Thursday, May 31, 2012

My Hand is Stuck in the Safe:

Give Me the Brain

Editors Note: This Friday's post was written by Mr. Bassman from  It's a change of pace, but not too far off--many of the themes of movies are echoed in board games (it even works the other way around, as in Battleship [2012] and Clue [1985]).  Sharp eyed readers will recall the post on Death Race 2000 (1975) and game Car Wars (1980).  Enjoy.

Nowadays you not only find zombies lurching across the cinema screen, but you can also discover them lurking in the boxes of games like Last Night on Earth, Mall of Horror, and Zombie State:  Diplomacy of the Dead.  Yet in the mid-'90s, the only zombie themed game you were likely to find was SPI's Dawn of the Dead, a hex-and-counter style combat game with rules complex enough to scare off all but the most ardent wargamer.  

In 1995, game designer James Ernest reasoned that the most important parts of a game are its rules and not the components, so he founded Cheapass Games to inexpensively publish a line of games which usually contained nothing more than a sheet of rules, cards, and sometimes a game board.  Give Me The Brain is his game about zombies working in a fast food franchise.

The game comes in a white envelope that unfortunately doesn't contain hard drugs.

If the only card games with which you are familiar are various incarnations of Uno, then playing any of the Cheapass games will have you rethink what games can be.  Give Me The Brain starts with players using bidding cards such as "The pickles are staring at me," and "I'm locked in the fleezah!" to get the brain.  Getting the brain is important because task cards with the brain icon on them can only be played by the player who has the brain.  And emptying your hand by playing all your cards is how you win.

Good help is hard to find.

Give Me The Brain also includes a rudimentary action point system in the form of the hand icons on the cards that determines how many tasks a turn you can play.  You can't play cards that contain a total of more than two hands during a turn--unless you are fortunate enough to find a third hand in the back.

Tasks requiring one or two hands--and occasionally a brain.

Unlike George Romero's zombie classics Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead which make gory social commentary about brainless mass consumerism, Give Me the Brain pokes fun at that high school rite of passage, the food franchise job.  While it may be politically incorrect now to ridicule minimum wage employees, the mid-'90s were the boom time when hamburger joint counters were manned by bored teenagers who had trouble making change without counting on their fingers.

Give Me The Brain is not terribly deep, nor is there pulse pounding tension as you desperately search for another ammo clip to refill your pistol.  Instead, you will experience the frustration of one step forward and two steps back as playing cards like "Who, Me?" force you to draw more cards, because obviously you don't have enough to do.  As for theme, well, the cards do have pictures of zombies on them.  And you can play the game mindlessly.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Say Your Prayers--

The Teratology of Red State


I don't think she's a fan of gun control.

If you are unaware of Fred Phelps, consider yourself lucky; you are much better living in a world where a character such as Phelps does not exist. Unfortunately (the world being what it is), Phelps does exist--as the pastor of the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka which has gained international notoriety with their “God Hates Fags” campaign. In this crusade, Phelps and his followers travel around the country to picket gay pride parades, military funerals and other churches. They have no political message, they don’t seek repentance; their purpose is to say that the world is coming to an end because men have sex with men. Along with inspiring general hatred and disgust, Phelps and his church are the basis of Kevin Smith’s 2011 movie, Red State.

Director Kevin Smith's counter-protest to the Westboro Baptists.

There were so many places where Red State could have derailed: At the beginning, when three rural high school boys travel to a remote location to have sex with an internet contact, the movie could have become a clichéd hillbilly horror flick, a la The Hills Have Eyes (1977--or 2006, take your pick). When the boys are captured by religious fundamentalists belonging to the Five Points Trinity Church (patterned after the Westboro Baptists), the film could have become another example of torture porn with a Southern charm, a la 2001 Maniacs (2005). At any point the film could have devolved into a two-hour-long monologue by Kevin Smith--a la Kevin Smith: Too Fat for 40 (2010) or Kevin Smith: Burn in Hell (2012). But despite tottering at places, Red State remains upright and rattling along.

Watch this: Kevin Smith is more thoughtful than he lets on.

The movie has help staying on track: Its cinematography is well done, focusing on long shots in the rural community and close-ups inside the fundamentalist compound as a way of contrasting the isolation of middle American secular life with the clan mentality of Five Points. Five Points’ spiritual leader and patriarch, Abin Cooper, is perfectly portrayed by Michael Parks, who gives the preacher a rattlesnake’s low rasp instead of the typical televangelist’s bark. Opposite him is ATF agent Joseph Keenan (John Goodman), who is called in to investigate Five Points’ compound and is a perfect choice as a low-key everyman; when we’re introduced to his character, he’s talking to his boss while drinking coffee with his wife at the breakfast table.

I lied--they actually drink OJ.

As a Smith film, Red State shows extreme restraint. It's heavy-handed, but it has the integrity to be heavy-handed equally: The faithful and the faithless have equal amounts of warts for the camera. It has naturalism to it: The scarcity of music, the realistic dialogue and slow pacing make it seem at times like The Wire instead of a Kevin Smith horror film about Christian whackos. Most importantly, it never gives way to formula. Any time an obvious space opens in the plot, Smith closes it and throws the narrative through a window. Red State does what many current horror movies don’t: keep you wondering what happens next. It’s refreshing, as is its message: A nation of polar opposites doesn’t mean a nation of good and bad, but a nation of bad and worse.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Knee Deep in the Dead: Ghosts of Mars

Amateur Teratologist is a fan of John Carpenter. He's directed favorites like Escape from New York (1981), The Thing (1982) and Big Trouble in Little China (1986).

Apparently, we also really like Kurt Russell. He's so dreamy.
During the '90s, Carpenter slowed down. From this era, I can only recommended Escape from L.A. (1996) and In the Mouth of Madness (1995), though the latter took multiple viewings before I made my peace with it. What remained constant over the years were Carpenter's techniques, but like old ghosts haunting the silver screen, they became more intrusive and out of place over time; in Ghosts of Mars (2001), they let him down completely.

Ghosts of Mars flopped at the box office, causing John Carpenter to sit out the 2000's after a whimper, not a bang. The movie is three or four earlier efforts smooshed together: The backbone is Carpenter's second film, Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), in which a police station in LA is besieged by bloodthirsty gang members. To survive, the cops must team up with a convicted killer whose prison transport stopped at the precinct. In Ghosts of Mars, space cops are sent to pick up a prisoner from a mining camp on Mars only to discover that the miners are possessed by space ghosts. As before, the space cops join forces with the criminal they were sent to collect.

On your left, Earth by way of The Thing; on your right, Mars by way of Ghosts of Mars.
There's elements of other Carpenter movies in Ghosts of Mars: The threat of subversion from The Thing (1982), the insanities of the possessed from In the Mouth of Madness (1995), there's even a slasher vibe at the beginning and end of the movie that can be traced to Halloween (1978). Ghosts of Mars is undoubtedly a John Carpenter movie: The way the shots are composed, the pacing, the dialog, the synthesized portions of the score, even the effects--in 2001, Ghosts of Mars is still using the same special effects Carpenter was using in the '80s. Keep in mind, The Matrix and all its high tech CGI was released in 1999.

I'm a fan of movie miniatures, but this landscape looks more like a game of Warhammer 40,000 than a feature film.
After hearing all the negative hype, I was disappointed to find that Ghosts of Mars was merely a paint by numbers sci-fi action movie rather than a trainwreck. The only truly bad parts are the heavy metal soundtrack (it's just trying too hard) and the main enemy boss, Big Daddy Mars. Big Daddy screams out orders in what I can only assume is supposed to be Martian, but it sounds like some kind of cartoon baby mushmouth tantrum.

He couldn't decide if he was going to a Kiss, Gwar or Marilyn Manson concert, so he dressed for all three.
After a decades-long career, it's clear that John Carpenter was out of ideas. While I like his style, it's a weakness here; Ghosts of Mars is a curious anachronism, and if it had been released ten years earlier, I think it would have been much better received. The video game Doom came out in '93, and Ghosts of Mars could have been an early '90s film adaptation--instead, we got 2005's Doom movie, but that's a review for another day.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

In the Lab, Late One Night--

The Teratology of Splice

One word: Homeschooling

In 1997, a picture appeared of a human ear on the back of a mouse. It’s a picture that set wheels turning; anti-genetic manipulation groups were horrified (despite genetic manipulation not being involved in the mouse’s creation), South Park lampooned the experiment in its 12th season ("Eek, a Penis!"), and after 10 years of financing, Vincenzo Natali created Splice (2009).

Can you hear me now?

Splice begins with a scene reminiscent of Fight Club’s opening: We float through a sea of biological muck, too close to tell if we’re looking at snake scales or a human fetus in utero. Suddenly, we see a light and we’re pulled into the waiting arms of Clive Nicoli (Adrien Brody) and Elsa Kast (Sarah Polley), scientists at the privately funded NERD research group. Besides making dreadful acronyms, they specialize in splicing together DNA from multiple animals to create new life. Their newest experiment is Dren, the world’s first human/animal hybrid.

This plush is an abomination before God and man.

Splice is Jurassic Park through a mirror, darkly. The raptor attack at the beginning (“Shoot her, shoot her!”), the gimmick of animals switching genders, the moral tone (Playing God should be left to god) all exist in Splice. But where Jurassic Park loses us in a lush jungle, Splice locks us up in a lab for half the film; when trees are finally shown, they’re barren in the middle of winter. Characters look gaunt and sickly under constant fluorescent lighting. It’s a much quieter film—instead of following several groups of characters as they try to escape, we’re focused on a single couple, Clive and Elsa.

The soul of Splice is the family dynamic between Clive, Elsa and Dren. While they begin handling their specimen with gasmasks and gloves, they soon transition to Barbie dolls and teddy bears as Dren becomes more and more human. The couple struggles with common parental problems: feeding, handling Dren’s first fever—Splice could almost be a prequel to Jurassic Park, with Dren playing the role of the first raptor bred by the scientists at InGen.

Raptors make terrible children.  They never call.

Splice is a daring effort. The conflict Dren creates and Elsa and Clive’s response will shock, but the lack of a likable character hamstrings the film. Clive and Elsa are scientists in the worst way: cold (Elsa treats Dren as equal parts specimen and daughter), impersonal (despite being a seasoned couple, the two barely touch one another) and immature (their work ethic is similar to an undergrad hopped up on Mountain Dew). Clive is weak, physically and morally. Elsa is absurdly rigid and arbitrary, putting her own interests before her colleagues and partner. The researchers are more monstrous than Dren—and she’s got kangaroo legs. It joins a long list of films that make the scientist a caricature: Frankenstein in 1931 (scientists refuse to take responsibility for their creations!), The Island of Lost Souls in 1933 (scientists are playing God!), The Fly in 1986 (scientists are reckless and short sighted!). These films don’t need to make us empathize with scientists—Splice, unfortunately, does.

Remember when Jeff Goldblum was a sex symbol?  Neither do I.

Despite its problems, Splice deserves credit for at least trying to have a conversation about bioethics. Daily advancements are blurring the lines between human and animal. Splice tries to shock people into thinking about where those lines should be, but it’s not Jurassic Park, no matter how many elements it shares. To tell its story effectively, it should have patterned itself as a film about a disquieting family dynamic and left the horror elements to Spielberg and ILM.

Friday, May 18, 2012

The Economy is About to Crater: They Live

John Carpenter hit his stride in the '80s, directing a film nearly every year of that decade.  Unfortunately, most people don't associate the 1980s with classics like Escape from New York (1981) or The Thing (1982), but rather with the rise of yuppies and corporate greed. Another director, George Romero, picked up on this trend early, lampooning cannibal consumer culture in Dawn of the Dead (1978). Carpenter's take was 1988's They Live.

They Live is about a "roaring '90s" ruled by "divine excess." It features a commercial of a woman with long nails attempting to operate a typewriter; alas, the nails are too unwieldy, though they do allow her to neatly spear cheese cubes.

I'm pretty sure these are an actual product these days.
This decadence is contrasted with camerawork that focuses on the unemployed, on urban decay, on people down on their luck. We are told that more of the "sleeping middle class" is slipping into poverty. Were it not for the old '80s TVs and lack of cell phones, you'd think you were watching today's news. We witness the apocalyptic destruction of a Hooverville-esque shantytown by police, images that bring to mind the breaking up of Occupy Wall Street encampments.

Is this a picture from the AP or a still from the movie?
After twenty minutes, They Live becomes a science fiction film: Rich people are really a co-opted superclass conspiring with alien visitors that can only be seen with the help of special sunglasses. What follows is a tribute to '50s B-movies: The glasses themselves are reminiscent of the 3D gimmicks of early genre cinema, and the images seen through them are black-and-white, showing skeletal, rubber-masked aliens and patrolling saucer-shaped drones.

This new campaign direction really isn't working out for [insert your least favorite politician here].
They Live is part of a subgenre of hidden invaders and unheeded heroes who see past the disguises. This movie's grandparent is Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956); its cousins, the V franchise; older brother, The Thing; you can find strands of They Live's DNA in Doctor Who's Silence or even the goblins of Troll 2 (1990). Other gimmicks of They Live survive in popular culture: Last year's Syndicate video game featured a black-and-white overlay mode that revealed propaganda messages in futuristic advertisements. The line about being "here to chew bubblegum and kick ass" has been referenced many times: It was included as dialog in Fallout 2 (1998), among other places.

The far-reaching influence of They Live indicates it has struck a chord with the public. We identify with Roddy Piper's protagonist, a hard-working everyman with no name (technically, it's Nada, "Nothing"). He "believe[s] in America, [he] follow[s] the rules"; when Nada finds that these rules are rigged by the upper class, he begins a rampage that starts at a bank. When Americans found out about the banking shenanigans that caused the 2008 depression, we reacted with similar anger--though thankfully without gratuitous '80s action movie violence. In reality, Rowdy Roddy Piper hasn't blown up a brainwashing satellite dish to reveal the real crooks, alien or otherwise.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Turning Japanese--

The Teratology of Battle Royale

There can be only one.

The economy is collapsing. The education system is crumbling. The traditional family structure is in shambles. This is not America in 2008; it’s Japan of 1999 during the middle of an economic depression. A best-selling novel is Battle Royale, which tells the story of 42 middle schoolers who are forced to kill each other. The Battle Royale Program takes place in a near future totalitarian Japan that randomly selects a teenage class and places them in an undisclosed location to participate in a “survival” game. The rules are simple: kill or be killed. Popular action film director Kinji Fukasaku transferred Battle Royale to the silver screen in 2000.

Fukasaku was known as a pulp director, which is a narrative style where the author uses hyperrealism to enhance a story: scenes are bloodier than they should be, situations more absurd, dialogue more stylized. A perfect example in Battle Royale occurs when a character has a hatchet embedded in his skull and continues to speak for several moments afterward, like Wile E. Coyote running for several minutes in midair before remembering gravity.

Walk it off, dude.

Fukasaku’s Battle Royale is pulp on a grand scale. Its violence is sudden and brutal—students are shot, stabbed, decapitated and poisoned. After each death, the victim’s name flashes on screen along with their class number and the number of students remaining, like a gruesome scorecard. With 42 players to keep track of, Fukasaku defines characters by action and weapon of choice: The vicious Mitsuko Souma (Kou Shibasaki) uses a farmer’s sickle to rack up her kills, but the practical Shogo Kawada (Taro Yamamoto) uses a pump-action shotgun. It also includes several haunting visuals: The images of Mitsuko smiling while underlit by a handheld flashlight or the erratic program director, Kitano (Beat Takeshi), leading a calisthenics class in an empty athletic field will stay with you long after the credits roll.

For reference, this is what evil looks like.

Like Terminator 2 (1991) or The Matrix (1999), Battle Royale is pulp that takes itself seriously. Its practical effects are top notch as is its attention to dialogue and characterization; Kitano’s quirkiness and subtlety make him one of cinema’s great villains. Its effects are far reaching; much of Kill Bill’s (2003-2004) elements are drawn from this film. While its effect on The Hunger Games (2012) is debated, it can be seen echoed in a film like Brick (2005), which also places teenagers in adult situations in a pulp setting.

The respect Fukasaku has for the original story comes in part from a massacre during his childhood. During World War II, after a nighttime bombardment, he was conscripted to clean up the body parts from civilian casualties. The experience had a lasting effect on him—he commented in an interview made during the final stages of production on Battle Royale: “Contemporary children don’t encounter situations where their arms and legs can be blown off, right? But I have. I used to watch as bodily fluids oozed from the corpses I carried on my shoulders.” He was 15, the same age as the characters in Battle Royale.

Fukasaku as an adult. Is it me, or have we seen that smile before?
Fukasaku’s firsthand experience makes Battle Royale different from a movie like The Matrix or Kill Bill and unique in the history of pulp film making. Battle Royale’s violence is not glorified, but absurd enough that it echoes the bizarreness of real carnage.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

I'm Glad You Changed Your Last Name: Wizards

When you’re young, cartoons are for kids. Some deal with death (like Littlefoot’s mother in 1988’s The Land Before Time), but it wasn’t until I saw Wizards (1977) that I realized animated films could be for grown ups. While some cartoons dealt with grief and loss, Wizards dealt with genocide, propaganda, despair.

There are other adult themes in this movie.
After the opening exposition about how "the world blew up in a thousand atomic fireballs," we are told that magic, monsters and mutations have replaced humans. Groups of strange creatures appear out of the gloom carrying machine guns, and the narration picks up again: "He is called Necron 99. He is one of Blackwolf's assassins." The film cuts to an elderly gnome reading to children; Necron 99 appears in the doorway and shoots the old man dead.

Wizards does not shy away from horrible things: Dread permeates the whole movie. The antagonist in the film is a wizard named Blackwolf who discovers a superweapon from the old world: a film projector loaded with Nazi propaganda. When viewed by Blackwolf’s minions, it induces bloodlust, but the armies of good only stare at the images in shock--the reaction of my younger self as well. As the elvish defenders of a battle are slaughtered, one of them stares wild-eyed at the carnage. The camera cuts to the bottom of the hill on which he is hiding; his sword tumbles down and breaks.

On rewatching, Wizards is ham-handed. The evil forces identify with Hitler, pilot World War II Nazi tanks and planes, use Lugers and wear Swastikas. A villainous toadie eats a side of beef upon which is stenciled the Star of David.

Other flaws are apparent: Chunks of it are narrated storyboards (though used here to much better effect than in 2008’s REPO!), and the animation is rough; there's frequent rotoscoping (something of a Bakshi trademark). Wizards feels crudely stitched together; scenes that focus on the main characters are split by comic interludes--it’s a strange film that can be both dark and campy at the same time.

Despite its flaws, I have a soft spot for Wizards. I saw it at a much younger age than I should have; amazingly, Wizards is rated PG.

Some material may not be suitable for children.
I grew attached to the characters, especially Peace (a reprogrammed and renamed Necron 99). The simplistic art lends itself to odd but unique character designs. The good wizard, Avatar, looks like a clown wearing Mickey Mouse gloves; his evil brother, Blackwolf, has exposed elbow bones which I'm sure inspired the look of World of Warcraft's undead. It also has the greatest final confrontation between two wizards I've seen on film.

More than anything, Wizards was an early attempt to introduce darker themes into kids' animated films. Don Bluth, creator of the aforementioned Land Before Time, was the spiritual successor to Bakshi’s efforts, but Bluth’s works were more coherent and successful--it’s why movies like The Secret of NIMH (1982) and An American Tale (1986) are considered classics and Wizards is considered cult.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Welcome to Camp Whedon—

The Teratology of Cabin in the Woods

Don't worry. The film isn't nearly as complex as this poster makes it seem.

Josh Whedon has the amazing ability to make me dislike concepts I love (werewolves, demons, cults, ancient evils). It’s not his plots—they’re full of arc and intrigue—but the workaday elements of how he makes his characters speak. Buffy, Angel and Serenity are decent, but every character sounds the same: witty, cutesy, smart-alecky. Whedon writes the way a grownup thinks teenagers speak: His dialogue makes my eye twitch.

If I close my eyes while I'm watching this show, I can't tell who is speaking.

So it came as a surprise that Cabin in the Woods is the best film about horror in years. Note the phrasing “best film about horror” and not “horror film,” since Cabin in the Woods is closer to a high concept parody. It begins with five fresh-faced college kids enjoying trademark Whedon banter; if they were any more stereotypical, they’d have their archetypes tattooed on their foreheads. The jock of our group has a cousin who owns a “cabin in the woods” that is the perfect spot for collegiate indiscretion/murderous rampage. We quickly discover that the cabin lives up to its foreboding atmosphere and that we aren’t the only audience watching these poor souls.

If Cabin gives you a sense of déjà vu, it’s because you’ve seen this all before. That’s the point—Drew Goddard and Josh Whedon, the writers, draw directly from every large horror franchise from the last thirty years. For film buffs, it’s like sightseeing in a hot air balloon: We’re in Romero country. On your left is Clive Barker Island. Now passing John Carpenter Bay (and it used to be such a nice getaway spot).

Like this, but in movie form.

If handled poorly, this meta-awareness can sink a film, but here it’s thankfully understated. Cabin allows for a number of monsters to coexist in the same narrative space, similar to House of Frankenstein (1944) or Monster Squad (1987), without becoming bogged down in how the monsters were assembled. Cabin allows for characters inside the film to comment on horror film “rules” (no sex, drugs or splitting up) without winking too much at the audience. Cabin treats itself as entertainment first and commentary second: It points out the absurdity and tiredness of horror clichés while at the same time exploiting them. It’s a sharp critique that doesn’t take itself seriously.

It’s not the first film to decry the state of horror: Scream (1996) and Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon (2006) are both films that peel back the curtain on the narrative structure of slashers. Waxwork (1988) is eerily similar to Cabin in its combination of horror genres, and it is a forgotten gem of practical effects.

Cabin's older brother.

Including Cabin, that’s a self-referential horror film for every decade for the last four decades. The genre is cyclical, and movies come in waves—zombies were hot, then werewolves, then zombies again, then ghosts. Why should the critiques be immune? While some critics are calling Cabin a game changer, I’m calling it a great film from a veteran in the monster business that is tired of shitty movies. Unfortunately, his comments won’t make a peep in the ear of major studios; come summer, there will be another crop of films about a group of fresh-faced youngsters who boldly go where so many have gone before. As long as these films make money, they’ll be back each year, no matter how rotten.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Drive Offensively: Death Race 2000

If the entertainment industries reveal anything, it's that we're obsessed with watching cars race, crash and shoot. Regular automotive events don't slake our thirst for vehicular destruction: Though NASCAR officially started in the '40s, it was only a decade later that demolition derbies became popular. In print, in film, on home console, we can't get enough. There's Harlan Ellison's 1969 short story "Along the Scenic Route," board games like Car Wars (1981) or video games of the Twisted Metal (1995) and Carmageddon (1997) franchises; this small sample doesn't even begin to scratch the surface. The obvious evolution of our interests is the Annual Transcontinental Road Race--better known as Death Race 2000 (1975).

I wouldn't call Death Race 2000 an inspirational movie, but it was influential.
Having seen the 2008 Death Race remake first, I was surprised that Death Race 2000 was so tame by comparison. Instead of the remake's fleet of faceless drivers who exist just to be exploded in high-def, Death Race 2000 features five themed teams with designs surely cribbed from the '68-'69 Wacky Races. The cars have no weapons besides spiked rams. Fatalities are accompanied by cartoon sound effects and overly red fake blood. Instead of racers battling each other, the eponymous death in Death Race 2000 refers to poor schmucks caught on the highway: This competition is based on points awarded for slain pedestrians, so the violence is directed towards American citizens.

The real death panels.
Death Race 2000 challenges America's spirit, propensity for violence and obsession with pop culture. Its dystopian USA has suffered a nonspecific economic disaster. To placate the masses, the Annual Transcontinental Road Race is elevated as the epitome of American ideals: the "greatest sporting event" of the "greatest of nations" whose winner will be the "new American champion for all the world to behold." I don't see how the film could've been set anywhere but America: Our roads are long, our people proud--even more so in times of hardship--our nation hungry for celebrities. Most folks know the Death Race is coming and stay off the roads, but there are a mad few, desperate for attention, who bait the racers into confrontation: A bullfighter taunts Calamity Jane (Mary Woronov) and her horned car, a group of men on foot play chicken with vehicles designed to squash men on foot.

Still safer than most intersections.
This movie is timeless. There's not a theme or concept in it that has not grown more true over time. Our stars are even more worshipped, our sports harder-hitting, the coverage more invasive, the economy worse. Forty years later, and the French are still an American punch line. In terms of style, Death Race 2000 is a precursor to contemporary films like The Hunger Games (2012): The elite wear garish fashions, the reporters are always smiling--but beneath the glamour is a no-nonsense regime censoring the news.

The real nightmare of this future is that '70s fashions never died.
What keeps Death Race 2000 from being serious social commentary is its constant smirking at the audience. David Carradine and Sylvester Stallone, near the beginning of their careers, ham it up as the film's main rivals, Frankenstein and Machine Gun Joe. There's humor in every scene, and the film contains the best pun on "hand grenade" I've ever heard. Death Race 2000 is great, campy fun that demonstrates how violence in our media has escalated over time; what was considered shocking in this film is now commonplace. If the contest was for gratuitous gore on screen, Death Race 2000 is left in the dust of newer models.