roberta Collins), Nero the Hero (Martin Kove), Machine Gun Joe Viterbo (Stallone), and the mysterious 3-time champion, Frankenstein (David Carradine), who is named this because he’s lost several limbs in previous races and has been stitched back together. Each racer has a specially-designed car that reflects their persona and each has a navigator of the opposite sex, basically so they can have someone to talk to during the race and have sex with during pit stops.
Frankenstein is the most popular racer in the world, and this irritates Machine Gun Joe to no end, mainly because he’s the second best driver but one of the least-liked among fans. Frankenstein gets a new navigator for this race in the form of Annie Smith (Simone Griffeth), the young nubile blonde with a mysterious past. As the race begins, we learn that this isn’t simply a whoever-gets-to-the-finish-first event; there are points accrued along the way. How do drivers get points? Why, by hitting and killing pedestrians of course. The TV announcers broadcasting the days-long race inform us that women are worth more than men and the younger or older the dead person, the more points they’re worth. A little baby, for instance, is 70 points and an elderly person is 100.
Also part of the action are a small but visible group of rebels who object to the race as a vile and hedonistic spectacle used by the government as a means of taking the public’s mind off the president’s crimes against his own people. Throughout the race, these rebels set up traps for the racers, and rack up several kills in the process. The government covers this up and tells everyone the incidents were the work of French terrorists. Their overall plan is to kidnap Frankenstein and hold him hostage so that the public and the president will finally take them seriously and they might have an insider to help them. However, Frankenstein has a plan of his own and winning the race is the only option.
There so frigging much about this movie that I just love, starting with the general cheapness of it all. It was a Roger Corman production, so it had a tenth of the budget it probably should have had, but its limitations give it a huge amount of charm. Early in the film, there’s a shot of the stadium “full” of people and behind it is a superimposed futuristic background. Now, most productions would put in a matte painting; at best, this is a matte colored pencil drawing. There is no way in hell it’s real! Also, the cars are wonderful. They’re so tiny yet clearly very fast and the designs of the custom-built shells are at once inventive and chintzy. Another thing I love is the interiors of the supposedly fancy hotels they stay in at each of the checkpoints. They’re very clearly emptied-out gymnasiums with beds and things put in them to make them look like huge rooms. Sure, it’s cheap, but it’s ingenious at the same time.
Bartel, who went on to write and direct the dark comedy Eating Raoul in 1982 and was a co-star in Joe Dante’s Piranha, also for Corman, clearly knows a thing or two about satire, and directs Death Race 2000 with tongue firmly planted in cheek, but with a clear eye towards action. The racing scenes are actually very exciting and frenetic, even though it’s often pretty evident that the actors are not driving the cars themselves. I wonder how many feet of film were used on having cars drive past the camera. It truly must have been a huge amount.
The cast of this movie is a lot of fun and seems to be having a great deal of fun onscreen. David Carradine had just come off of four years of the TV show Kung Fu and was eager to play very different character than the noble martial artist from that series. He certainly succeeds here, since Frankenstein, though ostensibly the hero, is seen mowing down innocent people and drugging his navigator. There’s really no way to mistake Sly Stallone’s character for a good guy; he punches women, kills old men, shoots a machine gun at the crowd, and complains every few seconds about how much he hates Frankenstein.
There have been a few remakes in recent years, but they don’t hold a candle to the original. Death Race 2000 is just a joy for fans of schlocky ;70s cinema. It’s so unabashedly silly, yet still tries to make a point. There is literally not one thing about this movie that didn’t have me chuckling or at the very least smiling. I loved it. What else can I say? It’s not a great movie, but it’s weird, it’s old, and it’s sci-fi.