It occurred to me recently that I have been writing a lot about movies I first saw when I was a kid; there is probably some deep psychological reason for this. I saw these things on TV, on the paltry two stations available to me, until an ABC affiliate opened up in the mid-sixties. The same deep psychological reason causes me, for a while, to leap forward to the second great Bad Film Venue of my life: the drive-in theater*.
In my teens, the decline of the drive-in theater had begun, but was not far advanced; practically every town of any size had at least one, and in my case, three, if you counted the Skyway Twins' screens separately. The sound was wretched, the mosquitoes plentiful, the picture murky, but one did not go to drive-ins to see quality. One did not go to the drive-in to see Barry Lyndon or Gone With The Wind. One went to see Student Nurses, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Torso, House of Dark Shadows, Zombie, Blood Beach, Inframan....and Death Race 2000, probably one of the finer drive-in pieces to come from the House of Corman, combining as it does car chases, explosions, sex, entirely gratuitous violence, and owing to director Paul (Eating Raoul) Bartel, some genuine wit and comedy.
It is the year 2000 (duh), twenty-one years after "The World Crash of '79", and the biggest bread-and-circus sporting event for the masses is the Transcontinental Road Race, where five racers and their navigators jump into heavily-customized cars and charge from New York Memorial Stadium to New L.A., the former seat of government. In a grisly expansion of the sick joke we used to play while driving, the TRR doubles as population control, with women of child-bearing age worth 10 points, teens 40, children under twelve 70, and folks over 75 a whopping 100 points.
The racers themselves are perforce larger than life, with names like blonde Nazi Matilda the Hun (Roberta Collins), narcissistic Nero the Hero (Martin Kove), cowgirl Calamity Jane (the ever-exquisite Mary Woronov), Chicago gangster Machine Gun Joe Viterbo (Sylvester Stallone! young actor alert!) and the most popular (and oldest surviving) Transcontinental Racer, Frankenstein (David Carradine), winner of the two previous races.
Mr. President (Sandy McCallum) starts the race in a remote broadcast from his winter palace in Peking, and the Race is underway, but with several hitches, the biggest being that the American Resistance Party (under the leadership of Thomasina Paine, no less) is attempting to end the Race forever by kidnapping Frankenstein. To that end, they have placed Thomasina's granddaughter, Annie (Simone Griffeth) as Frankenstein's navigator.
The rebels blow up Nero with a booby-trapped baby doll, and send Matilda over a cliff using the old Wile E. Coyote detour-sign-leading-to-a-fake-tunnel-and- a-cliff-beyond-that trick. Frankenstein sees through Annie's subterfuge pretty easily, but lets her stay on, even lying to the President's goons to cover her tracks. It seems Frankenstein's dedication to the Race has a similar goal: during his last limb transplant, he had a bomb implanted into his right hand ("It's a hand grenade," Carradine deadpans). Mr. President always shakes hands with the winner.
Having given away that particular plot point, I'm going to let the rest of the storyline lie, since Death Race 2000 is one of those movies where the little bits, the discoveries one makes along the way is what makes the film so enjoyable. The plot itself would seem stretched at an hour; a fair amount of the movie is taken up with what happens around the Race - tough guys playing chicken with the cars, nursing homes wheeling their patients out onto the street (with Frankenstein taking a quick turn into the doctors and nurses, bypassing the oldsters), and an oddly touching moment when a Frankenstein fan offers herself up as a sacrifice to her hero. These bits do better than simply fill time, they lend the movie a certain identity above it's tawdry premise.
But not too far above, as Death Race remains a drive-in film, and a mid-70's drive-in film at that. The navigators are always the opposite gender of the racer, and are expected to perform as their sexual partners, too. This, and the nude rub-downs given to them at each stop along the way, supply us with our requisite portion of T-and-A during the proceedings (a fun thing to do is try to catch this flick on TNT some late night and watch them go crazy with digital zooms, trying to crop the naughty bits out of this segment). Things go boom with great regularity (even a car that has the misfortune to flip over once. Perhaps it was a modified Pinto), and Carradine beats the crap out of Stallone, insuring this is a movie Sly probably doesn't put on his resume.
Stallone makes a fairly good dumb-as-a-bag-of-hammers bad guy...Sly does get slammed every time he tries to use it, but he's got a fairly good comic touch. Best line, after his navigator/moll has landed a pretty good insult: "Myra, some people might think you're cute, but I happen to think you're a very large baked potato." Read it out loud in your best Stallone. It'll be funnier.
The rest of the cast is far better than they need to be. From the other racers to a Greek chorus of three newscasters who keep us abreast on what is happening in the race (and provide us with a few peeks into how this alternate universe works), the cast works, and works well. This film was obviously a blast to make, and that enjoyment shows.
Such was nearly not the case. Legend has it that Corman wanted an absolutely straight movie off the central concept, but Bartel saw the absurdity of said concept and ran with it, and a good thing, too. Corman got his straight treatment in the sequel-but-not-really and highly lamentable Deathsport. One day, when I am feeling really masochistic, I will watch that one again, too , and share my pain with you. (Deathsport was also seen at a drive-in. The second feature, Dracula's Dog, was much better. If that tells you anything.) Though the low budget shows through the cracks much of the time, Bartel did an amazing job working within the constraints given him, providing interesting imagery when he couldn't afford pure spectacle. And to say that all the race footage looks extremely boss would be to stress the obvious.
One line that I have carried with me all these years: Mr. President claims that there are no American rebels, but all the dirty work is the fault of "The treacherous French! Who crippled our once-great economy and wrecked our telephone system!"
Thing is, in France, this movie would probably be regarded as Art. And for once, I'd have to agree with them*.