Thursday, October 23, 2008

Death Race 2000

The Action Mutant…
swears Crack was stronger in the 1970s (and this film is proof!).

Death Race 2000

review by Joe Burrows

Roger Corman is like any other movie producer. He breathes, he talks and he puts his pants on one leg at a time…only, once his pants are on, he makes hit movies. And not just any hit movies…movies that have budgets that equal the amount of money Michael Bay can go through in a half a day! Corman’s greatest claim to fame is that he made the original Little Shop of Horrors in 2 ½ days, a record that no one will seemingly get close to breaking in this day & age. He’s also known for taking the popular films of the day and crafting a smaller scale, lower funded (though not always a “rip-off”) knockoff & turn them into profitable projects. With Bonnie & Clyde, there came Bloody Mama, Boxcar Bertha & Big Bad Mama (but not Big Bad Bloody Boxcar). With Jaws, there came Piranha. With Star Wars, there came Battle Beyond the Stars. With Jurassic Park, there came Carnosaur. And with Rollerball, there came Death Race 2000. And everyone was wearing gold plated diapers in the end. Although they were probably spray painted gold to keep with the budget.

The Plot, as it was:
David Carradine stars as Frankenstein, the leather clad hero of a futuristic, dystopian America’s favorite sport…the Transcontinental Road Race (aka “the Death Race”)! A tradition instilled by “Mr. President” (residing at his summer palace in Peking), the cross country Race can be won not only by crossing the finish line first but by mowing down pedestrians & gathering points for each corpse! Dubbed as such because his body has been rebuilt after each year’s brutal race, Frankenstein joins other colorful racers such as Nero the Hero (Martin Kove), Matilda the Hun (Roberta Collins), Calamity Jane (Mary Woronov)…and a loudmouth gangster named “Machine Gun” Joe Viterbo (Sylvester Stallone!). However, a group of rebels (led by Thomasina Paine...har har) that is against “Mr. President’s” policies threatens to quash the Race for good as rebel spy Annie Smith (Simone Griffeth) also happens to be Frankenstein’s navigator. Well, if worse comes to worse, blame the French!

Don’t shoot me…I’m only the reviewer!:
If Death Race 2000 was a child, it would resemble Bart Simpson. He would be lighting cherry bombs in the bathroom, all while sporting a sly, devilish grin & cracking satirical humor. Add to that a definite air of oddness & gallows humor (all about the “Euthanasia Day” scene) and you have a one-of-a-kind cult classic. All this movie challenges you to do is to look on with pure anarchic glee & have somewhat of a strong constitution. The flick manages to balance a number of goofy touches with material that would be downright ugly in the wrong hands. Though there’s nothing you’d call award winning as far as the acting’s concerned, the performances are appropriately overplayed (or underplayed, depending on the situation) for maximum effect. Carradine admits this is the one that made his film career & he rode the film’s wave of weirdness into his future endeavors. Here, he deadpans Frankenstein to great comic effect at times & comes off as a great contrast to Stallone’s Viterbo. Sly hams it up notoriously here but it’s totally within the character & he does have his fair share of one liners (see below). The hilarity doesn’t stop at the two “name” actors, as “The Real” Don Steele’s annoying (yet appropriately so) play-by-play announcer act is all peaches & Carle Bensen does a mean Howard Cosell back when that impersonation was timely and fresh (lets not forget Joyce Jameson as gossip reporter Grace Pander…a dear friend of mine). The women (namely Woronov) bring enough sass to otherwise thankless roles & pull off lines like “Whoever named your car the Bull... was only half right!” with impunity. The script by Robert Thom & Charles B. Griffith contains many crazy anachronisms (Matilda the Hun…really?) and cheeky satiric jabs (the word “sabotage” is derived from French, you know!) that put it past people’s expectations of just being all about mayhem. Best of all, director Paul Bartel oversees a pretty competent, highly entertaining product, despite the obvious budgetary constraints (dig the crazy car designs). It may not be high art, but DR2K is great fun for the troublemaker in all of us.

Character/Supporting Actor Sighting!:
- Paul Bartel is the doctor that introduces Frankenstein.
- Director John Landis (Trading Places, Innocent Blood) is one of the mechanics.
- Lewis Teague (director of…ooooooooooohhh, Navy Seals!) is the Toreador.

Body Count/Violence: 33. Despite the crude production values, DR2K delivers on the carnage front in more than satisfying fashion. There’s plenty of blood (though a lot of it is of the “red paint” variety the 70s was known for) brought on by plenty of drive-by hits, with some of the results being impaling (by MG Joe’s hunting knife…which is mounted onto the hood of his car!), limb ripping, head crushing & tire peeling on one’s body! We also get some fighting, plenty of explosions, car crashing, shooting & more. And a “hand grenade”. No, really.

Sexuality/Nudity: It’s the 1970s, when exploitation was king…of course there’s nudity! Griffeth bares her chest twice in as many bedroom scenes, as well as Collins, Woronov & Louise Moritz (Myra) showing their chests in a rubdown scene (no, they don’t rubdown each other). Carradine is in his underwear on more than one occasion, if that makes the ladies happy.

Language/Dialogue: Just some mild expletives. Gotta love Sly’s classic retort: “I got two words to say to that... BULL…SHIT!”

How bad was it?:
Most critics look at this with great reminiscence & basically look past its faults. Ebert gave it zero stars when it first came out but his review sounds more like a decree against theaters letting little kids into R rated movies (and them enjoying the violence) than anything about the film in general.

Did it make the studio’s day?:
Filmed in various California locations in the fall of 1974, Death Race 2000 was produced & released by Corman’s New World Pictures on 4/27/75 for a paltry $300,000 (did you expect millions? It’s Roger Corman, people!). Though no gross has ever been made known, it’s been around long enough to ensure that profit was pretty substantial. It is available on DVD through several small video companies, Corman’s New Horizons Home Video & even Disney!

Film: ***/*****
Entertainment value: *****/*****

Copyright 2008 The Action Mutant.

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