Sunday, November 21, 2010

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Death Race 2000 (1975)

Thirty-five years after it was produced, Paul Bartel and Roger Corman's Death Race 2000 (1975) remains an example of exhilarating, go-for-broke, low-budget science fiction film making.

Of course, the "futuristic" film is undeniably brutal and bloody too, so much so that Roger Ebert awarded the film "zero stars" and contemplated leaving a screening early upon the film's initial release.

Yet the decades have been kind to Death Race 2000

What seemed viscerally excessive in the Gerald Ford Era now seems merely par-for-the-course in the post-War-on-Terror and Torture Porn Age. 

And with the on-screen violence neutered to some degree by contemporary expectations and standards, something truly wondrous and unexpected has occurred in this case: the film's satirical angle has more fully-flowered than ever before.

Like the best examples of the genre, this is a sci-fi movie that comments on the "American way of life" --" no holds barred," to quote the film -- in an intelligent manner. 

But it's not some heavy-handed political diatribe either. 

On the contrary, Death Race 2000 is veritably fuel-injected with laughs.  The film boasts an unmatched sense of wicked black humor.  Today, you're far more likely to laugh than turn away in disgust from the film's action. In particular, Sylvester Stallone is a hoot as the movie's touchy villain, a guy who answers every perceived slight with a volley of machine gun fire or a good impaling.

Perhaps the great fun of returning to 1970s productions like Logan's Run (1976) and Death Race 2000 today is sizing up their predictions about the unknown, unwritten future.  Logan's Run predicted a dominant youth culture obsessed with beauty and fitness, for example. 

Anyone who watches the CW on a regular basis realizes that this prophecy has come to pass.

Likewise, Death Race 2000 imagines a dystopic future, one where a parochial American electorate is mesmerized and distracted by violent bread-and-circuses entertainment while a rich political class rules the land and pulls the strings. 

When this Orwellian Order is being overturned in the 1975 Bartel film, one of the rebels meaningfully shouts "The Age of Obedience is over!"   

That exclamation may not seem entirely appropriate to the year 2000; but it sure as hell seems appropriate in the year 2010, the Year of the Tea Party, no? 

And did I mention that the lead rebel in the film is actually a woman named Thomasina Paine (after revolutionary and journalist Thomas Paine) who wants to take back her country, and specifically refers to such American founding fathers as "George Washington," "Abraham Lincoln," and..."Harry Truman?" 

Again, this sounds a little too familiar today.

It's a bit unsettling, actually, how accurately (and viciously...)  Death Race 2000 predicts many of the defining trends of the first decade of the 21st century. 

All while depicting a violent, action-packed narrative, the film comments on a multitude of important things.  For instance,  Death Race 2000 looks meaningfully at the ways that crafty politicians encourage xenophobia and jingoism to distract from important domestic matters.  

Simultaneously, the movie also shows the ascent of reality television in the American pop-culture firmament and imagines what impact the equivalent of modern "gladiatorial" games could have in a technological age 

On that front, just consider this fact: both Survivor and Big Brother first aired in the U.S. in the year 2000, the very year of this film's action.  

On a whole, would you judge that a full decade of reality TV has made us a more attentive, literate people? Or is the opposite true?  Has this kind of entertainment coarsened the culture?

Most trenchantly, however, Death Race 2000 seems to fully understand how dangerous it can be when the walls between politics, religion,  journalism, and pop entertainment crumble and these formerly-trusted pillars combine to form a giant multi-headed "media" Hydra. 

"Is winning all you care about?"

Death Race 2000 commences as the "20th annual trans-continental road race" is about to begin in New York.  In this government-promoted race, a "new American champion will be crowned," and there are several contestants in competition.

They are: Calamity Jane (Mary Woronov), Machine Gun Joe Veturbo (Sylvester Stallone), Matilda the Hun (Roberta Collins) and "Mr. President's" favored contestant: the U.S.-govt sponsored hero and two-time winner named "Frankenstein" (David Carradine).  He wears an all-black leather body suit, and a mask that ostensibly hides his racing "scars."

The racers' destination is New Los Angeles and on the way to the finish line, each driver is expected to rack up points by striking and killing innocent pedestrians.  In fact, their fearsome cars have been fiendishly designed for just such a purpose; decorated with blades and other impaling tools such as knives, horns and dragon's teeth. These are mean, lean, killing machines.

In the race's violent rules, women pedestrians are worth ten points and teenagers are worth forty points.  Hit a child under twelve and seventy points are earned 

The greatest reward? One hundred points per each senior citizen struck and murdered. 

As the race starts, Frankenstein is joined by a new navigator, beautiful Annie Smith (Simone Griffeth), secretly a rebel plotting with Thomasina Paine (Harriet Medin) to kill the racers, abduct Frankenstein and force Mr. President -- who has been ensconced in high office since "The World Crash of 1979" -- to abolish the bloody race once and for all.  This mission is called Operation "Anti-Race."

But on the open road, Frankenstein and Annie grow close, even as the rebellion and Frankenstein's fellow drivers attempt to kill them ...

"[Winning] in the name of hate"

Death Race 2000 announces its intention to satirize almost every important aspect of American culture in its opening frames.

As the movie begins and the trans-continental race commences, we hear the familiar notes of the National Anthem as played by a high-school marching band.  So the Star-Spangled Banner is still the official theme song of the United Provinces in America in the year 2000, but there has been an important upgrade to Old Glory herself. 

In short order, we see that the blue background and white stars of our beautiful flag have been replaced by a gloved fist pointing heavenwards.  So now its fists and stripes, not stars and stripes. 

Maybe it's supposed to represent a terrorist fist bump?

Arriving in theaters as it did in the last year of the Vietnam War, during an ongoing Energy Crisis, with inflation on the rise, and a President having resigned in disgrace, Death Race 2000 also suggests a future America in which the old, dependable, and traditional pillars of the country have failed utterly.  They have abdicated their obligations and are running on empty, on fumes.

If anything, we are simply much further down this road in 2010 then we were in the disco decade, and the speculations today thus seem more accurate.

To start with, the journalists featured in the film are not independent arbiters of fact, rather they are access-hungry promoters towing the official party line. 

One shallow journalist, the wonderfully-named "Grace Pander," lives up to her moniker.   To pander means "to cater to the lower tastes and desires of others or exploit their weaknesses," and that's exactly what she does.  She symbolizes the total, seamless blending of news and entertainment -- which some  observers call "info-tainment" -- and again, the trend has gotten a lot worse since 1975.  She caters to the blood lust of an angry, resentful populace.

Pander treats the film's racers as celebrities and speaks in worshipful tones of "Mr. President," the national leader.  For her own personal fame, Pander has forsaken her responsibility as a journalist to ferret out facts and truth.  Instead, she merely encourages the populace to adore the racers, and support the race.    She also plugs and parrots the the anti-elitist, anti-intellectual line of the government officials. 

When Frankenstein goes after physicians and nurses with his dragon car, for example, Pander reports it as a populist victory and writes off the murder as being, well...deserved.

"Well, those doctors - dear friends of mine - have been pretty smug all these years setting up the old folks. Frankenstein must have decided it was their turn."

Yep, those darn elitist, college-educated physicians!  Who the hell do they think they are?  They got what was coming to them...the bastards. I'll show em' a death panel!

Politicians don't get off any easier than journalists in Death Race 2000.  "Mr. President" governs the nation from his "summer palace" in Peking, China (another particularly timely joke about the United States become more and more owned by Chinese interests), and our Great Leader beats a familiar jingoistic drum in order explain to the people why the economy is so bad. 

In particular, he uses a long-lived and cherished American scape goat: the French.   Specifically, Mr. President claims that France and her "stinking European allies" collapsed America's economy on purpose.

This is funny for a couple of reasons. 

First, some Americans always want to blame the French for our woes...conveniently forgetting that the French were our most dedicated and steadfast ally at the time of the Revolutionary War.   

But, again, look to the events of the last few years.   Remember when France wouldn't support the Iraq War in 2003-2004 and the mainstream media and the administration in power joined forces to trash everything French? 

French fries became freedom fries.  Bill O'Reilly actually launched a boycott of French wine on his Fox show, if I remember correctly.

Death Race 2000 hints at this simmering American animosity or resentment for Europeans, particularly the French, and even ends with the President launching a war against that country after falsely claiming the French air force (humorously just one, measly plane...) ambushed Frankenstein. 

"Well America, there you have it," announces a reporter, "Frankenstein has just been attacked by the French Air Force and he's whipped their derrieres!

Secondly, in terms of 2010, consider the global economy and how interconnected it has become.  Think about the Greek economic melt-down, and the ripple effect that it has had on the world already.  The idea of another country subverting America's prosperity, on second blush doesn't seem as ridiculous today. An economic disaster in another country can damage us.  So Death Race 2000 gets that contemporary idea right too.

There's also no separation of Church and State in this America of the Year 2000.  The Bi-Partisan Ruling Party of America boasts an official Deacon to bestow the blessing of the Lord (and the President) upon the racers, though he comes to a bad end. 

Again, this is an abdication of moral responsibility (probably harking back to Watergate in terms of historical context).  So far as I understand them, religious men and women in power must obey one "higher authority," and shouldn't be shilling for the guy who happens to be in the Oval Office at any given moment.  

Interestingly, Death Race 2000 even sees fit to include two Nazi characters: Matilda and her navigator, "Herman the German."  They drive around in a vehicle decorated with swastikas.  But nobody in the movie's culture -- not the reporters nor the audience -- seems to mind this "affectation."   Again, look at the state of America today.  In the 2000s, everyone is accusing everyone else of being a Nazi. 

Bush was a Nazi, Obama is a Nazi. NPR is run by Nazis.  George Soros (a Jew...) is a Nazi, etc.  Rush Limbaugh speaks of Feminazis.  Al Gore is an environmental Nazi.  And on and on.  Who knew there were so many homegrown Nazis living and working in the United States?

What could be the end result of this Nazi-themed name-calling?  Well, if you throw around the term Nazi to describe every last person who disagrees with you, the term loses its power and horror, doesn't it?  It becomes a commonplace thing.

In the world of Death Race 2000, Matilda the Hun -- actually, truly a Nazi -- is just another "theme" driver, and no one is bothered by that.  In fact, she's got lots of fans.   She's just "an entertainer" and we're not supposed to judge her, right?  

But the most searing criticism embedded in Death Race 2000 is certainly lodged against those people who would be manipulated by their fears of foreigners, limited by their narrow outlook on the world, and easily distracted by televised bread-and-circuses. 

In other words: reality-TV American culture

It's much easier to root for a hero in a televised sporting event then -- you know -- solve a problem.  It's much easier to get caught up in minutiae of a hobby, such as -- for instance, the new rules of the race -- than in the details of national economic policy.  Sports fans are "enthusiasts," people who try to understand policy are called "wonks." 

The result, of course, is that the very men who "hold the power of life and death" operate in secrecy and with complete autonomy, according to their agendas, while the masses watch the race and are clueless about the government.  The rebellion against the Powers that Be can easily be dismissed as "the lunatic fringe" because the majority enjoys the bread and circuses. 

The movie also says something about the way our nation manufactures heroes for public consumption. Here, Frankenstein was raised in a government center and trained to be a racer.  He is only one in a succession of many Frankensteins, though that fact has been kept secret from the people. 

Again, looking back at the last decade, remember brave Jessica Lynch and how the government fabricated propaganda around her, transforming a good, courageous soldier into a veritable and invincible Rambolina?

In Death Race 2000, fans so admire and revere the "public" Frankenstein -- essentially a hit-and-run driver -- that they willingly throw themselves in front of his car so he can score points. 

Fortunately, no one has done something like that over Snooki, Paris Hilton or Bristol Palin yet.  But the cult of celebrity that surrounds these "reality stars" is the very cult that, in the film, draws people to Frankenstein. 

"You want to make love to me because I drive the Monster and wear this costume?" he asks an adoring fan. Yes.  She loves the trappings of his fame.

So Death Race 2000 really gets in its satirical licks -- licks that resonate even more fully today than they did in 1975 -- all while providing some glimmer of hope.  In the film, the rebellion is victorious and Mr. President's Orwellian Order is taken down...violently.  The death race is abolished.

The message to that defeated and murdered President is, perhaps, if you live by the sword (or the rules of the Death Race), you'll also die by the sword.  Once you numb the people so thoroughly to the death of others,on a routine, televised basis, what emotion would you expect your death to engender? 

How many points is striking down a global leader worth?  Or, in the language of the film, "Bye-bye Baby! Hello 70 points!"

"The drivers are ready, the world is watching. Once more, I give you what you want."

Readers sometimes ask me how I can support extremely violent films like The Last House on the Left(1972) Straw Dogs (1971) or Death Race 2000, and my answer is always the same: I support violent films if they use their on-screen violence to make a point.  To comment on our culture, or to present some kind of worthwhile moral statement.

Death Race 2000 is an exploitation film and it is incredibly violent.  Heads get crushed under tires.  Innocent pedestrians get struck and sliced with alarming regularity.  Yet, the film is a cautionary tale.  It declared  in 1975 that this is where America was headed; into a world of bread and circuses, into a world where celebrities are God, into a world where citizens have "tuned out" from politics and don't know what is being done in their names.

So the violence in the film certainly has a moral underpinning. 

What surprised me watching Death Race 2000 for the first time in years was not only how accurate many of the film's speculations turned out to be thirty-five years later; but also how genuinely erotic the film is.  There are quite a few scenes of explicit sexuality, and, in my opinion, they add a lot to the film and particularly the relationship of Frankenstein and Annie. 

That's something that has changed a lot since 1975 too. 

Today, our movies are all about the violence, but rarely about the sex.  Sex has been deemed unacceptable as a serious subject in the culture, and swept out of movies by and large. 

So that's another reason I love this film.  It's about pleasures we don't get to enjoy in the movies that much anymore.

Like watching real cars -- instead of the CGI equivalent -- race and jockey for superior position. 

So for me, Death Race 2000 -- with all its satiric and queasily accurate speculations -- will "forever howl down that freeway in the sky, knocking over... the angels."


  1. Wat?! No comments!?!? Absurd!

    Viva la Death Race 2000!!!

    I remember watching this film at my friends house back in 1982 or 1983 on his parents brand new QUASAR VCR! Top loading, of course. Nothing but the best.

    We loved watching this as kids, and I've re-watched it a few times over the years and still enjoy it. Though I'm biased and would enjoy any film set in a post-apocalyptic or dystopian future.

    Also David Carradine was one of my heroes back then. We watched Kung-Fu all the time also, and my friends and I would beat eachother up the front yard with broom sticks and rubber nunchaku.

    I digress. This was quite an insightful review John and I really enjoyed it.

    And Frankenstein's car was awesome.... that is all.


  2. Hi Nick,

    Thank you for posting on my review of Death Race 2000! Now the review doesn't look so lonely here! :)

    DR2000 really is a great dystopian movie, and I share your fondness for it.

    My Dad was telling me the other day that I actually first saw it (when I was supposed to be asleep in the back seat of our car) at a drive-in movie in New 1975.

    I have no memory of that viewing, but I love the film, and perhaps should have written more about the design aspects, instead of the forward-thinking social undercurrents.

    Maybe I scared other commenters away?!


  3. Great essay, sir! Spot on, and illuminating.
    (I saw this in the theater when I was 10, and it REALLY left an impression on me. After all, there's a reason my site is The United Provinces of Ivanlandia...)

  4. doughboy81012:29 PM

    Great review John,

    I think you may have scared off some comments just because you listed so many valid parallels to today, that it is a bit frightening. You are right on though. Recently I watched this with my wife and when Grace Pander made her first report I jokingly told my wife that I think Grace is on Fox news now. Keep up the good work!

  5. Hello my friends.

    Thank you, Ivan and doughboy, for the great comments on Death Race 2000.

    Ivan: I love your blog and read it frequently, and yet until you pointed it out just now, I did not make the connection of "Provinces" to Death Race 2000! D'oh. But that's super cool.

    I can imagine that seeing this movie for the first time at ten years old was pretty amazing. It's a steamroller of a movie, smart and violent, and it is also filled with great ideas.

    doughboy810: Thank you for the words of encouragement! And I agree with you totally: Grace Pander is now working at Fox News, pandering away; doing what she does best.

    All my best to you both, and thank you and Nick to adding your voices to a lonely post! :)


  6. Wonderful analysis of this cult classic from '75. I remember well watching this on VHS tape. You're quite correct how its cultural satire has proved so prophetic, John. It's great to look back at this one. Thanks for this.

  7. You've inspired me to dig up my battle-scarred copy of DR2000 in my basement and pop it in over Thanksgiving break. Thank you.

    Long live Matlida the Hun!

  8. Anonymous12:25 PM

    Its so hilarious seeing sylvester stallone as a tommy gun welding race maniac with an oversized bowie knife mounted on his car. Also david carradine in the frankenstein mask. I saw this movie ab few days ago. The bloodeffects are so cheap compared to newer splatter movies. But nontheless its still cool andy timeless.

    Thanks for the Great review, sir.

    greetings from germany.

  9. Just finished rewatching DR2k with my 20 yo twins. You're right on the money with the social commentary. It's interesting to sit there noting the predictions of American collapse with younger viewers who've grown up with it as their cultural background. The sort of things that were shocking for the audience of 1975 is reality for them.

    I grew up on movies like Mad Max (I'm an aussie), so it was interesting to compare the camerawork of DR2k to the cheap car movies made here in the same period.

    By the way, did you notice how close Frankenstein's costume is to Darth Vader's? Given Star Wars came out only a few years later, you have to wonder what influence DR2k might have had.


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