Death Race 2000
Director: Paul Bartel
Stars: David Carradine, Sylvester Stallone, Simone Griffith
Dystopia Month continues with a review for what is one of my all-time favorite movies.
I’ll put this as simply as I can… I FRIGGIN’ LOVE DEATH RACE 2000!!! In fact I really enjoy all the films that Paul Bartel’s directed. Private Parts is a great film, Eating Raoul is a splendid dark comedy and Lust in the Dust is just plain campy fun. In fact his early short film The Secret Cinema is basically an earlier version of the movie The Truman Show only it’s a quarter of the running time and a lot better at being a social satire. Of all of his films though I like Death Race 2000 the best. In fact it rather irked me when I watched the remake and it said “based upon Death Race 2000 produced by Roger Corman,” without a mention of Paul Bartel. Yeah, Roger Corman did produce this movie but it doesn’t quite feel like a Corman production – its not as cheap looking and is certainly much more fun. Like Walter Hill’s WiP films that were produced by Corman there is very little Corman look to the movie and much more of the director’s own vision. The things that make Death Race 2000 the most memorable are Bartel’s fun visual style, witty sense of humor and love of campy scenarios.
Death Race 2000 takes place in a dystopian future. We get a few glances at life in this future, the manipulation of the media and the lies told my the oppressive government. Political parties have collapsed into a single Bipartisan Party and the entire USA is controlled by a cult figure simply called Mr. President. Yes there is a fascist police state but we never really get to see the details of it because the whole of this film is focused on the Death Race. Actually it’s called the Annual Transcontinental Road Race and it is depicted as a symbol of American values and the way of life. A group of drives partake in a coast-to-coast, three day automobile race along public roads where points are scored not only for speed but for the number (and type) of innocent victims hit and killed by the drivers.
First, let’s meet the racers in this epic event. The fact that most of these racers/combatants have a specific theme to them makes it feel like a typical episode of Wacky Races but I’m willing to forgive that fact. In fact I would like to think that Wacky Races was inspired by this movie. I don’t know for certain but I would like to continue to believe this is the case and it would break my heart to have this spoiled by a wikipedia article. Anyway, the racers….
Martin Kove as Nero the Hero – He drives a car called “The Lion” which is a modified Fiat 850 Spider. Everything about him has a Roman theme to it. In fact the reason his car is designed to look like a lion is to represent the Lions eating the Christians in gladiatorial combat. Fittingly, his navigator is named Cleopatra.
Roberta Collins as Matilda the Hun – She drives a car called “The Buzz-Bomb” which is a modified VW Karmann-Ghia. her car is made to resemble a V-1 rocket and everything about her has a Nazi theme to it. Her navigator is named Herman “the German” Boch.
Mary Woronov as Calamity Jane – I don’t think her car has a name, if it did I’ve missed it all these years. Also, I’m not too sure what type of car it is other than it’s designed to look like a charging bull. Everything about her has a cowgirl theme to it. Her navigator, however, is simply named Pete.
Sylvester Stallone as Machine Gun Joe Viterbo – He has an entire gangster theme about him even driving a car that appears to be a black Cadillac with black machine guns on the side. The audience seems to view Machine Gun Joe as a sort of heel, the villain of the whole American race.
David Carradie as Frankenstein – the “hero” of the Annual Transcontinental Road Race. His car, “the Monster” resembles a green scaled monsters with red eyes and monstrous fangs. A lot of back-story is given towards Frankenstein, about how he’s survived a lot of major wrecks in the past, has lost limbs and has been constantly rebuilt by science to continue racing and keeping the American spirit alive. However when Frankenstein removes his mask to show his face to his new navigator we realize that he’s not a horrid mess at all. In fact there really is no one person called Frankenstein – that racer has died many times and David Carradine is simply the new person they’ve specially trained to race and take on the role and keep the American public blindly motivated. What’s specific about this Frankenstein, however, is that he is not a willing government stooge like all the ones before him. He plans to win this race in order to assassinate the president.
As I mentioned before, a lot of this race is about accumulating points by running down innocent pedestrians. There is a scoring table where women are worth more points than men, children are worth bonus points and senior citizens bring in the heftiest sum of all at 100 points. There is a scene where a hospital, all of them fans of the American Icon Frankenstein, line up all of their elderly patients in the middle of the street for Frankenstein to mow down. Appaled by this heartless behavior, Frankenstein veers his card off the road and instead runs down all of the hospital staff. There are a few great death scenes in this movie, but that’s not what the movie is about. The fact that there is such a small focus on the killing makes each death more enjoyable – as opposed to any other film of mass murder where every subsequent butchery just becomes monotonous. No, there is a lot more story to Death Race 2000 than just killing people – and what a fun story it is.
A resistance group led by elderly Thomasina Paine, a lineal descendant of the American revolutionary Thomas Paine, is attempting to murder Frankenstein and replace him with a double in order to murder the president and take over the government. To achieve this they have planted Thomasina’s granddaughter Annie Smith (Simone Griffith) as Frankenstein’s navigator in order to lure him into a trap. What they don’t count on, however, is that this particular incarnation of Frankenstein is on their side and every bit as motivated to take down the government. The government is not ignorant to this, however, especially after Thomasina broadcasts her message to the country. The resistance takes out all of the other drivers in the race through booby traps and land mines but the government, refusing to let their public belief a resistance to be possible, is constantly blaming this on the French. In fact the French are to blame for any of the nation’s ills in this future – the crumbling economy, the famine – it’s all France’s fault. Does Frankenstein and the resistance succeed? Well, I’m not tossing out any spoilers because you should WATCH THIS MOVIE!!! It’s streaming on Netflix right now so there’s really no excuse not to.
Everyone in the movie puts in a wonderful performance, especially David Carradine and Sylvester Stallone. I like Stallone’s early work, all the Rocky films and Death Race 2000 especially. Ever since the late 90s when he starred in such terrible stuff as Cliffhanger and Judge Dredd he became an actor that was something of a joke. He’s only recently started to get that reputation back (thanks in most part to The Expendables) and I’m happy for this because the Sylvester Stallone of Death Race 2000 is the Sylvester Stallone I would like to see a lot more often. David Carradine plays a character that is pretty typical of David Carradine, as such he does it quite well. Though I am more familiar with Carradine in more contemporary roles it is awkward to see him as a young man but he is still, undeniably the same great David Carradine. As I mentioned before, Paul Bartel does a great job in directing this. It’s not often to see a dystopian future presented in such a fun manner, mostly because dystopian themes can be pretty goddamn depressing. Bartel, however, strikes the perfect balance between action, dark comedy, and social satire making for one hell of an enjoyable movie. I cannot express my love of this film enough and I have a feeling that were I to continue with this review it would just be the same redundant fan-boy rant for pages. So, here’s the trailer and go check this movie out. Next time I’ll take a look at the 2008 remake of this movie starring Jason Statham and see how it compares to this.