One of the problems with the current glut of comic book movies is that they just aren’t that comic book-y. Sure, all your favorite costumed heroes are there, battling cosmic villains and saving the world time and time again. But it’s tough to shake the feeling that many of these films are faintly embarrassed of their spinner-rack origins, sanding off the more outre edges of the form to mold these characters around the bones of a conventional Hollywood blockbuster. There are exceptions, of course, such as the reliably nutty films of Sam Raimi or James Gunn, but consider Eternals, in which some of Jack Kirby’s most blacklight-trippy designs are translated into interchangeable costumes and matte-black spaceships, or the ill-advisedly “gritty” films of the DC Extended Universe (in retrospect, Iron Man’s decision to translate its hero’s fire-engine red armor into tones more fitting a Subaru Outback was the canary in the coal mine). Don’t worry, these pictures seem to say, we got rid of all that dumb kids stuff!
By contrast, some of my favorite “comic book movies” aren’t based on comic books at all, but rather harness their anything-goes energy to tell original stories: the costumed gangs of The Warriors, the EC/DC mashup of Darkman, the alt-comix perversity of The Toxic Avenger. Then there’s Death Race 2000, one of the most enduring films of b-movie mogul Roger Corman’s ‘70s drive-in era. Death Race 2000 has more colorful costumes and futuristic shenanigans than a year of cape flicks– and, even more importantly, manages to be a genuinely subversive black comedy to boot.
Death Race 2000 tells of a far-flung future (ahem) in which the most popular sport in America is the Transcontinental Road Race, in which five racers travel from New York to “New Los Angeles.” Each racer dons their own flamboyant costume and persona: venal, toga-clad Nero the Hero (Martin Cove); Nazi uberfraulein Matilda the Hun (Roberta Collins); genteel cowgirl Calamity Jane (Warhol superstar-turned-Corman regular Mary Woronov); angst-ridden gangster “Machine Gun” Joe Viterbo (a pre-fame Sylvester Stallone!); and reigning champion Frankenstein (David Carradine), whose full-body gimp suit supposedly hides a mass of unsightly scar tissue and prosthetic limbs. Speed factors into the race, of course, but the racers are really judged by “points” awarded for running over pedestrians– 10 points for an able-bodied man, 40 for an infant, and a cool 100 for an elderly person. The race is presided over by the cultish “Mr. President,” who rules America from his “Summer Palace” in Beijing. But a cell of rebels, led by the matronly Thomasina Paine, are bent on stopping the race and returning power to the people– and they have a sleeper agent in Frankenstein’s navigator.
In case it isn’t clear, Death Race 2000 is essentially a live-action cartoon, albeit one which is in no way made for children. There is an undeniable puerile joy in watching these outlandish hot rods messily score “points” off hapless pedestrians, and each of the kills is a bit of self-contained splatstick comedy; in probably the most famous scene, a nursing home wheels its elderly patients into the street for their annual “Euthenasia Day,” only for Frankenstein to turn the tables by mowing down the doctors and nurses instead. But undergirding these cheap thrills is a gleefully crass media satire which anticipates the dark sci-fi comedies of Paul Verhoeven, from its Greek chorus of sportscasters who enthusiastically tally the kills to its hilariously corrupt vision of the future US government (credit is here due to screenwriter Charles B. Griffith, who penned Corman’s beloved early black comedies A Bucket of Blood and The Little Shop of Horrors). Inevitably, the film received a more serious-minded reboot in 2008, but, with apologies to the Hassle’s resident Paul W.S. Anderson scholar Josh Polanski, I’ve never been able to bring myself to watch it; remaking Death Race 2000 as a straight action thriller has always seemed to me akin to reimagining Duck Soup as a gritty war epic.
Roger Corman’s b-movie factory has become legendary as a sort of cinematic boot camp for future stars, and Death Race 2000 is no exception. Director Paul Bartel went on to hone his satirical vision in such droll arthouse comedies as Eating Raoul (in which he co-starred opposite Woronov) and Scenes from the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills. Cinematographer Tak Fujimoto would continue to work with fellow Corman alum Jonathan Demme on nearly a dozen films (including The Silence of the Lambs and Philadelphia), and his work here is genuinely eye-popping. Then, of course, there’s Sylvester Stallone. Stallone was at this point in his career mostly playing extras and heavies, but his persona here is already remarkably fully formed, to the extent that he almost seems to be doing a parody of himself. Some of the film’s funniest bits are Machine Gun Joe’s seemingly improvised rants to his navigator as he debates whether to take a shortcut or circle back to hit an onlooker (“Should I do it? I’d be a schmuck to do it! I’m doin’ it! I ain’t no schmuck!”). A year later, Rocky would propel Sylvester Stallone out of Corman’s price range once and for all; I imagine more than a few drive-in devotees must have predicted his ascent on the strength of this performance.
Make no mistake: this is a 1970s Roger Corman production, and as such it is an unabashed exploitation film. The bare flesh is as gratuitous as the violence (for reasons never quite made clear, all of the drivers’ TV interviews are conducted fully nude while receiving massages from attractive members of the opposite sex), and some gags– I am here looking squarely at Matilda the Hun and her navigator, Herman the German– would absolutely not fly today. But if Death Race 2000 is trash, then it’s really great trash. I first encountered it in high school while channel-surfing late at night, and its mix of snotty humor and not-quite-mindless violence felt like manna beaming directly into my fevered teenage mind. Films this audacious and brashly funny were rare at the drive-ins of 1975, and they’re even rarer in the multiplexes of today. In a world of superhero films, Death Race 2000 is a comic book movie– in the best possible sense of the word.
Death Race 2000
dir. Paul Bartel
Screens Friday, 5/26, 10:00pm @ Cinema Salem
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