by Jay Seaver
"Death Race 2000" was remade a couple years ago, and the end result was slick, but bland, almost completely unmemorable (aside from a line you wouldn't expect to come out of Joan Allen's mouth). The 1975 original, on the other hand, is the exact opposite: Tacky, with production quality straddling the border between B- and C-grade, but so utterly loopy as to be unforgettable.It is twenty-five years in the future, in the year two thousand. The "United Provinces of America" have a President for Life, who keeps the masses amused with a cross-country road race where the participants not only score points for making it to checkpoints quickly, but for any pedestrians they run down on the way. This year's five participants are wild girl Calamity Jane (Mary Woronov), swastika-sporting Matilda the Hun (Roberta Collins), classically-themed but dumb Nero the Hero (Martin Kove), would-be thirties gangster Machine Gun Joe Viterbo (Sylvester Stallone), and the object of Joe's envy, the cybernetically enhanced and scarred Frankenstein (David Carradine). Of course, some in the land find this spectacle horrifying, and led by Thomasina Paine (Harriet Medin), they have arranged for one of their own, Annie Smith (Simone Griffeth), to be Frankenstein's navigator.
"Mean, cartoonish, crude, and all the better for it."
Death Race 2000 is a Roger Corman production, with all that implies. The budget is minuscule. It's filled with automotive mayhem, gratuitous nudity, guys looking for a fresh start - David Carradine had just walked off the set of Kung Fu - and people who would become a big deal later. Not just Sylvester Stallone (in one of his earliest roles), but cinematographer Tak Fujimoto would go on to a steady career shooting some pretty notable movies. You can't necessarily see the talent in a Roger Corman picture as you're watching it, but it's clear that he has always had the knack for putting enough quality people together that his movies are more entertaining than they should be.
And that's the way it is with Death Race 2000. Corman doesn't deserve all the credit/blame for this one - writers Charles Griffith and Robert Thorn give director Paul Bartel some legitimately demented material, and he executes it with panache. This is a movie whose main running joke is vehicular homicide, and the filmmakers make it work in a way that's genuinely funny. And while the satire may at times be ham-fisted (broad Nazi jokes? really?), it is executed with vicious relish, and sharp enough to still feel relevant thirty-five years later.
And the cast can sell it. David Carradine, for instance, is just what a picture like this needs, laid-back enough to flow with the insanity around him but still able to put unexpected nuance into his performance. Simone Griffeth brings more to Annie than just being easy on the eyes; there's enough intelligence to her character that their scenes together are dealings between equals worthy of our attention. Stallone, who would become the most famous later on, is fairly raw, but does show some of the charisma that would make him a major star in a few years. Like him,the rest of the cast does a pretty good job moving between broad stereotypes and intense, fearsome competitors.
They need to, because that's what makes Death Race 2000 work as well as it does: Bartel does an excellent job of maintaining the air of black comedy while often charging the film with legitimate suspense, giving us a stake in these characters even though most are monsters of one sort or another (heck, the notional heroes are pretty hard to like). And while the budget is low, what there is is put to good use, creating a future world that is surreal rather than detailed enough for the audience to find fault.Just look at the cars and the people who drive them - "Death Race 2000" is a live-action cartoon with nasty teeth, the sort that better filmmakers with more resources have great trouble doing well. It's got its flaws - spots where the low budget stops being charming and a bizarre coda - but for the most part, it's B-movie entertainment done unusually well.
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originally posted: 07/02/10 14:49:06