Saturday, 4 April 2015

Highway to hell… Death Race 2000 (1975)


One of the ultimate cult movies of the seventies and one I’ve never seen before in spite of my young teenage self being fascinated with the promise of so many posters and adverts extolling the value of a film fueled by fast cars, reckless driving and care-free violence…  So, how does the viewing experience match up to three decades of what was less studious self-denial and more just a “failure to see”? Turns out Death Race has something to say and is not just a more dastardly Wacky Races, although the comparisons are clear on that score.


Produced by Roger Corman and directed by Paul Bartel, Death Race 2000 is a vision of a near future not much removed from the here and now. Reality TV may be more pervasive now than in 1975 but it was still an accident waiting to happen and to be viewed. The film features a trio of only slightly over-the-top TV commentators who use prosaic sports rhetoric which somehow makes the nature of the event even more shocking. The national sport of death racing across the USA is a distraction welcomed across the country and aficionados are so swept up with the game they are even willing to be killed by their heroes.

Mildly OTT TV
Clearly something is wrong with a world in which murderous motorists can accumulate points by running down civilians – high scores for children and old people in particular – but we’re never really told how this came to be. There’s a mysterious President manipulating event behind the scenes for what is clearly a Romanesque distraction for the crowds: what’s he got to hide?

Calamity Jane and Matlida the Hun
The gladiators of the road are all caricatures: there’s “Calamity” Jane (Mary Woronov) an all-American cow-girl who skewers her victims with two massive bull-horns attached to her car versus Ray “Nero the Hero” Lonagan (Martin Kove) – a modern gladiator with Cleopatra (Leslie McRay) as his navigator.

Nero the Hero and Machine Gun" Joe Viterbo
Up against them is Matlida the Hun (Roberta Collins) and her navigator, “Herman the German” (Fred Grandy) whose car, "The Buzz-Bomb",  carries swastikas and heavy artillery and the highly strung Italian stallion himself, Sylvester Stallone as the impossibly angry, "Machine Gun" Joe Viterbo accompanied by his very own blonde moll-shell Myra (Louisa Moritz). Joe drives an equally vexed car which has two machine guns and a bayonet attached to its front.


Finally there’s the reigning champion, the President’s favourite and everyone else’s, Frankenstein (David Carradine – who was on 10% of the take for the movie…not many get to out earn Roger Corman on one of his films!) a man who has supposedly been injured and repaired so many times that he is barely human: as much of a machine as his car, cold unknowable and with only one thing on his mind.

Simone Griffeth
For this race he is to have a new navigator Annie (Simone Griffeth), a wholesome-looking girl who, frankly, Frankie doesn’t look your type… 

Mr President
The global/political backdrop is gradually revealed as what looks like an almost all-powerful president pulls the strings. At some point the American “empire” won and it rules the majority of the World. To the victor the spoils of… boredom and to creeping entropy of “nowhere left to go”… the Race is a big part of state entertainment and arouses an almost religious fervour amongst it’s young pop fans… as if Justin and One Direction could drive?

Where's the Buzz Bomb?
Against all this is a resistance movement led by one Thomasina Paine – yes really – played by Harriet Medin. Thomasina wants to, no doubt, exert the rights of man, woman and child to not be killed in the name of entertainment and to overthrow a regime aimed at, literally, amusing its populace to death.       

Her group’s aim is also to destroy drivers along with the race and they begin to succeed with first Nero the Hero succumbing to one of their traps. But Frankenstein is too clever to fall for their traps especially when he realises that his new co-driver might be involved…

Thrills and spills
But everyone has a secret in this film and even Frankenstein is not quite as he seems.

The characterization is of rich comic book textures and the plot proceeds with unlikely scenarios such as the drivers all lined up for a relaxing sensual massage after one stage – allowing Roberta Collins and Mary Woronov to show us a little bit more as they carry their competition a little too far.

Roberta Collins and Mary Woronov "relax"
Frankenstein sees Annie talking to Joe and wonders what on earth she could be telling him… Sure enough he’s been led along a rough garden path into the middle of a valley of slow return… is she trying to help or just sabotage the race? But he seems willing to overlook his suspicions about her motives as the two develop the understanding both on and off road.


As with Wacky Races, the fun is in the telling and not necessarily the result and the sports commentary keeps things fresh as the real battle becomes clearer.

Dusty verdict: In a world in which human life has become so devalued, there has to be hope for a better future – or not - depending on your mood. I’ll let you find out for yourself with the comment that, as Spock once said to his captain: “sometimes it is better to travel than arrive…” or something like that.


Carradine conveys that laid back, carefully tutored threat he managed in Kung Fu and other works and is always watchable: it’s as if he knows what’s going on and is letting the audience in on things.

The others pantomime very well and, arguably Simone Griffeth has the only characterization that rings true as the reluctant revolutionary who falls for the man she thought she’d have to kill.


It’s not great art but it’s still fun with enough humour to prevent it becoming over-bearing and a story that likes itself enough to make the effort to have a point: and if all that sounds a bit convoluted then I would refer you to any number of other Corman and Corman-esque episodes.  

Death Race 2000 is available from Amazon – it’s a future firmly rooted in the brash, four-colour comic book world of the mid-seventies and that’s no bad thing.

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