In the year 2000, hit and run has become the national sport. It’s a no-holds barred cross-country race, in which the aim is to kill off not only your opponents, but as many pedestrians as possible. David Carradine takes on Sylvester Stallone in this classic adrenaline thriller that will make you look both ways twice before you cross.
Death Race 2000 7.5
eyelights: the tongue-in-cheek, dystopic vision. Simone Griffeth. Mary Woronov. Louisa Moritz.
eyesores: David Carradine. Sylvester Stallone.
“As the cars roar into Pennsylvania, the cradle of liberty, it seems apparent that our citizens are staying off the streets, which may make scoring particularly difficult, even with this year’s rule changes. To recap those revisions: women are still worth 10 points more than men in all age brackets, but teenagers now rack up 40 points, and toddlers under 12 now rate a big 70 points. The big score: anyone, any sex, over 75 years old has been upped to 100 points.”
I’m really not a car buff. Cars are totally fine for getting from point a to point b, but I don’t understand their appeal today. I can understand why they were once considered a status symbol: not everyone had one – and it certainly beat the horse and carriage. But it seems to me that they lost their allure somewhere after the ’50s, when every other kid suddenly had access to one. I don’t even like driving, quite frankly -having to constantly look over your shoulder for yahoos and road ragers isn’t my idea of a good time.
So it goes without saying that car races or anything car-related leaves me quite cold. There have been exceptions: I was extremely surprised by how much I enjoyed the original ‘Gone in 60 Seconds’, for instance. But I was absolutely not drawn to ‘Death Race 2000’. I had seen it in stores in various editions, all of which made it look like a cheapo film of limited appeal. The fact that it was a Roger Corman movie didn’t help, because he makes very low-budget films, and a low-budget car movie can’t possibly be any good.
When I heard that a remake was being released, I could only shake my head. It didn’t help that it featured Jason Stratham, who was totally overexposed at the time, and made his claim to fame via b-level action fodder, but I couldn’t help but wonder just how much scraping of the barrel Hollywood would do before they finally threw their hands up in the air. Remakes had become par-for-the-course with Hollywood by then, and it looked like they were not just running bankrupt creatively, but were also running out of ideas altogether.
I don’t exactly know what shifted over time, but, a few months ago, I stumbled upon a special edition DVD of ‘Death Race 2000’ and picked it up. I think that it may have been the fact that it had an interview with Roger Corman along with other goodies, thereby providing insight into this cult classic, but there was also the price: I had a credit at the store I was in and they offered this DVD for a mere 4$. I figured that I could definitely do worse, and that I could likely resell it and make my money back if I didn’t like it.
It turns out that I won’t need to bother: I actually liked ‘Death Race 2000’!
Far be it for me to try to argue the virtues of a film about a state-sponsored car race across America that revolves around its drivers killing innocent bystanders on their journey to rack up points, but it was actually one of those kinda bad in a good way b-movies. It’s hard to describe exactly what makes a b-movie stand out from all the filth, but I now understand why this particular one has amassed a following over the years: original/intriguing concept + colourful cast + action + sex + twisted humour = cult favourite.
What I especially like about it, aside from the aforementioned combination, is the political angle of it. Setting the film in a future where the economy has collapsed, there’s only one political party (and the same President has been in power for ages), where the population is being entertained/distracted by these types of blood sports, and where an underground movement has formed and is trying to shake the system, is enough to amuse me; it’s rather unusual for what would normally be a lowbrow film, and those morsels were part of the appeal.
Another thing that I quite liked was how the film focuses on the interpersonal dynamics between the drivers and their co-pilots, as well as the rivalries between the different teams – even though it’s a road movie/action picture. Usually, these movies would be all about taking us from one action piece to the next – but not here: there’s a lot of downtime devoted to fleshing out the characters. I’d say that this is the film’s key strength, even though one might cynically point out that the production likely couldn’t afford constant action sequences and did this out of necessity.
Of course, having said this, the film is nonetheless bound by its b-movie roots.
For starters, its production budget must have been especially low, because many of the costumes and props look unusually crummy or even ridiculous (don’t even get me started on the “hand grenade”!). Even the cars, a central element of the piece, were less impressive than I had expected; I had anticipated more gadgety, maybe even clever and awe-inspiring concoctions, but they all looked like regular roadsters with a few knick knacks glued onto them .
Secondly, there is the case of the writing, which is slightly naïve, if not juvenile. There are plenty of great ideas, but they are under-developed, if not just tossed in, much in the same way as ‘Heavy Metal‘ was sketchy. Either the writers weren’t stellar, or they were average writers who weren’t allotted the required time to polish off their work. Either way, it wouldn’t satisfy more critical viewers. Particularly sloppy is the ending, which I simply couldn’t buy into – every single twist was so simple-minded that I laughed with derision or scoffed incredulously.
I did enjoy some of its cast, though. Simone Griffeth plays Frankenstein’s co-pilot, and not only is she nice to look at, but she provides her character with an intelligence that is unusual for this type of picture. Meanwhile, I enjoyed Roberta Collins’ Matilda the Hun, but more for the character than for the performance: she plays a woman who has subjugated Nazism as a feminist vehicle. It’s weird, but original, and I love the “girl power” slant. And Mary Woronov will always be a favourite of mine ever since her turn as Miss Togar in ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll High School’ – she’s an atypical-beauty and an imposing character, and I wuv her.
I even enjoyed the bit players, including Louisa Moritz as Sylvester Stallone’s co-pilot. I thought that she was so cute (in a stunted-growth kind of way, like a small doll in a woman’s body) ever since ‘One Flew Over a Cuckoo’s Nest’, so it was pleasing to see her here as well. She’s not much of an actress, but whatever. I also enjoyed seeing Paul Bartel (who is also the director of ‘Death Race 2000’) in a small role as Frankenstein’s doctor. I also loved him in ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll High School’ and enjoyed his ‘Eating Raoul‘ a great deal, so it was fun to see this cameo.
Not as great were David Carradine and Sylvester Stallone. Bloody hell. David Carradine is one of the least expressive, most cardboard cut-out actors I’ve ever seen. He’s so terrible in this it’s beyond words. He’s like a poor man’s version of James Coburn, and I can’t even imagine anyone doing a worse job of it – anyone would have brought more charisma to the part. As for Stallone, well, it was one of his first performances, and he overdoes everything – every utterance and gesture is dialled up to 11. And if I have to see that freaky lip curl again I will pull my bottom lip over my head and smother myself to death with it.
Still, given how low-budget the film is, it could do a heck of a lot worse – and it’s no real deterrent to my enjoyment (although a better cast and production could have hiked it dramatically). ‘Death Race 2000’ looks cheap and feels cheap, but it’s got verve and a tongue-in-cheek quality to it that I rather enjoyed. Sure, it could have been developed more and in a cleverer way, but it is what it is, and I doubt that it will ever be remade in as a wholly satisfactory affair. And I must say that I am now mildly curious to see how the remake fared. I won’t race to see it, but you just might hear more about it in the near future.
Date of Viewing: January 7, 2013