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Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Movie Review: DEATH RACE 2000


"Even the fearsome Frankenstein has a one-hundred percent red-blooded American sense of humor."
-- Harold

Death Race 2000 is a 1975 B movie action film directed by Paul Bartel that presents a strange dystopian future. After a massive financial meltdown and a military takeover, the United States has transformed into the United Provinces of America, a land where church and state have become one entity, and the government has become all-powerful. To satiate the mass public's hunger, a series of horrifically exciting sporting events takes place throughout the year, and the centerpiece of these events is the Annual Transcontinental Road Race, more commonly known as the "Death Race." Each year, five racers make their way across the country in the hopes of reaching New Los Angeles first. Along the way, they are awarded points for mercilessly killing any innocent bystanders they might pass by. In the film's race, two-time winner Frankenstein (David Carradine) is back to defend his title, but he'll have stiff competition from the likes of Machine Gun Joe Viterbo (Sylvester Stallone) who's ready to take home the crown once again. Little do the racers know that a group of anti-government rebels has set out to stop the race once and for all.

When I was a child growing up in the early 1990s, I can distinctly remember my aunt making a number of crude jokes about scoring points for hitting pedestrians along the side of the street. The number of points would vary from person to person, but I can recall my fear as I pleaded with her not to take such action. Now, I may just be reading into it, but I would say there's a distinct possibility she may have gotten such an idea from Death Race 2000, which employs a similar strategy for the racers. At the time, I obviously didn't know that such a film existed, but after the release of the 2008 remake Death Race, this source film came into my consciousness. And now, I've finally had the opportunity to take in this cult classic.

To start, I would like to remind everyone that this is, in fact, a B movie. For those of you who aren't quite sure what that means, I'll offer you this definition from Wikipedia:
A B movie is a low-budget commercial motion picture that is not definitively an arthouse or pornographic film. 
In a sense, the "B movie" genre just refers to any film that might not be entirely mainstream or big-budget. They're usually aesthetically pleasing but offer little in terms of screenplay or acting, but at the same time, many B movies manage to garner quite a cult following. Death Race 2000 falls into that category, and it has been praised by many as one of the more entertaining B movies ever made.

The storyline actually offers an interesting look at a fictional future where the government has become so powerful that it completely keeps the public at bay. In a way, they use their graphic sporting events like the Annual Transcontinental Road Race to instill fear into the hearts of the people, reassuring them that the government is still in charge. Throughout the films, it almost seems like we have two separate stories moving forward. On one side, we have the race itself, which proves to be the more entertaining half of the film. One the other hand, we have the story of the resistance trying to stop the race and bring down the government. Where the screenplay truly succeeds, however, is in the blend of these two stories. When they finally come together, it proves to be a clever twist that was only slightly expected. For that, I think the film should be applauded. The script also succeeds in crafting interesting and relatable characters that the audience can cheer for or against readily. There's a clear sense of right and wrong, even when the characters bounce from side to side.

I also think we're getting a rather splendid cast. Although the actors seem to be a bit over-the-top, I think that's more a telling sign of the genre rather than their ability. Carradine turns in a fine performance as our lead, bringing a steady presence to the screen. Simone Griffeth plays opposite Carradine as his navigator Annie Smith. She brings a decent performance as a woman whose allegiances are constantly suspect. We're getting an entertainingly fascinating turn by a pre-Rocky Sly Stallone, who works as one of the film's main antagonists. Sure, it's just a lot of anger and screaming, but within the constructs of this film, it works wonderfully. The rest of the racers are portrayed by Mary Woronov, Roberta Collins and Martin Kove (whom you might recognize from 1984's The Karate Kid), and they all bring decent performances. I also wanted to give credit to Don Steele, who portrays the race's announcer, for being perfectly annoying in his part.

(Fun fact: Carradine reprised his role as Frankenstein - in a vocal cameo - in the 2008 remake.)

At the end of the day, Death Race 2000 is a fun-filled, silly adventure into a fictional dystopian landscape. It offers plenty of action, explosions and gore, and it's sure to have you rolling with laughter. It's miles ahead of the 2008 remake, so do yourself a favor and give this one a view first. Don't think too much about this one, though. Just sit back and enjoy the ride (pun intended).

Movie Review Summary
Grade: B
Should You Watch It? Yes

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