Apocalypse Right Now: Death Race 2000
Roger Corman. The name brings images of ridiuclous cinema to the mind. Able to whip an entertaining movie together quickly and with the minimal amount of investment, Corman's name was a mainstay at Drive-In Theaters for decades. One of his shining moments as a producer came in the form of Death Race 2000, some of the most fun you could have on four wheels. Cult director Paul Bartel (Eating Raoul), brought this twisted and violent satire of sports culture to the screen, unwittingly spawning the now classic car combat genre.
The rules of the Death Race are simple enough. Be the first to make it across a decimated post-apocalyptic America with the most points and you're declared the champion. Points are earned by taking out pedestrians with a heavily modified car.
- Women are worth 10 points more than men.
- Teens are worth 40 points.
- Children under 12 are worth 70 points.
- Anyone over 75 years old are worth 100 points.
Frankenstein, played with relish by David Carradine (Kill Bill), is the reigning champ and scores points early and often, being the fan favorite. His main rival, Machine Gun Joe Viterbo, is played by a young, unknown at the time, Sylvester Stallone. Stallone is almost too great here, delivering some ridiculous dialogue and classic soundbites. He also gets some of the more gruesome kills during the race thanks to the giant knife that he has a hood ornament. Also of note is Bartel standby Mary Woronov (Eating Raoul) as Calamity Jane, a rootin' tootin' cowgirl with a ton of sass.
As fun as the contestants are, my personal favorites here are the announcing team that calls the race. Bartel favorite Don Steele (also from Eating Raoul, notice a pattern?) plays Junior Bruce, the lead announcer and his voice and cadence are near impossible to get out of your head. Joyce Jameson plays sideline girl Grace Pander, in a breathy, sultry performance. Finally, Carle Bensen plays Harold, an obvious parody of Howard Cosell, right down to the monotone laughter that brings me to fits.
Although silly at first glance, Death Race 2000 is a lot deeper than one would expect. Beneath the veneer of brutal car combat, there's a great political satire to be found. A government run amok with little regard for its citizens, bloodsport as an opiate of the masses, broadcast news as propaganda, Death Race fits in with 70's cinema quite well in the right light.
This picture caused me to seek out other films by Paul Bartel, Eating Raoul among them, and it's obvious that he's an unsung hero of cult cinema, a lesser known John Waters, if you will. Death Race 2000 is one of my favorite films of all time, not only because it's a blast and a half, but because there's true meaning to be gleamed from all the ridiculousness. Are we heading towards a similar future? Only time will tell, but at least I'll be worth a decent amount of points.