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Fantasia Obscura: ‘Death Race 2000’

There are some fantasy, science fiction, and horror films that not every fan has caught. Not every film ever made has been seen by the audience that lives for such fare. Some of these deserve another look, because sometimes not every film should remain obscure.

Sometimes, if you make a film that’s loved by thousands, but hated by millions, the odds might be ever in your favor…

Death Race 2000 (1975)
Distributed by: New World Pictures
Directed by: Paul Bartel

Who doesn’t love a dystopian gladiatorial survival film, right? Especially one that comes to define that specialized sub-sub-genre.

No, not the series that started in 2013; this was before that…

No, not the one from 2012, the one from earlier than that…

Well, no; the one from 1987, that’s earlier than the others, but not what we’re looking for…

No, we mean this one:

We open with shots of bleachers filled with fans as “The Star-Spangled Banner” is played badly. That’s not the only atrocious thing the viewer has thrown in front of them, though, as we see fans in the stand with Nazi flags among the crowds with shots of the flag run up the pole that’s definitely not the US flag. This is followed almost immediately with a long shot, giving us a sporting venue that looks far worse than the stadium they almost built for the New York Jets over the Hudson Yards:

Ends up, our film takes place in the far-off year of 2000, in the shadow of the “World Crash of ’79.” By this time, the American Provinces are now under the totalitarian control of a figure called “Mr. President” (Sandy McCallum, in his only film), who despite becoming the leader for life of what became of this country, splits his time between Moscow and Peking. He feels it’s his mandate to control every aspect of his subject’s lives as he saves them from the French and their European allies.

(Insert “freedom fries” joke here…)

At this point, the master of ceremonies, Junior Bruce (the Real Don Steel), comes out on the field to welcome everyone to this year’s “Death Race.” It’s an annual event with wall-to-wall television coverage that celebrates everything that makes these people American: Extreme violence done up with as much kitsch as the traffic will allow.

This year, there are five entrants in the race, introduced on order as they drive to the starting line:

“Calamity” Jane Kelly (Mary Woronov) being assisted by her navigator Pete (William Sheppard), in a car trying to imitate a bull;

Matilda the Hun (Roberta Collins) and her navigator Herman the German (Fred Grandy) in a car trying to imitate a V-1 missile;

Ray “Nero the Hero” Lonegin (Martin Kove) and his navigator Cleopatra (Leslie McRay) in a car trying to imitate a lion;

“Machine Gun” Joe Viterbo (Sylvester Stallone) and his navigator Myra (Louisa Moritz) in a car outfitted with an oversized hunting knife on the grille and two machine guns in place of the headlights; and

“Frankenstein” (David Carradine), the favorite to win thanks to the endorsement of Mr. President, assisted by his navigator Annie Smith (Simone Griffeth) in a car that resembles a snake.

While the event is for all intents and purposes a race, there are ways to get points that have nothing to do with your speed:

And right here, the questions start that can’t be ignored: Who actually goes out of the house and risks their life when this race is being run? If they announced that for three days there’d be an event where killing people is so important to winning, who wouldn’t call in sick or claim to have an emergency that keeps them at home?

Imagine if in The Purge, they not only tell you that bad things are possible that night, but they texted you when to expect your home invasion and who was going to kill you; where’s the dread in any of that craziness…?

And yet, it seems that overall, what used to be the United States got stupid(er) and/or (more) callous after the World Crash of ’79:

Yes, there’s a lot else that goes on here, including a revolution being fermented by Thomasina Paine (Harriet Medin), naked cat fights, an assassination plot, naked cat fights, finding romance with those who stand for what you hate, and on top of all that, naked cat fights. It swerves hard between brutal exploitation and farce, but never seems to find a consistent enough tone to settle into, making it hard to get into the film before it shifts under you and throws you off.

This was inevitable, considering how the movie came about. The film was based on Ib Melchior’s first published story, “The Racer,” published in the October 1956 issue of Escapade magazine. The story was about a race car driver who feels guilty for all the carnage he caused from racing in an armed car cross-country, and had a dark tone that drew Roger Corman to option it for a film adaptation. The main thing that drew Corman’s attention to the story, by the way, was that he thought he could make a picture that could exploit the interest in the film Rollerball.

When Bartel was brought on to direct, he took one look at the grim script and tried to lighten it up a bit. At one point in pre-production, they offered the lead to Peter Fonda, who turned it down because he thought it was ridiculous, which coming from the star of Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry, says something…

At that point, Carradine had just left his TV series, Kung Fu, and was desperate to transition into film. Initially, Carradine’s pompous attitude about going into a small film from a four-season TV series made him difficult on the set, but soon he and Bartel found common ground, putting them against Corman in the fight for the film’s tone.

Shaped by both the producer and director working against each other, the film could only stay on one side of the road for a little while before having to veer over for a bit, zigging and zagging every few moments. When we do get to the humorous bits, we get dry farce that tries to ignore how ridiculous it all is, feeling very much like a dress rehearsal for Bartel’s later and much-better Eating Raoul. And when things get serious, it doesn’t realize or even care how ridiculous it all is, much like most of Corman’s less successful action pics (take your choice).

Most of the rest of the film’s crew and artisans drearily tune in on Corman’s vibe, their cheap aw-who-cares approaches prevailing. There are two exceptions, though: Stallone gives his Joe Viterbo as much gusto and care as he can, suggesting that he knew what a joke it all was and played it accordingly. And car designer Dean Jeffries, who gave us the Monkeemobile years earlier, does his best with a very limited budget to give us five vehicles that look to be worth taking a ride in. Granted, these cars suggest that they were the result of NASCAR and the WWE having a drunken one-night stand, but still, they look like they’d be a nice ride…

In terms of the film’s overall run, its ride has been bumpy and uneven. It was not well loved at the time, even as it made a modest return on its investment, but over the years it picked up its fans. Enough people either fell in love with it or hadn’t seen it recently that there ended up being a sequel and a 2008 remake that spawned a mini-franchise of its own.

If you’re into wild looking cars racing with abandon for very little reason beyond just the race itself, you might be better off watching reruns of Wacky Races. There may be a small chance that you could find something in the first film that will be appealing, though as they say, your mileage may vary…


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