5/6/11

Death Race 2000 (1975)

In the year 2000, hit-and-run driving is no longer a crime.

It's the NATIONAL SPORT!

In 1971, Brock Yates, editor of Car and Driver magazine, established the first coast-to-coast drag race: the Cannonball Baker Sea-To-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Dash, also known as the Cannonball Run. This race, named for record-setting driver Erwin George "Cannonball" Baker who once drove from New York City to Los Angeles in a mere 53-1/2 hours, was intended to celebrate America's Interstate highway system as well as protest recently instated traffic laws, including the new 55 mph speed limit.

It was fast-paced, highly dangerous and also against the law. But when it saw a story in Time magazine in 1975, the race was already cemented in the national consciousness, and also went on to inspire a number of cross-country "carsploitation" movies during the 70s and 80s--Cannonball!, The Gumball Rally, Cannonball Run, Cannonball Run II, Speed Zone!, and the Smokey and the Bandit trilogy among others--a couple of which were screenwritten by Yates himself.

Even low-budget movie mogul Roger Corman caught the bug at one point.


His and director Paul Bartel's Death Race 2000 was one of those movies clearly influenced by the original Cannonball Run.

Not unlike Rollerball, it's a dystopian sci-fi film where America is ruled by an autocracy which opiates the masses through bloodsport.

Not unlike Rollerball, it's based off a short story, this time The Racer by Ib Melchior.

Not unlike Rollerball, it saw a 21st-century reboot--in 2008, directed by Paul W. S. Anderson, which spun off a sequel.

And not unlike Rollerball, the original is a cult classic while its remake is certified Rotten on the Tomatometer.

This looks like a job for S&M MAN!!

In the year 2000, following a major global economic crisis, the United States--excuse me, United Provinces of America has become a fascist, ├╝ber-patriotic police state ruled from abroad by a figurehead "Mr. President" and domestically by a "Bipartisan Party", which also suggests a new union of church and state in that it is led by a deacon. To keep the working classes from toppling the ruling bourgeoisie, and as a symbol of American values and "no-holds-barred" way of life, a Transcontinental Road Race has been established, in which racers compete in a three-day rally stage from New York City to Los Angeles, with overnight pit stops in St. Louis and Albuquerque. The object is not just to finish first, but also to score the most points by running down as many pedestrians on the streets as possible. Women score 10 points more than men in any age bracket, with teenagers, children and the elderly scoring as high as 100 points a kill.

Apparently, this deacon was reading a version of the Bible where "love thy neighbor" was translated into "run thy neighbor down like a deer in thine headlights."

This year marks the 20th Annual Transcontinental Road Race, and here are your contestants:
  • "Calamity Jane" Kelly (played by Mary Woronov, the evil principal from Rock 'n Roll High School) wearing full cowgirl regalia and driving a car painted like a bull with horns welded on it;
  • Matilda the Hun (B-movie actress Roberta Collins), wearing a Nazi uniform and in the seat of a camouflage-painted racer with swastika and iron cross decals;
  • Nero the Hero (Marvin Kove, the "no mercy in this dojo" sensei from The Karate Kid), dressed as a Roman soldier and driving a modified "chariot" painted like a lion;
  • "Frankenstein" (top-most billed actor and future Cannonball Run star David Carradine), the main character, the government's hero, survivor of many races with his body rebuilt so many times they say he's more machine than man;
  • and finally, "Machine Gun Joe" Viterbo (a pre-Rocky and pre-Rambo Sylvester Stallone), Frankenstein's main rival and arguably the most easily pissed-off racer of the bunch who really, REALLY hates losing.

Throughout the race, commentary is provided by the annoying and badly-dressed Junior Bruce (radio DJ "The Real" Don Steele) and the more housewife-friendly and appropriately named Grace Pander (Joyce Jameson, with whom everyone is close friends, apparently).

A lot of the satire in the movie comes from how ridiculously popular the race is. There is a ton of media coverage from Junior, Grace, and the obligatory dude who talks like Howard Cosell, including a scene where Pander interviews the widow of Machine Gun Joe's first victim and even awards her a few prizes. Meanwhile the racers' fans range from rowdy to just plain suicidal--Calamity Jane plays toreador with a fan dressed as a red cape-toting Spaniard before eventually goring him, and a member of Frankenstein's fan club offers herself to him while he's resting up in St. Louis...to run her over, I mean...with his car. Even a geriatric hospital is holding a "euthanasia day" where they line up some patients in the middle of the street so Frankenstein can score some easy points. (He turns them down and opts instead to relieve them of a few of their staff.)

THIS is what you call health care reform?

Every driver has a navigator in this race, and this year Frankenstein has Annie Smith (Simone Griffiths) who unbeknownst to him at first is the great-granddaughter of one Thomasina Paine (Harriet Medin), leader of an underground resistance movement that is opposed to the senseless violence of the Road Race and the government that promotes it. Annie is there to lure Frankenstein into a trap, where a resistance member will hijack his racer disguised as him and deliver the group's ultimatum to the President, who has flown into New Los Angeles from his summer home in Peking to personally shake the winner's hand at the finish line.

Frankenstein sees through her ploy, but the rebels have their minor victories anyway. The race has just started when Nero the Hero targets a family picnic and drives over a baby doll holding some dynamite. Using the old cartoon staple of a detour sign and a fake tunnel, Matilda the Hun is sent driving off a cliff. And in the final leg, Calamity Jane is lured into a junkyard and blown up by a land mine.

Naturally, the government blames everything they're doing on the French, who along with their European allies have also apparently ruined the nation's economy and destroyed its telephone system.

"Damn French! We gave you Jerry Lewis and this is how you repay us?!"

The rebels have another go at Frankenstein toward the film's climax by using a glider and some land mines to veer him off the road, but he manages to outdrive them all and even leads the aircraft into the side of a mountain in the process. (Junior Bruce cuts in to report that Frankenstein has just had a scrape with the French Air Force and "whipped their derrieres.") It seems nothing will stop Frankenstein's determination to finish first--not the resistance, not the competition, not the French (allegedly), not even Annie, who by this point has become more than just a navigator to him. And not for the reasons you might think: he knows he's just a government puppet, one of several Frankensteins bred to be drivers for this competition who can and will be replaced if need be, so he's hatched a little plan. His right glove hides a hand grenade (literally a grenade fused in the palm of his artificial hand--I hate puns) with which he plans to blow up the President during their victory handshake in New Los Angeles.

*sigh* Yeah, I know. Just roll with it.

Unfortunately, before that happens, he has one more obstacle in front of him. You see, when I said Machine Gun Joe really REALLY, hates to lose, I mean he REALLY REALLY REALLY HATES to lose. Especially to Frankenstein, whom he hates even more than losing and has even gone as far as to show open, murderous disdain for his fans. The twain eventually meet in the film's climax and by this point Joe's bile is stirred up to the point of frothing. As he is about to run Frank off the road for good, Annie twists off Frank's hand grenade...hand and tosses it in Joe's car, freaking his navigator out and forcing him off the road just in time for the both of them to be blown to smithereeneys.

In New L.A., Frankenstein is declared the winner and sole survivor and Mr. President is at a podium at the finish line waiting to shake his hand (and declare war on France). Annie walks up to the podium dressed in Frank's outfit in an attempt to knife the commander-in-chief to death, but is accidentally shot by Thomasina in the crowds. As she is helped off and Thomasina is about to be arrested, Frankenstein, who has hidden stark naked out in his car, starts it up and rams it full tilt into the podium, smashing it to pieces and thusly assassinating the President.

At the end of the film, Frankenstein is the new President, Annie has just become the new First Lady, and through their efforts democracy has been restored to America and the Transcontinental Road Race has been abolished. The newlyweds drive off to pastures new, but not before Frankenstein racks up one last dent on his bumper--the annoying Junior Bruce.

"Shut up Adrian! Can't ya see I'm tryin' to go the distance here!?"

Is Death Race 2000 supposed to be a comedy? I get its satirical points, but much of the rest of the film seem to be played for laughs, and this movie has one twisted sense of humor. A lot of it has to be seen to be believed. In the scene where Frankenstein's car veers away from the elderly targets and mows down the nurses, they pop up behind a bush like someone stuck a pin in their backside as he whizzed by. Several action scenes are accompanied by strangely cartoonish music and sound effects. I wasn't kidding earlier about the use of a detour sign and a cardboard fake tunnel as a means to write Matilda the Hun out of the film--that is EXACTLY what happens. And don't get me started on that "hand grenade" joke. One thing I can say about Rollerball is that it plays the whole American totalitarianism and devolution of society thing more seriously compared to this film, which feels more like a Roadrunner cartoon where the Coyote keeps winning.

Other than that, the movie isn't terrible for something this low-budget. Sylvester Stallone's performance as Machine Gun Joe proves he could pull off the tough guy character one year before the first Rocky movie came out, even though he loses a fistfight to his rival in Albuquerque. The production values seep through the cracks quite often and some parts of the film could be considered gratuitous, such as the nude massage scene, but the film is decently staged, and some bits of it are so silly that it makes them quite enjoyable. It's one of those "too-crazy-to-believe" movies which wallows in comedic sadism and relishes every guilt-ridden moment.

I think it might even play well in France, given the right audience.

Funny how it's the year 2000, but everyone dresses like it's still the 70s.

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