Death Race 2000 (1975)

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*. On the one hand you could see this movie as marking a watershed in the American road picture, the turn from counterculture classics like Easy Rider, Two-Lane Blacktop, and Vanishing Point to pure popcorn parody. Our motorists are no longer anti-establishment outlaws on a spiritual quest but sports-entertainment celebrities driving down the innocent for dollars.
*. Or you could see it as an early satire of violence in sport, with the Transcontinental Road Race being a dystopic gladiator game prefiguring The Running Man, Battle Royale, and the Hunger Games franchise. It was even made in a rush (as most Corman films were) so as to take advantage of all the promotion going into Norman Jewison’s Rollerball, another film with a similar theme.
*. Two questions I have, keeping in mind both these contexts: is this a film with a social or political message? And is that message undercut in any way by the way it’s presented?
*. The counterculture road films were political. Their heroes were rebels fighting the authority of the Man. But here, as in Rollerball, the show that the drivers are participating in is itself a form of corporate/state propaganda. Yes, Frankenstein (who Corman originally wanted to be played by Peter Fonda), in the end allies himself with the rebels. But is he a force for social change?
*. Then there is the second question. Does the fact that the movie presents itself as slapstick, a Wacky Races comic strip, undercut any political message it might have? I think it probably does. It’s hard to get upset at the way violence is being marketed as entertainment if it’s all played as a joke.
*. Roger Ebert almost walked out of the film in 1975, seeing it as a glorification of violence and a bad influence on kids (who were, to his surprised and somewhat outraged eyes, the main audience): “The audience was at least half small children, and they loved it. They’d never seen anything so funny, I guess, and I was torn between walking out immediately and staying to witness a spectacle more dismaying than anything on the screen: the way small children were digging gratuitous bloodshed.” Nowhere in the review does he register any awareness of the film as being critical of the use of gratuitous violence as spectacle and mass entertainment. We may take this as some evidence of a message not getting through, at least to audiences at the time.
*. Part of the film’s point is that anything can be entertaining if it’s packaged as entertainment. I think it’s true that the people watch car races on television do so mainly in the hopes of seeing a spectacular crash. The rest of it is just driving around in a circle. So why not just cut to the good stuff?
*. Given how broad it all is, I’m actually impressed at how well the movie works. Director Paul Bartel somehow manages to strike just the right note, mostly through his keeping the pedal to the metal in terms of pacing. The cartoonish gags need this kind of rapid-fire set up. The gag with the manhole crew. The gag with the false detour leading off a cliff. The gag with Frankenstein driving around the geriatric-euthanasia-wheelchair sacrifice and wiping out the doctors and nurses. The gag where he runs over his own pit crew. These all get sprung on you so fast you laugh before you have a chance to think about what it is you’re laughing at. Which is usually something too stupid to be cruel.
*. Stallone just before Rocky. Would you have guessed a star was about to be born? He does command attention. But then stealing scenes from David Carradine isn’t hard.
*. I don’t like it as much when we take breaks from the race. There’s some gratuitous nudity thrown in and a fuzzy back story involving Frankenstein’s navigator. But when it’s on the road it really is a rush. It would be remade as a Jason Statham vehicle in 2008 with, all too predictably, none of the original sense of humour. In any event, its real afterlife was in videogames, leading to even more concern about what it was doing to the children.

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