Death Race 2000 (1975) – Directed by Paul Bartel – Starring David Carradine, Simone Griffeth, Sylvester Stallone, Mary Woronov, Roberta Collins, Martin Kove, and Louisa Moritz.
It’s been an Ib Melchior kinda week.
Melchior co-wrote the screenplay for Robinson Crusoe on Mars, which I reviewed yesterday, and wrote the short story “The Racer,” which was the basis for DEATH RACE 2000. I wish I could say I planned it, but I didn’t. I rented DEATH RACE 2000 out of spite because Netflix still hasn’t sent me Cannonball Run, even after almost two months, and I’ve already watched the recent remake/boot/launch Death Race from a year or so back starring Jason Statham. (It’s pretty good.)
DEATH RACE 2000 features silly people in silly cars in a race across the country where they score bonus points by killing people.
It’s pretty awesome.
But awesome in that way that can only be achieved by being awful and enjoyable all at the same time. There’s not a single “good” performance in the entire film, except that everyone gives exactly the right performance. Which is the point. Everyone manages to be bad on exactly the same level, which results in a weird kind of cohesive performance that’s almost brilliant and certainly enjoyable from start to finish.
David Carradine stars as Frankenstein, an allegedly part-man, part-machine driver who’s survived countless vicious crashes over the years and become the most popular racer in the country. In actuality, Frankenstein (who wears head-to-toe black leather – complete with cape and mask – that makes him look not so much like Batman, but Wile E. Coyote in that suit that was supposed to make him fly) has been several different people, and Carradine’s only the latest.
Carradine’s take is to play Frankenstein as dispassionately as possible, which is to say he plays this ultimate bad-ass in as a stick of bambook swaying gently with the wind.
He drives a lizard car that actually manages to look cool next to the cars tricked up to look like a lion, German WWII plane, bull, and whatever Sylvester Stallone’s car is supposed to conjure up in your mind.
Stallone is the best part of the entire movie. His bombastic, ridiculous, over-the-top performance as Machine Gun Joe Viterbo is the perfect counterweight to Carradine’s woodenness. When his navigator gives him crap for getting beaten up by Frankenstein, Stallone cracks, “You know, Myra, some people might think you’re cute, but me, I think you’re a very large baked potato.”
On one of the DVD’s bonus features, John Landis (who, according to John Landis, has a brief role in the film as one of Stallone’s mechanics) says the baked potation line was a Stallone ad-lib. Somehow that makes it even better.
Because you can’t just have a race where crazy people driving animal cars kill each other, there’s a back-plot involving Frankenstein’s navigator, Annie, played by the lovely Simone Griffeth. She’s the granddaughter of the head of the Resistance that wants to stop the race from happening. She vaguely tries to kill him and then has sex with him because he’s not what she expected.
You know, because he actually has a face and something of a conscience. Something of a conscience because he still kills people with his car, but we forgive him because he’s got a fake hand that’s actually a grenade (a “hand grenade,” get it? Ah, the ’70s) and he just wants to win the race so he can shake the President’s hand and blow the bastard sky-high.
In the funniest killing scene of the film, the nurses and doctors at a hospital line the street with all of their old patients. Annie wants to know what’s going on, and Carradine drawls, “It’s Euthanasia Day at the Geriatric’s Hospital. They do it every year.” So this year, because he’s now David Carradine under the mask, Frank kills the nurses that stand around watching and lets the old people continue to drool on their shirts.
This film relies on the dystopian American future idea, but they don’t harp on it. You’re not here to hear discourse on the decline of America, you’re here to see these ridiculous cars kill a bunch of people, have a few laughs, and see some women take their clothes off.
If that’s why you watched the movie, you win.