‘Scoring isn’t killing Mr Frankenstein, it’s a part of the race’: A Review of Death Race 2000

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Though the late seventies is famously known for producing Star Wars IV: A New Hope, earlier SF films in the decade were often dark, grisly and grim stories that were partly inspired by the current political scene. Distrust. Anger. A loss of hope. These concepts were all represented by films such as Logan’s Run, A Boy and His Dog, Soylent Green and The Omega Man. And of course during this time for great disillusionment, and hot on the trails of the success of another bloodsport film, Rollerball, Paul Bartel’s Death Race 2000 continued this trend of quirky dystopian SF.

Inspired by Ib Melchoir’s short story, The Racer, Death Race 2000’s plot is as follows:

‘In a dystopian future, a cross country automobile race requires contestants to run down innocent pedestrians to gain points that are tallied based on each kill’s brutality.’

Simple enough. Right? Death Race 2000 is not a complicated film by any stretch of the means, but there are very many subtleties, and brilliant tones that are buried within the gratuitous and somewhat campy SF film.

Opening with a quick, almost childlike, sketch of a dead human being juxtaposed with a skull and car wheel, the film opens with the national anthem as our protagonists, the Racers, are introduced. The thing I perhaps enjoy the most, not including the clunky, bulky and uglied cars the Drivers ride, are the stereotypical and cheesy nature of these characters. An early Sylvester Stallone lightly depicts a twenties-styled Italian gangster, Machine Gun Joe Viterbo, Mary Woronov, the Western-inspired Calamity Jane, Roberta Collins as the fetishised Nazi, Mathilda the Hun, Martin Kove as the Roman-styled Nero the Hero, and of course, the late David Carradine as our proto-cyborg “hero”, Frankenstein. Whilst the names aren’t so subtle, I am impressed by the very nature of these Drivers, each driver is a sliver of histories featuring outlaws to the Gothic monster, their claws wrapped tightly around Bartel’s bloodsport. They are the spectres we dream of only in our darkest moments, and they are the champions of the indoctrinated North America ruled by the one and only Mr. President. Don’t forget the title, for the Mr. is but a reminder that Bartel’s dystopia is ruled not by honour, but by a corporate thug that employs yellow journalism to false allegations to swell the masses. A religious fervor surrounds this Mr., his introductory scene, a miasmic collage of stairs, late sixties/early seventies psychedelia and clouds.

‘All right, all right! This is Junior Bruce, your buddy-buddy and mine. And I’ll be giving you the blow-by-blow, play-by-play when the kings and queens of the open road roar onto the track!’

I was again impressed with how Bartel throws the audience into the deep end. There is no text crawl before the film, nor is there a somber narrator. Death Race 2000 relies on the intelligence of the audience to understand the plight of the everyday human citizen in this shambolic North America where they are nothing but fodder for the Racers. History is pieced together by brief statements, primarily by the insidious media personalities such as aptly named Grace Pander, which aid in allowing the audience to construct their own narrative while thinking of previous races. It is difficult to find a modern Hollywood film that trusts its audience this much and is something I relish every chance I’m gifted with such craftsmanship.

But the meat and potatoes of this film is the violence, and oh boy, is this film full of gore. While driving across the United States the drivers and their respective navigators must rack up points by running over pedestrians (ten points for women, forty for teens, seventy for toddlers and one-hundred points for the elderly), and I must admit, there are some brutal scenes throughout the film. Perhaps my favorite scene in this macabre race features a geriatric clinic offering the elderly as some sort of sacrificial meatshield to Frankenstein, only for him to reroute his course and splatter the doctors instead. It was a poignant scene and one that reminded me about some ghastly medieval pact.

Now I stress, the gore that Death Race 2000 is famed for is its centrepiece seventies gore, therefore it might appear quite tame to the desensitized audience member. But a common trick I employ is to try and imagine how a modern Hollywood would pull this off, or how I would view this myself in the seventies. Pedestrians are impaled, crushed, blown up and killed in a variety of fashions that is almost reminiscent of a Troma film. The prosthetics are completely silly by modern day effects but are still enjoyable nonetheless.

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‘What’d you expect, another pretty face?’

On airing, there was an initial backlash by Roger Ebert, the acclaimed critic bestowing zero stars in his review due to the copious amounts of violence, and lamenting the appeal it has towards younger viewers. While I do understand his point, I believe that Bartel is employing the use of violence to startle the viewer, to appall the viewer, and to shock the viewer into submission. This use of violence in art is to illustrate a point about the violence in not only sports, but the political ecosystem that was recently ravaged by a failed Nixon presidency and a highly publicized Vietnam War. Akin to the other SF films of the seventies, Death Race 2000 uses this to its benefit.

I do love this film dearly, but there are issues with the narrative. I’ve never been a fan of this “rebellion” subplot in SF novels and films, and I was greatly disappointed that this film tends to prefer it over its racing narrative with it. I wanted a satirical bloody race, not a silly little rebellion story. It is cute at first only to get annoying and then cheesy, especially as it turns out that not only is Frankenstein’s navigator part of the rebellion, but also he himself wishes to bring an end to this bloodsport by shaking the hand of Mr. President with his grenade-infused mecha hand (it sounds sillier when you say it aloud). This shaves off a couple points from this film as it essentially becomes a preachy mess by the end, which is a shame because it started so strongly and fiercely as a lovely exploitive SF film that reveled in the guts of innocents. Not only that but the objectification of women in this film is abhorrent and feels just as awkward as reading a book written by a white male in the fifties/sixties. This, of course, doesn’t change the brilliance of the opening or the odd, macabre narration during the credits, but annoys me most of all due to the fact that rebellions in SF should mostly fail (akin to George Orwell’s 1984) to represent the failings of a system. The doom of an empire. The loss of life. And the tragedy of mankind. Soylent Green did this perfectly, and so did A Boy and His Dog, why couldn’t Death Race 2000? Maybe I’m expecting too much from a film that gives a point system to killing pedestrians.

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‘Who built this stinking road? If I ever get my hands on him, I’ll rip his heart out!’

Yes, Death Race 2000 is over forty years old, but still remains a gem in the Orwellian crown of SF dystopia and I cannot recommend this enough as it is something that is, oddly enough, relevant now more than ever, especially as we near a Trumpian presidency.

If you are keen on watching this beauty, you can purchase a copy here.

Death Race 2000 – 7/10

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