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Wednesday, August 27, 2008

DEATH RACE 2000 (1975)

As the cars roar into Pennsylvania, the cradle of liberty, it seems apparent that our citizens are staying off the streets, which may make scoring particularly difficult, even with this year's rule changes. To recap those revisions: women are still worth 10 points more than men in all age brackets, but teenagers now rack up 40 points, and toddlers under 12 now rate a big 70 points. The big score: anyone, any sex, over 75 years old has been upped to 100 points.
-The rules of the Transcontinental Road race, as explained during a commercial break.

So now there’s yet another remake hiding behind the bullshit “reimagining” label, once again of one of my favorite films and it’s unleashed a shitstorm of terrible reviews. I’ll get around to seeing the remake out of sheer morbid curiosity sometime over the coming weekend, but for now I’d like to spotlight its source.

Back in the days of my misspent youth and the endless nights in the pot smoke-filled dark of the Sono Cinema there were a handful of films that were regularly pressed into service to fill out the often-run sci-fi movie double features, and if you were a regular it was inevitable that you’d see each of those flicks several times (so you’d better like ‘em!). Among this illustrious pantheon was 1975’s DEATH RACE 2000, a film whose reputation for outrageous helpings of gore and graphic violence preceded it, a reputation filtered to my peers by their older brothers and sisters who’d claimed to have seen it. Since fifth grade all of us gorehound kids had been dying to see this miracle of a movie, a film that we had it on good authority showed people’s heads getting run over in closeup by bizarrely customized hot rods, gratuitously nekkid women, old people being wheeled into the middle of the street so they could be intentionally (and legally!) killed in televised vehicular manslaughter, a guy whose car hood was equipped with a gigantic buck knife that he used to drive up some poor bastard’s ass and so much bloodshed that spewing arterial geysers splashed onto the camera lens. If you were a ten-year-old boy, how the hell could you not want to see all of that, and in one movie no less?

Some five years later (Fall 1980) my friends and I began to gravitate to Norwalk’s legendary Sono Cinema and experience the start of our education in the cinema of exploitation, ultra-violent horror, foreign animated features, cult classics and even actual hardcore porno, all thanks to a mostly doped-up staff who didn’t give a fuck how old you were as long as you had the scratch for admission. Thus it was that we came to discover we’d been the victims of the Big Kids in that we’d eagerly believed every word they said about the content of DEATH RACE 2000. Sure, much of what they said was on display on the screen, but they’d neglected to tell us the most pertinent fact about the movie: it’s a comedy, and a damned funny comedy at that.

Matilda the Hun's fans represent.

The first time we saw DEATH RACE 2000 all of us were greatly disappointed and felt completely gypped by the flick and by the fact that revenge could not be sought against the lying older siblings because they had long ago fucked off to college, married life, or drug dependency in Canada. But, to be fair, their perceptions of the film may have been more than a little tweaked by whatever excellent drugs they were on back in 1975, arguably the most stoned period that the USA had seen since the just-passed hippie era, so we decided to cut our barely-elders some slack. But, with repeated screenings during subsequent sci-fi double features, our hard feelings toward DEATH RACE 2000 did a complete one-eighty as we accepted it for the clever cross-bred violence-fest and ham-handed social satire that it was, featuring as it did two stars that we’d come to love just before and during puberty, namely David Carradine — hero to all “pacifists” who not-so-secretly desired to kick lots of ass and get away with like he did on KUNG FU — and a pre-ROCKY Sylvester Stallone.

David Carradine as Frankenstein. I would kill to see this guy race Max Rockatansky!

The film’s “plot” is little more than excuse upon which to hang ludicrous violence upon the social commentary that I guess was meant to legitimize the high octane mayhem in the eyes of the nation’s critics: In the year 2000, America’s favorite televised sporting event is the Transcontinental Road Race, in which contestants with professional wrestling-style flamboyant personas piloting equally ridiculous-looking vehicles from one side of the country to the other, livening up the proceedings by legally mowing down as many pedestrians as possible. The violence occasionally breaks for subplots involving a revolutionary force opposed to the race and a government that would allow such barbarity as a way to placate the bloodthirsty populace, and the rivalries between the racers, most notably the enmity between superstar cyborg racer Frankenstein (Carradine) and Machine Gun Joe Viterbo (Stallone).

Frankenstein, behind the wheel of "The Monster."

There’s a very minor romance angle that doesn’t really amount to much (who needs romance in a movie about a bunch of costumed maniacs mowing down innocent people?) and a so-called plot twist that the viewer will see coming a mile away, but taken as a whole the movie is a fun and cheesy exploitation comedy from Roger Corman’s New World days, directed by the late, great Paul Bartel of ROCK ‘N’ ROLL HIGH SCHOOL and EATING RAOUL fame.

The film is also of note, in my book anyway, for what I rate as Stallone’s finest performance to date, turning in a rare asshole role that’s every bit as side-splitting as it is unctuous.

A pre-ROCKY Sylvester Stallone as Machine Gun Joe Viterbo: fuck OVER THE TOP, this is easily his greatest role.

Machine Gun Joe is genuinely hilarious, especially when he’s introduced at the film’s opening and during a bit where he asks a bystander for his opinion on whether he should allow a victim whom he has just savagely run over with his knife-mobile to live or have the job finished in his customary sociopathic style. If you’re a Stallone fan, you absolutely need to see this movie, if for no reason other than to see him play a gonzo Guinzo stereotype to the scenery-chewing hilt.

Machine Gun Joe's "knife-mobile." Yes, he really drives that blade right up a guy's ass at about 100 MPH. And it is wonderful.

And let us not forget the presence of one of my all-time favorite unfairly underrated actresses, the matchless Mary Woronov, also and alum of EATING RAOUL and ROCK ‘N’ ROLL HIGH SCHOOL (where she gained screen immortality as the dominatrix-like Miss Togar).

The awesome Mary Woronov as Calamity Jane.

Here’s she Western-themed racer Calamity Jane, and her look plays right into my love of sexy broads in cowboy gear (I can’t explain it and I ain’t gonna try). Oh, yeah, baby...

But fun though the film is, it wouldn't have quite been pushed over the top without the fantastically obnoxious commentary from real-life DJ the Real Don Steele, playing pretty much the same character he plays in — you guessed it! — ROCK 'N' ROLL HIGH SCHOOL and EATING RAOUL. He's got several great, hyperactive DJ rants about the race, but nothing beats or sets the tone like his introduction of Frankenstein:

Frankenstein! Frankenstein the legend, Frankenstein the indestructible! Sole survivor of the titanic pile-up of '95, only two-time winner of the Transcontinental Road Race... Frankenstein! Ripped up, wiped out, battered, shattered, creamed, and reamed... a dancer on the brink of death... Frankenstein, who lost a leg in '98, an arm in '99! With half a face and half a chest, and all the guts in the world, he's back!

Simply put, the shit's just plain funny and entertaining in that special way that budget-challenged seventies drive-in junk was, a quality that's as elusive these days as D-cups on a trout. TRUST YER BUNCHE and check out the old school before hitting the Jason Statham "reimagining."

The misleading Japanese poster that makes Stallone look like he's the star.


Anonymous said...

Our enemy: THE FRENCH!

Kevie said...

You mean it was a comedy?? Where were you when this movie disturbed the shit out of me at age 12? Excellent piece anyway.