Death Race 2000, by Paul Bartel, 1975
I love the way Roger Corman worked. He would give his writers and directors near total freedom to make the movie they wanted within the parameters he assigned them. He might give them a title and a star they had to use, and they had to include a certain amount of violence and nudity (these were exploitation movies, after all), but the rest of the decisions were up to them. Sure, he brought a lot of garbage into the world. Some of that garbage is totally watchable, but a lot of it isn't. And every once in a while, he would give us a true gem. Paul Bartel's action packed satire Death Race 2000 is one such gem.
In a future totalitarian state (in the year 2000, naturally), the government holds a violent race, as a means to keep the masses in check. The object of the race is to drive across the country in souped up cars, earning points along the way by running over civilians (extra points for children!). The champion and star of the Death Race is Frankenstein (David Carradine), a mysterious masked driver who finds himself in the middle of an underground resistance's attempts to assassinate the dictator, AKA Mr. President.
Death Race 2000 is over-the-top, ridiculous, full of gratuitous violence and nudity, and very, very funny. Carradine is great as Frankenstein, and a pre-Rocky Sylvester Stallone also stars as his rival, Machine Gun Joe Viterbo. Paul Bartel at his best (this and Eating Raoul in particular) was a sharp and witty satirist, and with Death Race 2000, he's giving the moviegoing audience exactly what they need to satisfy their bloodlust, just like the spectators of the Death Race itself. At the same time, he's maybe getting some of his more observant audience members to question that bloodlust. So maybe that violence and nudity isn't all gratuitous after all. OK, it's still pretty gratuitous.
There's also a bit of a subtle feminist message in there, just by having male and female racers on equal ground and no attention being drawn to that fact. Sure there's also plenty of nudity that might negate that message, but as I said before, including the nudity was part of the deal, and Bartel did try to throw in some male nudity to balance things out a little.
Death Race 2000 is a whole lot of fun, and with some great social commentary that was maybe even a bit ahead of its time. I was thinking a great double feature might be to partner this with Albert Brooks' hilarious 1979 mockumentary, Real Life, which basically predicts reality TV a good two decades before it blew up. OR, if you want to keep the violence coming, you could partner it with...
Robocop, by Paul Verhoeven, 1987
Yes, this is the perfect double feature partner for Death Race 2000. Another hyper-violent science fiction super-satire, Paul Verhoeven's 1987 classic Robocop gives us a near future run by corporate interests and crime lords. It's scarily prescient and in some ways may be even more relevant today than it was in 1987.
In a run-down future Detroit, a huge corporation called Omni Consumer Products has its eyes on replacing the police force with its own robotic force. When a prototype for a giant crimestopping machine called ED-209 malfunctions, another plan goes into place, one to convert a cop, recently murdered in the line of duty, into a cybernetic killing machine. That cop is Murphy (Peter Weller), a good man, with a wife and a son. Murphy must then overcome the programming his corporate overlords imbued in him, and rediscover his own humanity in order to bring peace to the streets of Detroit.
I had seen parts of Robocop here and there, but this was my first time watching the movie from beginning to end. The violence is excessive to the point of being downright comedic, and if Verhoeven's intent with that wasn't evident, the hilarious interstitial news reports and commercials woven into the narrative should make it clear. He's using the violence to make a point.
Something that really stood out about Robocop for me was the fact that, besides all the extremely horrific content, it still feels like a kids movie. Robocop's even got a little kid he wants to impress with his gun twirling skills. It's hilarious to think that in the 80's this actually would have been marketed towards kids. There were surely action figures and everything. I remember Robocop toys when I was young, but I don't remember if they were for this or the sequels.
Anyway, Robocop is great. Peter Weller is great, too, though I will always prefer Buckaroo Banzai over this role. I love the stop motion animation of the ED-209 and the animatronics and all the other effects, too. I don't know what took me so long to watch this movie. Both of these movies, really. Watch em watch em watch em!