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Friday, November 15, 2013

Death Race 2000

Roger Corman’s Death Race 2000 (DR2K) was an unabashed exploitation film (nudity and violence) within a tale of a dystopian future. The film is often classified as a sci-fi, though there is no real science elements in the fiction. The dystopian-future sub genre is a close cousin to sci-fi, so DR2K is included here. Roger Corman produced the film. David Carradine stars as the popular champion racers. A young pre-Rocky Sylvester Stalone stars as the champion’s ill-fated rival. As an exploitation film, there is implied violence, tacky gore, buxom blondes, some frontal nudity and lots of explosions. The gist of the film is a series of gags, vignettes and snappy lines, more on the order of a Coyote vs. Roadrunner cartoon, cast by the WWF. The plot is more of a framework upon which gags and dark humor are hung, so the plot synopsis will not sound particularly funny.

Quick Plot Synopsis
In the grim future of America, the oppressive dictatorship keeps the people distracted and amused with an annual “Death Race”. Five teams race from New York to New Los Angeles. Teams get points for arriving first AND points for killing pedestrians on the way. The teams in the year 2000 are: Calamity Jane in her bull-mobile, Nero the Hero, Matilda the Hun in her nazi-themed V1-mobile, Machine Gun Joe (Stalone), in his black gun-wagon and the returning champion, Frankenstein (Carradine) in his godzilla-mobile. Each driver has a navigator / paramour. Frankenstein’s navigator, Annie, is the granddaughter of Mrs. Pierce, the leader of The Resistance who seek to sabotage the race and rescue America. Annie’s role is to facilitate the capture of Frankenstein. The race begins and so does the gratuitous killing. The Resistance blow up Nero’s car first, with a bomb in a fake baby. At a rest stop in St. Louis, the drivers get massages, so the viewers get lots of nudity. The government covers up Nero’s death by The Resistance. Later, The Resistance kill Matilda with a detour off a cliff. Calamity Jane is taken out with a land mine. Annie leads Frankenstein into a Resistance trap, but the Resistance are too incompetent to capture him. Later, Lt.Fury of the Resistance tries to bomb Frankenstein with a small plane. This fails too. Annie asks why Frankenstein is so obsessed with winning the race. He confides that his artificial hand (always gloved) is a hand-grenade. (Get it? HAND-grenade?). He plans to blow up Mr. President and thereby free America. During a desperate driving battle between Joe and Frankenstein, Annie uses the hand-grenade to blow up Joe. Frankenstein arrives in New Los Angeles, the winner. Mr. President is there to congratulate the winner. Annie, dressed in Frankenstein’s black leather costume, mounts the podium with a knife, but Mrs. Paine steps out of the crowd and shoots at Mr. President, only to hit Annie instead. Amid the chaos, Frankenstein (now naked) revs up his car and rams the podium. Mr. President falls to his death. Fade to black, Fade in to Frankenstein and Annie in white, at their wedding. He is now President Frankenstein, who promises to many good things and restore America. In one last act of poetic justice, he runs over the whining and obnoxious TV reporter. Roll credits. The end.

Why is this movie fun?
DR2K is a comedy — albeit a very grim and dark comedy. Despite the juvenile gore-humor, there are some amusing lines and a few funny sight gags. The social-commentary part, while secondary to the blatant exploitation pandering, does give some fodder for musing.

Cultural Connection
Cannonball Run — In the 70s, there were several coast-to-coast unsanctioned amateur races from New York City to Los Angeles. They started as a sort of grassroots protest against stricter traffic laws. Speed limits were disregarded (though each driver was still responsible for his own tickets.) As such they began with an air of “stick it to the man.” With the oil crisis of 1973, its subsequent gas shortages and rationing, the “freedom” of the open road seemed like lost dream. In 1974, the federal government imposed the nation-wide 55 mph speed limit (on the pretense that it would save a significant amount of gasoline). The 55 limit was widely unpopular, seen as just another heavy-handed intrusion by “the man.” This was the background in which DR2K was released.

Based on Print — Ib Melchior wrote a short story titled “The Racer,” published in the January 1956 edition of Escapade (a minor “men’s magazine). His story featured a transcontinental road race in which the drivers scored points for killing bystanders. It also suggested the idea of The Resistance, in passing. Melchior said the inspiration for his story came from a speedway race he attended and the crowd’s bloodlust enthusiasm for crashes. (A parallel to hockey fans who watch for the fights, not the game.) Melchior’s story also featured a woman who changes the protagonist, Willie, from heartless killer to caring human being. Melchior would later write Angry Red Planet (’61) and Robinson Crusoe On Mars (’64).

Political Statement — Despite the trappings of comedy, DR2K makes dystopian warnings about America becoming a dictatorship under a president who uses crises as an excuse to remain in office. Mr. President sponsors the gruesome annual race as a sort of “bread and circus” distraction to keep the masses minds off the oppression. Note how the government is constantly trying to control the media and what the public hear. Note too, how “France” is blamed for just about everything. France as the evil empire? That’s funny by itself.

Evil Media — Where DR2K can be seen as an indictment on oppressive government, it is even more of an indictment on the entertainment media. In a rather fitting commentary, even for today, is the sinister collusion between Big Media and the oppressive government.

Virgin Sacrifice — An odd, and somewhat disquieting scene features Lori. She is the “chosen” fan from the Frankenstein fan club. She talks with Frankenstein so that he will know her and remember her. The next day, the fan club has her set up in the middle of the road, dressed in a flowing white “virgin sacrifice” dress. She will give her life for Frankenstein to get more points. He coldly runs her down. Why? asks Annie. “Because she said she loved me.”

Euthanasia Day — On race day, a hospital sets all it’s old infirm patients out in the road. That way, the racers can get some valuable points and the hospital clears out some beds. In a foreshadowing of Frankenstein’s change of heart, he drives instead behind the hospital, running over several of the doctors and nurses who were trying to thin the geriatric wing.

Inept Resistance — Of some comic value is the bumblings of The Resistance. They talk in high-sounding phrases, but are poorly organized and inept. They do manage to blow up Nero with the baby bomb, get Matilda to drive off a cliff and blow up Jane with a land mine, so they do manage to strike a blow at “the man,” and his Race. Their leader, Mrs. Paine’s announcement over hijacked TV waves was “The Age of Obedience is Over!” Surely a motto that resonated with young drive-in audiences.

Spawning Sequels — DR2K managed to spawn remakes and sequels. There was a video game named “Carmageddon” in the late 90s. The movie Death Race in 2008. Death Race 2 in 2010 and Death Race 3 in 2012.

Mad Before Max — The Mad Max movies did not invent the trope of tricked up cars covered with spiky and jagged things, as featured so prominently in the second Mad Max film, 1981.

Auto Trivia — DR2K feeds on the muscle car mindset which the oil embargo was emasculating. For those into automotive trivia, Frankenstein’s car is a modified Corvette. The cars of Jane and Joe were heavily costumed Manta kit cars (fiberglass “Mclaren” bodies on VW Beetle running gear). Nero’s car was a gussied up Fiat 850 Spider. Matilda’s car is a Karmann Ghia with much added bodywork to make it resemble a nazi V1 buzz bomb.

Plane Crazy — For aircraft fans, there is good footage of the Rutan VariViggen 2-seater. it is a pretty cool looking machine, so it is a treat to get to see it doing so many fly-bys.

Bottom line? DR2K is a pretty flagrant exploitation film. The female announcer’s name, Grace Pander, makes it clear that the movie makers knew they were pandering. The gore and violence are juvenile. The nudity is gratuitous. The film amounts to pro-wrestling in cars. Still, the dystopian elements and social commentary between the humor, do make DR2K worth sitting through.

1 comment:

Randall Landers said...

I've always enjoyed Death Race 2000. The gratuitous nudity, the body count, and the most inept revolutionaries ever make for such a silly romp that you just have to lean back, eat some popcorn and turn your brain off.