I’ve been cheated! The last, and only, time I saw Death Race 2000 before this latest viewing was in the far distant days of my youth, before the World Wide Web, when all snark had to be shared with those close to us. Friends, family, enemies, casual acquaintances — all near at hand to listen to our bullshit. Now, we are in the merciless grip of the Information Age, and I can share with the world the crime to which many, not just I, were subjected. For, the print I saw on television sometime during the Reagan administration had been ruthlessly cut for television. Gone was all the gratuitous nudity (understandable), but in its place, whoever prepared the film for TV had decided to just repeat footage. A viewer would watch David Carradine or Sly Stallone plow his car through a line of extras only to see the same footage again soon after. This happened many, many times.
Back then, it was common for films to be butchered for broadcast television, but what I saw might be the most egregious example of ruining a movie ever — even more so than the awful voiceover that was added to The Thing. Had I known that the clownish flick I saw back then was not indicative of viewing the film uncut, there would not have been a thirty-plus year gap between viewings.
Death Race 2000, first released in 1975, comes to us via Roger Corman and New World Pictures. According to the internet (so it must be true), Corman wanted to leach a few bucks from Rollerball fans, so he optioned a violent, dystopian future sports story for his own production company. Written by Charles B. Griffith and Robert Thom, adapting a short story by Ib Melchior (screenwriter of the infamous Reptilicus), Death Race 2000 tells the sad story of America’s future, in the distant year 2000. After an economic crash in the late 1970s, Mr. President (Sandy McCallum) led the nation out of the doldrums and into totalitarianism. Part of his program was instituting a violent, cross-country road race, wherein the winning driver and co-driver aren’t the ones who get from New York to California the quickest, but the ones who run down the most pedestrians along the way.
There’s even a scoring system. 10 points for man, 20 for a woman, 40 for an infant, 70 for the elderly, and 100 for the disabled. It makes euthanasia fun!
The participants are a colorful collection. They are Calamity Jane (Mary Woronov) and her co-driver Pete (William Shephard), whose car is decked out like a Texas steer; Matilda the Hun (Roberta Collins) and Herman the German (Fred Grandy), neo-Nazis who race in a car evocative of a Nazi buzz bomb; Nero the Hero (Martin Cove) and Cleopatra (Leslie McRay), whose car looks like some kind of animal, with slit pupil headlights and tusks; Machine Gun Joe Viterbo (Stallone) and Myra (Louisa Moritz), a stereotypical 1920s Italian gangster couple, with pinstripe suit and Tommy gun to match; and the film’s antihero, Frankenstein (Carradine), and his co-driver Annie Smith (Simone Griffeth), who drive a VW buggy with a saw-toothed Corvette kit body. According to the internet, again (so it must still be true), all but one of the cars were custom VW Beetles, while the outlier was a Corvair. I think this is particularly notable because these cars were driven at high speed for this film, and whoever had to drive the Corvair was risking their life in every scene. Not for nothing did Ralph Nader tear apart that model’s safety in the 1960s. For shame, Roger Corman. For shame.
Director Paul Bartel embraced the absurdity of the screenplay, directing his cast to exaggerate their performances. Most of this work was done by the cast playing secondary characters. Stallone and Moritz were the hammiest, while Carradine and Griffeth played it mostly straight. Don Steele and Joyce Jameson, as race commentators, were this flick’s over-excitable Effie Trinkets.
There aren’t much in the way of outright jokes in the screenplay, but it is dark humor. It also has light Orwellian themes, as this future “United Provinces of America” blames France for everything that goes wrong, and has an iron grip on nationwide media and propaganda. To top off the ludicrousness of the national condition in this film, Mr. President refers to the country as, “…the greatest power in the known universe!” And the deadly race upholds the grand American tradition of “no holds barred.” The more I think about it, this film ripped off quite a bit of Rollerball’s themes.
At Corman’s insistence, further emphasis was placed on gore effects. After all, who wants to see cars run over people without a money shot? Extras get punctured and splattered. A head pops like a melon dropped from a balcony. It’s good stuff. It’s also the ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ kind of gore, as if much was cut to make the MPAA happy. Somewhere out there is an extended take of one of Calamity Jane’s steer horns piercing a poor extra, and I would love to see it, and all the rest of the victims of censorship, restored in a future cut.
There is a subplot revolving around Frankenstein and Mr. President, and a group of rebels who want to turn back the clock to democracy and abolish the race. Considering this film had an 80-minute running time, I suspect much of this was to pad that time as much as establish Frankenstein’s anti-hero bona fides. As commentary on the future of the country, it tracks disturbingly close to the last forty years of conservative politics. The politics is never as periphery as a viewer might desire. It hangs over the race, thin justification for the action on screen. That isn’t what viewers came for, but it’s hard to imagine the film without it. In the main, this flick is about its style, which can best be described as low-rent Kubrick, and the racing scenes.
It’s no typical racing, to be sure. In these shots, Bartel had the cameras undercranked to make the cars appear faster. That would be an unforgivable sin in a proper motorsports flick, but here it’s fine. The undercranking wasn’t all that necessary, either, as the stunt drivers were more than willing to put the loud pedal to the floor.
The film takes place all over the country, but Corman never would have paid for that kind of production, so all driving scenes were filmed in the Los Angeles area, and obviously so. It’s part of the package that makes this shitty movie shine.
I don’t think a proper budget would have helped this film. The cheapness is an integral part of its appeal. Much of the production has a slapdash quality that endeared me to the crew involved. I’ve found many of Corman’s productions frustrating due to his unrelenting cheapness, because I know he, and those he employed, were capable of so much more. The tone of this film, however, and Bartel’s direction, are spot-on for the material and the budget. If the only thing I want out of a Corman flick is more blood, then that is a film that has been done right.
Much more entertaining than it has any right to be, Death Race 2000 just misses out on a coveted top ten spot in the Shitty Movie Sundays Watchability Index, bumping Robot Monster out of #13. This flick is shitty gold. Check it out.