Death Race 2000 (1975) ****
It would not be unfair to say that the We Have Seen the Future and It Sucks sub-genre as we know it might never have existed had Roger Corman never gotten it into his head to make a movie out of an obscure Ib Melchior science fiction story called “The Racer”. You might think this is a bit of a stretch, but think about it. Mad Max and its sequel, The Road Warrior, are arguably the two most influential movies in the genre. The preference for desert habitats, the notion of society at the mercy of hordes of motorcycle-riding brigands, the equally important notion that there is one commodity, usually oil or water, that has become so valuable that ordinary people are literally willing to kill and die to obtain it-- all these recurrent concepts, which largely define the mainstream of post-apocalyptic movies (to the extent that even music videos have been known to appropriate them), can be traced to those two Australian movies. You may ask what Roger Corman has to do with any of this, but George Miller, the director of Mad Max, has said himself that Death Race 2000 was his primary influence.
And believe it or not, Death Race 2000 is an entirely worthy jumping-off point for a sub-genre. There’s actually quite a lot going on here for what is basically a stupid little movie. The film tips its hat to George Orwell, makes references to the revolutionary movement of America’s late colonial period and to the history of ancient Rome, takes pot-shots at present-day America’s obsession with professional sports, and skewers the sleazy, insincere world of entertainment journalism, all in just 79 minutes, most of which is spent on high-speed car chases!
Here’s the low-down. America is ruled by the Big Brother-like Mr. President, figurehead of the Bipartisan Party (gotta love that), which appears to be the sole recognized political organization in the country. It seems that the Party spends much, if not most, of its energy trying to keep the American people from fully grasping the extent to which everything sucks. To that end, a series of government-sponsored road races was begun in 1980, which evolved over the years into the Trans-Continental Road Race as it exists in 2000, the year in which the movie is set. The principal changes over the years have all been in the direction of escalating violence; at some point, a scoring system was introduced in which the racers won points for running down pedestrians, making it possible for the racer who comes in second, or even third, to take the title by killing a substantially larger number of people than the racers ahead of him. In case you’re wondering, scoring is as follows: adult men are worth an unspecified amount (which could probably be arrived at mathematically by a careful observation of kills in the movie), boys under 12 are worth 70 points, females in either age group are worth 10 points more than their male counterparts, and old people of either sex (those over 70 years of age) are worth 100 points. The exact formula by which placing and score are weighted to decide the winner is never made clear. What is made clear is that you lose all your points if you die, and that killing your opponents is perfectly legal!
Now, every sport needs its star, and the star of the Trans-Continental Road Race is Frankenstein (David Carradine, from The Warrior and the Sorceress and Q), the only racer in history ever to win two races. He is instantly recognizable by his costume, a skin-tight black leather bodysuit with matching cape and a mask that resembles a cross between a leather ski mask and Batman’s cowl. Frankenstein’s costume is designed to hide his extensive injuries, which have left him with more mechanical parts than natural, the repairs courtesy of a mysterious team of “Swiss doctors”. His car, the Monster, is a heavily customized 1970 or ‘71 Corvette, with bodywork rebuilt so as to suggest a dragon or a predatory dinosaur. Frankenstein is the living symbol of America, and a personal friend of Mr. President; he is a hero to his fans and a natural lightning rod for the attentions of the Rebellion. The Rebellion, led by Thomasina Paine (Harriet Medin, from The Horrible Dr. Hichcock and The Ghost), are a sort of Jeffersonian guerilla movement, bent on ending the rule of the Bipartisan Party and stopping the disgraceful annual bloodbath of the Trans-Continental Road Race. The connection between the two? Well, it’s sort of like Marx’s opposition to religion: the Trans-Continental Road Race is the new opium of the people. To achieve their ends, they have planted one of their agents (Simone Griffeth, of Swamp Girl and Sixteen), Paine’s own granddaughter (or great-granddaughter-- different characters call it differently), to serve as Frankenstein’s navigator in the 2000 race. The Rebellion hopes to capture Frankenstein and use him as a hostage to help lever Mr. President and his party into stepping down from power.
This movie is about a race, though, so let’s talk about the competition for a moment. There are a total of five rival racers this year, with Frankenstein being the obvious favorite. Among the others, Nero the Hero (The Last House on the Left’s Martin Kove) is an obvious loser from the moment we see him. He’s a prissy little fucker dressed like a dime-store approximation of a Roman centurion, who drives a car built to resemble a lion. Calamity Jane (Mary Woronov, from Rock ’n’ Roll High School and Hellhole) we can take rather more seriously. As you might have guessed, she’s got a cowgirl thing going; she dresses like one of those creepy people you see in the audience on the Nashville Network, and her car’s bodywork is meant to make it resemble a bull. (This is actually a much better custom job than Nero’s lion car. It’s got these huge-ass horns sticking out above the recessed headlights, and there’s a boxy projection on the front, like a snout, which has a big metal ring hanging from it.) Next up is Matilda the Hun (Roberta Collins, of The Big Doll House and The Unholy Rollers), an Aryan beauty whose ‘72 Firebird has been rebuilt to mimic a V-1 buzzbomb-- now that is cool. But there is never any doubt that Frankenstein’s main foe is Machine-gun Joe Viterbo (Sylvester Stallone, in what is, in all seriousness, the best performance of his career). Viterbo is your stereotypical Italian Chicago mobster, circa 1925; his car is decorated with Thompson submachine guns and a ridiculous bayonet about seven feet long. His aim is to take Frankenstein’s place as the darling of America’s blood-thirstiest sports fans (if this is starting to remind you of the World Wrestling Federation, there’s probably a very good reason), and his strategy focuses on scoring hit-and-run points (he even runs over his pit crew), so that he will be all but assured a victory if he makes it to the finish line in New Los Angeles. (I guess Old L.A. has fallen into the Pacific by this point.)
One thing you will never experience while watching Death Race 2000 is boredom. I’m going to omit my usual detailed plot synopsis, partly because there are some really fine twists that you should just see for yourself, but mainly because the movie is absolutely non-stop action, and there is simply no way that I could possibly do it justice on the printed page. I will mention some things to look out for, though. First, if you have a VCR capable of freeze-frame, it’s worth going back to watch some of the hit-and-runs frame by frame-- especially the guy with the jackhammer that Viterbo takes out shortly after the race begins. Second, check out the TV commentators-- I guarantee you won’t have seen a smarmier, more unctuous bunch of shitbags since, oh... the last time you watched “Entertainment Tonight.” (And be sure to pay attention to the names of the background characters, while you’re at it. Some of them are pretty entertaining little barbs in and of themselves.) Finally, be on the lookout for those inimitable New World Pictures throwaway plot devices-- the representative from the Frankenstein Fan Club, Euthanasia Day at the nursing home-- they’re everywhere, and they’re too fucking funny for words. And while you’re at it, see if you can spot Linnea Quigley; legend has it she’s in here somewhere as an extra-- maybe she’s one of Frankenstein’s groupies. Listen to El Santo, boys and girls, you need to see this one.