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1975 was a great year for cult cinema. For starters, there's the early Don Johnson Sci-fi camp A BOY AND HIS DOG. There's the ultraquotable MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL. The original summer blockbuster, JAWS, was released in that year. And then there's the king of cult movies itself, THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW. But perhaps one of the most bizarre movies of that year was Paul Bartel's DEATH RACE 2000, a campy yet bleak science fiction story in which the art of hit-and-run driving has become the national pastime, with backing from the President himself. The President of the United Provinces of America, that is.
The film stars David Carradine as a racer by the name of Frankenstein, a mysterious masked man with mechanical parts in place of the ones he was born with. Frankenstein is the impact player in the sport of Death Racing; the "franchise", if you will. He's pretty well believed to be unbeatable, and he's also buds with the president, making him one of the world's best-known celebrities.
Frankenstein is pitted against four other racers in this race, which happens in the then-future-but-now-past year 2000. There's a Nazi named Matilda the Hun, a dashing young driver named Nero the Hero, a cowgirl named Calamity Jane, and the one who promises to be the biggest thorn in his side, gangster Machine Gun Joe, played by a much younger Sylvester Stallone. The object of the race is of course to cross the finish line first, but along the way, to rackup as many points as possible by plowing over innocent bystanders. Hence the name "Death Race". Think Carmageddon, twenty-five years earlier, and as a movie instead of a video game.
As the race begins in New York (headed due west to New Los Angeles), so does the slaughter. We get to see some rather creative deaths, including people being gored by the spikes on the front of the cars themselves, to being decapitated by manhole covers, to being flat out run over. Of course, the race is cutthroat, and the racers don't hold back when it comes to the killing. From other racers to their own pit crew to the league administrators, nobody's off limits here. There's a scoring system that varies by age: women, children, and elderly people are worth more than the average-aged man.
However, even with all this amoral chicanery going on in the world, there's a group of folks out there with the conscience to try to put an end to all of it. This resistance is led by Thomasina Paine (yes, they did that on purpose), who has employed her own great-grandmother to act as Frankenstein's navigator in an attempt to kidnap him and put an end to the Death Racing. In a vehicular game of Wile E. Coyote and Road Runner, the Resistance has also set up booby traps across the country to nail the other racers. One by one, the racers are wiped out until the race has dwindled down to our two main players: Frankenstein and Machine Gun Joe. But a few plot twists later, and we find out that maybe Mr. Frankenstein isn't all that people see him as.
DEATH RACE 2000 is one of those movies that's so out there that you just can't help but get hooked. The concept is so far-fetched and grim, and yet the movie winds up being a whole lot of fun. The action scenes are way ahead of their time, and even though they're graphic and gruesome, the deaths had my audience cheering. Of course, the retribution of seeing the racers getting blow'd up is half the fun too, and there's plenty of that too. However, if I had to complain, it would be about the change in focus from the gruesome beheadings and gorings to more explosion-based deaths later. I was really liking seeing stuff like the toreador taking on Calamity Jane's Bullmobile.
Speaking of which, these cars rock. I wish we had cars like these in the year 2000 instead of the ugly Ford Tauruses and the like on the road in real life. Frankenstein's lizard-mobie is definitely the coolest of them, obviously built on an old 'Vette, and Machine Gun Joe's Sleek yet tough Gangster car looks like something I'd run away from. Especially if it was coming toward me with Sly Stallone in the driver's seat.
DEATH RACE 2000 is vintage Roger Corman, and is one of the standouts of the 300+ films he has produced. In typical Corman fashion, the film relies on excess, and not just in the gratuitous violence category. There's plenty of that stuff that your momma calls smut as well. The race is in three "laps" (or, more correctly, in heats, but they call them laps in the movie) with the first "lap" ending in St. Louis. The resting period serves as a perfect time to show the racers and their navigators receiving rubdowns, supplying plenty of needless breast shots. Apparently, all the navigators are sort of assumed as concubines for their racers as well, so there's a whole lotta fornicatin' going on as well.
Of course, there's no better place to see DEATH RACE 2000 than at a drive-in theater, so I was very fortunate to have had the chance to witness it there. Especially at an event where guys with penis issues bring their loud vintage cars and rev them up along with the racers. Well, at least that was amusing at first, but eventually got to the point of annoyance. Still, that and the occasional fireworks display in the big victory scenes made for a much more fulfilling moviegoing experience.
I've heard rumors that ideas for a remake/update of this movie has been tossed around, and that Stallone might even be interested in having something to do with it. Well, I hope these rumors are untrue, because I highly doubt they could get down the little bits of charm that make this movie so darned fun to begin with.
DEATH RACE 2000 is campy, abhorrent, excessive, and has dialogue that would make Ed Wood cringe. Still, it's a whole lot of fun. Highly recommended for cult movie enthusiasts, as well as for anyone who just feels like tuning out. With a runtime of only 79 minutes, it's not exactly going to be taking up a whole lot of time.
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