Wednesday, April 24, 2013

#982. Death Race 2000 (1975)

Directed By: Paul Bartel

Starring: David Carradine, Simone Griffeth, Sylvester Stallone

Tag line: "A Cross-Country Road Wreck!"

Trivia:  The main role was originally offered to Peter Fonda, who ultimately turned it down

One of the things I like most about watching producer Roger Corman’s films is seeing some of Hollywood’s biggest stars at the beginning of their careers. Three-time Academy Award winner Jack Nicholson was around 23 years old when he appeared in Corman’s 1960 production of Little Shop of Horrors, while a young Robert De Niro played one of Ma Barker’s boys in the 1970 crime film, Bloody Mama

In Death Race 2000, it was Sylvester Stallone’s turn to shine, and even though this wasn’t his first big-screen appearance (he had already been in a number of other movies, including The Lords of Flatbush), he was a year away from his breakout role in Rocky. In Death Race 2000, he plays a slightly different kind of character: Machine Gun Joe Viterbo, a hyper-sensitive race car driver and one of several entertaining personalities in this film.

It’s the year 2000, and the entire world has tuned in to watch the Transcontinental Road Race, an annual sporting event in which five professional drivers speed across the United States, trying to beat each other to the finish line. 

But there’s more to winning than being the fastest; you also have to be ready to kill, gathering up points awarded for each pedestrian you run down during the race. 

The odds-on favorite to win the Transcontinental is Mr. Frankenstein (David Carradine), a former champion and personal friend of the world’s leader, “Mr. President” (Sandy McCallum). His chief competition is Machine-Gun Joe Viterbo (Stallone), who, as announcer Junior Bruce (Don Steele) puts it, is “loved by thousands, hated by millions”. 

But, in this particular race, Frankenstein has more to worry about than his fellow competitors. His new navigator, Annie (Simone Griffith), is actually a member of the resistance, an underground movement determined to stop the race before any more innocent people are killed. Their plan is to kidnap Frankenstein and hold him hostage until the race is cancelled, yet as Annie soon discovers, Frankenstein has a few tricks of his own hidden up his sleeve.

Death Race 2000 is an action-packed dark comedy featuring an assortment of outrageous characters, starting with the five drivers participating in the race, each of whom has their own gimmick. Aside from Frankenstein (donning a black mask) and Machine Gun Joe (who occasionally fires his patented machine gun into a crowd of spectators), there’s Calamity Jane (Mary Woronov), driving around in a car with bull’s horns mounted on the front, and the highly Teutonic Matilda the Hun (Roberta Collins), whose fans wave flags emblazoned with swastikas. Rounding out the quintet is Nero the Hero (Martin Kove), the first driver to fall victim to the resistance (his car is blown sky-high, killing both he and his navigator, Cleopatra, played by Leslie McRay). 

None of the drivers like each other very much, which leads to fireworks whenever they gather at the various rest stops along the route (in an early scene, Matilda and Calamity Jane, both topless, nearly come to blows while receiving full-body massages).

Along with its bevy of over-the-top characters, Death Race 2000 features plenty of violence, most of which is a direct result of the race’s points system. As mentioned above, the drivers are awarded points for every pedestrian they run down: 10 points for women, 30 for teenagers, 70 for toddlers, and a whopping 100 points for the elderly. Machine Gun Joe is the first to score, slamming into a construction worker and slicing the poor guy’s groin with the huge dagger mounted on the front of his car. Even Frankenstein gets in on the fun when a group of nurses push several wheelchair-bound elderly patients into the middle of the road, hoping the popular driver will plow into them for a big score. In a humorous twist, Frankenstein swerves his car off to the side, taking out the nurses instead!

One of Roger Corman’s most popular movies, Death Race 2000 is a hilariously violent film that’s a whole lot of fun to watch.


Klaus said...

I loved watching this movie when it came on television when I was a kid. Who knew that the future would be so exciting? ;)

Funnier even now, that the year 2000 is a decade in the past and we still don't have the Death Race!

James Robert Smith said...

I recall having the opportunity to see this movie first run. And during a period in my life when I was so bored and lonely that I would go pay to see at least three movies a week in the small town where I had been forced to live. But for some reason I made the conscious decision not to see it. There was something about the premise that I found repellent and I kept my two bucks in my pocket and saw something else. (As I recall, there were only something like four or five movie screens in the town at that time.)