“Gimme fuel, gimme fire, gimme that which I desire…”—Metallica
The open road…a blacktop mistress most Americans have fallen in love with. America, more so than any other country, has a yearning for road trips where we are free from social constraints and everyday norms. This notion has been romanticized in Jack Kerouac’s opus, On the Road, the road adventures of The Merry Pranksters, and such 70s high octane flicks such as Easy Rider (1969), Vanishing Point (1971), Two-Lane Blacktop (1971), and Dirty Mary Crazy Larry (1974), just to name a few. Today’s feature, Death Race 2000 (1975), examines the love of the road where man and machine become one; it was released 40 years ago today.
After the collapse of Bipartisan Party system in the midst of a great oil crisis, the United Provinces of America is formed and run by Mr. President, Sandy MaCallum of Fantasy Island (1980). The new nation under totalitarian dictatorship creates the Annual Transcontinental Road Race, a deadly coast-to-coast, three-day race where points are awarded to drivers for the number and type of pedestrians (e.g. teenagers: 40 pts, kids under 12: 75 pts, seniors over 75: 100pts) they can kill.
The 20th anniversary race commentary is provided by the enthusiastic Junior Bruce, Don Steele of Rock ‘n’ Roll High School (1979), and the pretentious Grace Pander, Joyce Jameson of The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976), and Howard Cosellesque Harold, Carle Bensen of Enter the Devil (1972). The broadcast trio provide historical insight into the race when they aren’t busy kissing up to Mr. President or the state’s premier driver, Frankenstein, David Carradine of Kill Bill (2003). Frankenstein is a legend in the sport, fan favorite, and rumored to have been put together piece by piece again and again due to his horrible car wrecks. Though Frankenstein is loved by most, he is the target of jealousy and great disdain by fellow themed drivers, gangster “Machine Gun” Joe, Sylvester Stallone of Rocky (1976), Roman emperor, Nero the Hero portrayed by Martin Kove of The Karate Kid (1984), Nazi Matlida the Hun played by Roberta Collins of Caged Heat (1974), and cowgirl Calamity Jane, Mary Woronov of Warlock (1989).
Besides Frankenstein having to constantly look over his shoulder, his latest navigator Annie, Simone Griffeth of Hot Target (1985), is a descendant of revolutionary Thomas Paine. This sets in motion the introduction of her rebellious family aiming to interfere with the race and the driver’s lives in hopes of overtaking the dictatorship since it is a government sanctioned race. The Paine Family pirates in on the national broadcast, but the government, scared to give any merit to outspoken citizens, blames all of the race’s mishaps on the French. The race ensues with much comedy, death, action, and road side surprises that I won’t spoil for you here if you haven’t viewed it yet.
Death Race 2000 is an action packed, dystopian future comedy directed by Paul Bartel of Eating Raoul (1974), with a screenplay by Robert Thorm of Crazy Mama (1975), Charles Griffith of The Little Shop of Horrors (1960), and based on the story, The Racer, by Ib Melchoir of the Planet of the Vampires (1965). Death Race 2000, a Roger Corman produced gem, has a super-charged amount of CARnage (body count of 33), low budget ($300,000-which is big for a Corman production), but effective special effects, and futuristic locales. Death Race 2000 showcases some of the most visually interesting vehicles ever displayed on the silver screen even to this day. I know you Furious Seven (2015) gearheads, think I’m probably blowing smoke up your exhaust pipe, but hey, The Fast and Furious franchise was actually started by–CORMAN back in 1955.
Though it is a bizarrely funny movie, Death Race 2000 does address some strong underlying messages about American values. The love of violence, death of the promised American Dream, and the barbarism of mind and spirit on society when government is in complete control are the major themes. Death Race 2000 has gained a strong cult following and honestly is not for everyone. Though a unique film, it has been remade in the soulless, Death Race (2008), direct to video releases Death Race 2: Frankenstein Lives (2011), Death Race 3: Inferno (2013). Originally, Death Race 2000 initially loathed by critics as a lemon, beat out its competition Rollerball (1975), in the popular subgenre of dystopian films. Death Race 2000 franchise and went on to release a video game, a spin-off comic book, and has been referenced as inspiration for many TV shows and films, too many to list. Overall, Death Race 2000 is a fun, guilty little pleasure that should be viewed at least once and placed on all serious film lovers’ bucket list.
So, find some time, jump in your hotrod and hit the open road. It’s a big country, go explore it. Turn off your cellphone, rev your engine, and just ride…you won’t be disappointed! Remember what St. Augustine shared, “The World is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page.”
- Rick Baldwin is a writer, filmmaker, film/music historian, and can be found on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/rick.baldwin.568
- Twitter Rick Baldwin@rickbaldwin79 and email@example.com