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.


  1. There's also an Avalon Hill board game, "Road Kill", that was unabashedly based off of the movie. I think they even crib the car designs straight from the film. Not bad flattery, considering the film was 17 years old at the point that game was released.

    As for Death Race 2000, it's a classic for sure. I also love the concept, prevalent in a lot of films, that if you kill the President, you get to be President. Fuck that Vice President guy, if he wanted to be President he should have murdered him when he had the chance!

  2. There's a long string of games based on cars blowing up: Krash, Wreckage, Dark Future. Carmaggedon was pretty explicitly based off Death Race 2000, and the movie is mentioned in the acknowledgments of Car Wars. When it comes to films, I was surprised to find out that Death Race 2000 predates the Mad Max franchise. Heck, any movie with a car chase scene in it shares strands of Death Race DNA. What I'm trying to say is that we like to see CARS GO BOOM.