Without a trace of hyperbole, “Death Race 2000” is one of the best films of the 1970s. If you think in terms of b-movies, it’s perhaps the greatest b-movie of all time. It’s got a black heart and the sense of humour of a man being led to the gallows, and represents a very early example of the arthouse meeting the grindhouse.
The arthouse comes from director Paul Bartel and his long-time friend and co-star Mary Woronov. He was involved in the Theater of the Absurd in the 1960s, and she was a protégé of Andy Warhol, before he turned into a hack. The grindhouse comes from Roger Corman, the exploitation movie mastermind, one of my favourite movie people, who gave breaks to people like Jack Nicholson, Bartel, Joe Dante and Ron Howard, among many others.
Thanks to the oil crisis of 1973, peoples’ dystopian ideas suddenly became a bit less dystopian, as the West looked to a future with basically no oil. So, in the alternate history of this movie, the two main US parties have merged to form the Bipartisan Party, and the President-For-Life rules from his Summer Palace in China. To keep the masses placated, they introduce the Death Race, and by 2000 it’s in its 20th year. The Death Race is a cross-country road race, but as well as points for finishing first, the most important element is killing people. You get points for offing various sorts of folks, with the highest scores going to the elderly and infirm (as who needs them, right?)
So you’ve got the race, which is the majority of the movie; the hideous commentators; and the resistance, led by Thomasina Paine, which is trying to bring down the Bipartisan Party and bring back democracy. Simple, effective, no padding or nonsense of any kind.
The racers are truly amazing. Star is Frankenstein (David Carradine), who wears a leather mask and cap in public to hide his hideously scarred face and prosthetic limbs; then there’s “Machine Gun” Joe Viterbo (Sylvester Stallone), Nero The Hero (Martin Kove), Calamity Jane (Woronov) and Matilda the Hun, fully decked out in Nazi regalia along with her co-pilot Herman The German. The competitors are magnificently over the top and treat their job with relish, in different ways – Frankenstein appears the calmer type, but he’ll run over a bunch of doctors and wants to win as badly as anyone else. Frankenstein’s co-pilot is the stunning Simone Griffeth, and their relationship is cleverly written and central to the side-plots.
A lot of critics seem to think that the frightening aspects of this film are an accident, that Corman’s sole desire was to churn out a quickie to hoover up some of the money that future-sport classic “Rollerball” was going to get in 1975. I disagree. Corman wrote the original treatment for the movie, and realised that his serious take on the subject wasn’t cutting it, so handed it off to be reworked into a comedy – but his support for the little guy against the right-wing forces running the USA, demonstrated in this and many other of his movies, was present from the beginning. The ending is darker than it first appears, if you think about it for more than a few minutes, and that’s no accident either – Bartel and Corman may have both taken delight in shlock, gore, wildly OTT comedy and violence, but they had a social conscience, and it’s that melding that makes “Death Race 2000” the classic that it is.
Compare it to the recent “remake”, which is a great film, but a great mainstream one – the competitors are forced to take part (in this, they’re very willing participants); it’s more race and less death; and they feel the need to waste time with backstory (this movie starts on the starting line of the race, and is much better for it). It’s not so much that “Death Race 2000” wouldn’t get made today – although it wouldn’t – it’s that no-one in the mainstream movie business would even think of making it.
Why is this movie so damned good? Entirely leaving aside the fun technical aspects of it – the driving, the gore effects – we have a very nihilist core, perhaps the blackest of all black comedies. The Nazis are seen as charming good guys, for one, and that’s just an entrée to the way that killing people is now the most popular spectator sport of them all. I mentioned above how it’s a product of its time, the oil-paranoid mid 70s, but as society keeps getting worse, while our mainstream entertainment becomes ever more safe and bland, “Death Race 2000” appears more prescient and frightening than it did then.
Rating: thumbs up