In the opening monologue of Patton, George C. Scott intones, “Americans love a winner, and will not tolerate a loser.” In the year 2000, Americans have found their winner, and his name is Frankenstein. Death Race 2000 is a movie about what Americans love – winners, speed, and violence – and what they’re willing to put up with in order to get it. It’s also a gory, stunt-filled action movie co-starring Sylvester Stallone. So it’s easy to imagine viewers only enjoying the campy, ridiculous surface without catching the surprising profundity that lies beneath.
Death Race 2000 (1975) possesses this strange tension mostly because it was produced by Roger Corman and directed by Paul Bartel, whose later cult classic Eating Raoul I wrote about a while back. Eating Raoul gave a taste of how Bartel and the Corman team could integrate their dark social satire into basic B-movie formulae, and they succeed big time with Death Race. Its silly sci-fi premise is twisted into a giant, layered joke about pompous patriotism and governmental mendacity. And there’s still a whole lot of fast driving.
That premise is pretty well-known, but here it is anyway: since 1980, America’s most popular sporting event has been a transcontinental road race. Five drivers compete to get to New Los Angeles the fastest, and to “score” the most bystanders along the way. In 2000, however, the Army of the Resistance is actively sabotaging the race, so the drivers must reckon both with each other and with rebel booby traps scattered along country roads. Each driver has a navigator in the passenger seat, and a gimmicky theme to their costume and car; this aspect of the film is nicely carried out considering the budget, and it’s clear that even if this were just another dumb B-movie, it’d be an especially imaginative one with a really DIY design aesthetic.
But it’s far from dumb. Many of the ideas aren’t fully realized, sure, but for an ostensibly trashy movie, there’s so much rich ideological terrain. For example, the film just savages the mainstream media, which is complicit in shoving the race down the citizens’ throats. In the government’s scramble to provide breads and circuses as a distraction from economic woes, they have no greater ally than the nation’s television personalities. There’s the yammering, neckerchief-wearing reporter Junior Bruce (played by “The Real Don Steele”), who dishes out constant race-related updates and is more than happy to suppress real news and scapegoat the French if it suits the current administration’s whims. Or the fawning talk show host Grace Pander, who refers to every racer as “a dear friend of mine” and translates every new plot twist into dramatic camera fodder.
They’re both presented as willing lackeys of the beloved “Mr. President,” whose broadcasts from his palace in China are literally nothing but pure spin. Clearly, Bartel and the film’s writers believe that if political leaders want unquestioned authority, then gently taking away freedom of the press is the way to do it. Late in the film, the racers ask a supercilious government agent about the rebels’ role in a colleague’s death, and he replies, “Who mentioned anything about rebels? There are no rebels. Understand?” For a film that’s supposedly about racers knocking down pedestrians, this is a surprisingly subtle method for dealing with dissent, invoking Goebbels’ concept of the “big lie.” Mr. President’s government makes its lies truth through repetition, and the news media gladly volunteer to repeat. (Keep in mind that this was made the same year as All the President’s Men, and only a year after the real-life Watergate revelations.)
But of course, the race isn’t just forced onto a reluctant citizenry. It really is the most popular sporting event, and most Americans are devoted fans cheering on their favorite racers. Like I said, the movie is about what Americans love. They love to be lied to, as long as the lies go down easier than the truth. And, obviously, they love to watch other people commit acts of violence. This is where Frankenstein (David Carradine) comes in. Trained from birth to be the world’s greatest racer, he’s simply that. The film’s opening sequence, in which the racers pull up to the starting line, is intercut with a press conference where a doctor (played by Bartel) announces Frankenstein’s recent “limb transplant,” and every reporter oohs and ahhs at his mangled-and-repaired body.
But this is all more spin. As he reveals to his navigator Annie, his body is totally intact, and all the myths are just that – compiled by the government to build Frankenstein up as the national hero he’s become. It’s like if Chuck Norris “facts” were treated with as much seriousness, by the government and the people, as the official story about 9/11. At moments like this, Death Race 2000 resembles an intentionally frivolous 1984. Frankenstein is the hero, ready for worship, and when he speaks his mind in private, the film’s engaging in some crafty deconstruction of American iconography. It’s like catching the guy who plays Mickey Mouse at Disneyland without his costume’s head on… and then hearing him say that he wore the costume only so he could sabotage Uncle Walt.
So although the film’s nominally about the race itself, much of the dialogue actually involves Frankenstein’s role as the race’s iconic hero. His name, after all, borrows from real-life horror iconography, but with a messianic twist: like the monster, he’s (said to be) an ugly assemblage of disparate body parts, yet he’s anything but hated. He’s broken anew during every race (he loses limbs, his navigators die), then stitched up by the start of the next one. He’s Christ rising from the tomb, he’s the Fisher King, he’s T.S. Eliot’s Phlebas the Phoenician. Frankenstein, once a hideous murderer from horror fiction, is now the American people’s hope for eternal life.
This theory is given some credence by an oddly powerful scene in the middle of the movie. While taking a break in St. Louis, Frankenstein is confronted by a teenage girl named Laurie, a member of the Lovers of Frankenstein, and they have this exchange:
Laurie: I wanted to meet you, Mr. Frankenstein. I wanted you to know who I am. So it would have meaning.
Frankenstein: I don’t understand. So what would have meaning?
Laurie: We love you, Mr. Frankenstein. I know just saying it doesn’t mean much.
Frankenstein: Why do you love me? Because I kill people?
Laurie: Scoring isn’t killing, Mr. Frankenstein. It’s part of the race. You’re a national hero, and we want you to know, we’re with you 100%. Good night, Mr. Frankenstein.
The next day, as the race continues, Frankenstein and Annie spot Laurie standing in the middle of the road, with a gaggle of other girls on the curb taking pictures. Frankenstein scores her and drives on. Annie asks, “Why did she do that?” and Frankenstein answers, “Show me she loves me.”
This scene speaks so much to the nature of fame and fandom. Everyone may love Frankenstein, but Laurie sacrifices herself to give him additional points. Her sacrifice, accompanied by classical music played on a synthesizer, has an ethereal quality; it proves that even with something as crass, violent, and pointless as the race, someone can find real love and meaning in it. Laurie probably hasn’t known a time without the race, so it’s all she really has to believe in, and her sacrifice lets her enter into Frankenstein’s cycle of death and rebirth. Everyone needs something to believe in, and if necessary, they’ll forge their own belief system out of whatever’s available.
Another testimony to Frankenstein’s symbolic power comes from the reporter Junior at the end of the film, when the race has been declared abolished. He protests, “Sure, [the race] is violent, but that’s the way we love it! Violent, violent, violent! And that’s why we love you!” The race is a political distraction, but it’s more than that. It’s a condensation of all sports and phallic metaphors into one competition and five cars. It’s an American monomyth, played out each year for the same reason as the Super Bowl or the World Series: not to see who wins, but just to see the game. It’s the same channel for aggression as 1984‘s Two Minutes’ Hate.
I don’t want to give the impression that Death Race 2000 is nothing but sophisticated social commentary. It’s still a wacky ’70s B-movie starring David Carradine, with its share of comical dismemberments, crude sex jokes, and amazingly dated fashion statements. But this is the miracle of Corman-trained filmmakers: working with minuscule budgets and restrictive schedules, they could turn out cheap-looking yet intellectually fierce movies. Paul Bartel never quite broke into the mainstream, but I still think he knew what he was doing just as well as Scorsese, Bogdanovich, James Cameron, or any of the other auteurs who started out with Corman. (Also note that Death Race‘s director of photography, Tak Fujimoto, had worked on Terence Malick’s Badlands and would go on to collaborate with Jonathan Demme on numerous films, including Silence of the Lambs.)
So although the film has its share of dumb vulgarity, and occasionally undermines its own intelligence with self-contradictory nonsense, it’s nonetheless a self-consciously over-the-top work of legitimate satire. In many ways, it reminds me of William Klein’s politically volatile superhero spoof Mr. Freedom (1968), though I think Death Race is substantially less pretentious and funnier. It’s a film that’s content to let nuggets of serious wisdom and feeling lie awkwardly cradled between explosions and broad comedy. It ends on just such a peculiarly incongruous note, after the marriage of Annie and “Mr. President Frankenstein,” with a voiceover that sounds like it’s from an anthropological documentary: “Yes, murder was invented even before man began to think. Now, of course, man has become known as the thinking animal…”
This ominous conclusion exemplifies much of what I love about Death Race: how the filmmakers were willing to throw in all kinds of enigmatic tangents that we don’t expect under the auspices of a supposedly bad, cheap movie. After all, like Shakespeare’s wise fools, sometimes cheap movies get away with statements that a blockbuster could never risk. So there’s my defense of Death Race 2000. Do you have any opinions on the film, Paul Bartel, or Corman? Do you love Frankenstein?
[Note: Having just recently written about Splice and It’s Alive, I feel like I’m accidentally documenting Frankenstein‘s influence on horror/sci-fi cinema. Maybe I am.]