Death Race 2000

You should have driven through the boy scout camp!
Paul Bartel
David Carradine, Simone Griffeth, Sylvester Stallone, Mary Woronov, Roberta Collins
The Setup: 
In the year 2000 the government sponsors a cross-country race where racer score points by hitting pedestrians.

A friend of mine at work [who has been making an ALRMING number of good movie and music recommendations lately] rather insisted that I watch this movie, and so, at a moment of filmic indecision [Rhinestone, starring Sylvester Stallone and Dolly Parton, was next on my list], I threw this one up there and it was speedily delivered to me.

This movie was made in 1975 and takes place in 2000, which is obviously delightful. When we see a long matte shot of Manhattan, it’s hard to believe anyone thought that all that building and addition of elevated monorails would have taken place in just 25 years—but it’s charming. The rest of the movie mostly takes place in the desert, but there are a few “futuristic” buildings [circa 1975] driven by every now and then. This made me think that surely some movie is coming up soon that will take place in a world transformed by global warming.

This was apparently taken from a serious sci-fi novel, but when Roger Corman [that’s right] thought about the elements he thought it would work better as a comedy that gradually moves into more serious satiric elements. We are at the Transcontinental Road Race, which is sort of a futuristic Cannonball Run, where the participants gain points by killing pedestrians, with children and old people scoring the most points. The credits are these pencil drawings of cool cars that look like something that cool guy in your 1975 math class would draw on the inside of his denim notebook, then we meet our contestants as they are interviewed by reporters. One reporter is this overexcited gay-seeming dude with Elvis glasses and hair [futuristic!], an irritating nasal voice and long scarf around his neck. There’s also Grace Pander, a Rona Barrett-style entertainment reporter who claims to be “a very dear friend” of all the celebrities she covers. There’s also a droll guy who speaks like Howard Cosell. Naturally it’s occurring to me that a great many people reading this may be too young to know who these people are. Oh dear.

The notable racers are Sylvester Stallone [still couldn’t avoid him, I guess] two years before Rocky, as the gangster-styled Machine Gun Joe, who drives a car with two machine guns and a giant knife attached to the hood. And, as the gay reporter says: “Don’t forget that swastika sweetheart, Matilda the Hun, with her Nazi navigator!” We also meet John Carradine as Frankenstein, who dresses like a mix of Batman and Darth Vader, and who claims to be stitched together by so many various body parts. There’s a funny moment [I mean, among ALL the funny moments] when Grace Pander leans in and asks Frankenstein to “give me an exclusive,” and then asks her question in front of all the other reporters. Also on hand is some Catherine Bach-type, apparently played by a former Warhol associate, who talks about the sexual satisfaction she gets from her navigator, some generic hunk smoking a cigar. Most of the other navigators are women, and it is explicitly presented that part of their responsibilities are in caring for the sexual needs of their drivers. Hey, it’s Corman.

The President comes out to bless the proceedings—this is a federally-sponsored event—and hails a “glorious day of minority privilege.” When I first heard this I thought he was referring to the way some people feel that minorities as we have come to think of them—blacks, gays, etc.,—are the recipient of “privileges” and special treatment, and I think this just comes from forgetting that this movie is 30 years old—and assuming that since it is ostensibly trashy it is politically located toward the right. Well, you know what they say about what happens when you assume.

So the racers go through Lincoln Tunnel and in seemingly five minutes are on this country mountain dirt road that looks remarkably like Northern California. I guess the environment really has changed. Then we divert to a group of rebels who feel that the race is a disgrace to the nation, and are led by a woman I believe is loosely patterned after Emma Goldman. Now, behind this guy who is talking we see this dude with his head cropped out of the frame from the eyes up, but a killer, KILLER stache. And for one brief moment, a glimpse of his hairy chest through his open shirt. Please consult the photo below. It is tragic that, because of circumstances outside of his control, he will more than likely have to forfeit the singular honor of being named the Cinema de Merde Random Movie Hunk of the Year, 2007, simply because we cannot see more of him. Virtually all the other rebels get some decent screen time, but as far as I can tell, but this guy is conspicuously underrepresented, and you had better believe that I had my eyes peeled. But who knows, maybe the rest of the year will suck for hunks and he’ll come through. WHAT a sweet stache, though.

So then Frankenstein takes off his mask and we discover that he’s really NOT hideously disfigured underneath. I just love the way that rolls off the tongue: Hideously Disfigured. Then Stallone machetes a guy’s balls off with his car [tuns out the guy, like everyone else here, bleeds fire engine red paint]. Then we see a bunch of old people lined up in the middle of the road, smiling, and we learn that this is “euthanasia day.” Which is effectively disturbing. But Frankenstein avoids the elderly and diverts to hit what appears to be a line of nurses walking in a row, evenly spaced apart. I laughed heartily at a line about “You should have taken the road I told you about, through the boy scout camp!” Then at night all the drivers, who have apparently spread themselves out miles away from each other across the country, come back to one hotel to be rubbed down and interviewed. Is this not SO like The Cannonball Run?

That night Frankenstein goes over and says nothing to Stallone’s navigator, but it looks like he said something, and Stallone comes and really punches her hard. Then Frankenstein’s navigator, whose name is Sarah or Emma or something I can’t remember now, offers her body to him and they get it on. Then the Frankenstein’s “biggest fan” corners him in the hall downstairs… and tomorrow they’re all back on the road again. We see that the big fan from the night before is outfitted in a white dress, standing in the middle of the road, eager to be killed by her idol. He obliges.

It goes on, but by now the novelty is starting to wear off a little bit. We start getting more resistance from the, well, resistance, which is immediately and hilariously blamed on the French. After not too long we have one of my favorite lines, just for it’s simple directness: “Stop the car!” “I can’t… we’re in a race!” I’m not going to tell you the ending, although the phrase “grenade hand” does figure into it, and in the end Frankenstein becomes “Mister President Frankenstein.” The guy at work who recommended this to me would reminisce about it, say “Mister President Frankenstein” to himself, and then just giggle.

It sure is something. It’s charming because it is SO absolutely adolescent, so entirely created to appeal to the base instincts of the 14-year-old boy in all of us, with the cool cars and the hot chicks and the violence and the guys getting it in the nuts… and most of all, the whole naughty concept of running over pedestrians for points. But through it all the movie remains more cheeky than offensive, mostly because the violence here is so cartoony. In most cases we don’t actually SEE the car hit the person, we just see the car driving fast and then the person flipping up into the air. The blood is so red and fake-looking it’s like something out of a small town Halloween haunted house. So it’s mischievous and somewhat evil but in the most harmless and fun way.

But there’s more than just cool fun in mind, because of the whole political satire aspects of it. Okay, it’s really lame political satire [the government sponsors this race to keep the people placated, not too far away from the message of Rollerball], but there’s something interesting about the way this movie starts out by generating viewer excitement with the whole idea of running over pedestrians, then widens so we see that this whole race is part of a larger government plan that involves sacrificing the country’s citizens… it’s vague and silly, but hey, they didn’t have to add that element at all.

Should you watch it: 

Other than that, good, evil fun throughout for the 14-year-old boy in you.