Mom, Me and Death Race 2000 (1975)

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To view Death Race 2000 click here.

When I was a kid, probably thirteen or fourteen, my mom and I would often spend Friday nights staying up late watching television. We would watch Letterman and weird infomercials. Sometimes we would catch a late-night movie—like The Birds (1963), or the utterly ridiculous made-for-TV movie The Boy in the Plastic Bubble (1976). Then there was the romantic drama Violets Are Blue (1986), which would keep us up no matter how late it was on. Mom and I would be hooked-in because of Kevin Kline and Sissy Spacek, two of our favorite actors. But we would quickly remember the film as a godawful mess. Of course, we’d watch it anyway, and laugh at the chewed scenery and Bonnie Bedelia’s character serving gazpacho. Mom would often tell me about bizarre cult films that she saw in the 1970s, hoping that we might stumble upon them during our weekly Friday night channel surfing. There were two films that she always talked about: one was Jack Hill’s Switchblade Sisters (1975), starring Joanne Nail. Mom first saw it at a drive-in when she lived (and partied) in Daytona Beach, Florida. The second was Death Race 2000 (1975), produced by the King of the B movies, the great Roger Corman, and directed by Paul Bartel (who also has a brief cameo), which she first saw on HBO in the network’s early years, in the summer of 1976. Of the two, Death Race 2000 was the most fascinating to her, and still is, and she’d joke with me about the film’s sanctioned vehicular homicide and humorous point system. “Children and old folks are worth the most points,” she’d say, as I was first learning how to drive.

We never did find Switchblade Sisters or Death Race 2000, either on television or at the video store, and since this was long before any sort of on-demand or streaming technology, I just had to wait. In the age of 24/7 access and instant gratification, sometimes it’s so hard to remember how long we had to wait. I tell this to my six-year-old daughter all the time. We recently introduced her to the Back to the Future trilogy (1985, 1989, 1990). We watched the first two films back-to-back, but when we told her we would have to wait a few days before watching the third and final film, she became impatient. My husband and I told her that we had to wait an entire year before we were able to see the series conclusion when it was originally released in theaters. Our explanation was met with great puzzlement, as if she was thinking, “Waiting? What’s that? Couldn’t you just order it on Amazon?”

Death Race 2000 (1975)  Directed by Paul Bartel Shown: David Carradine

It wasn’t until my early twenties that I finally managed to find both Switchblade Sisters and Death Race 2000, thanks to an awesome independent video store in West Lafayette, Indiana. (The last I heard, the store is still alive and kicking.) When I popped Death Race into the VCR, my expectations were high; years of my mom’s hilarious recollections of this film were about to be finally realized. A quick 80 minutes later and I was a fan. Cult king David Carradine, on the heels of his successful television series Kung Fu (1972-1975), and a year before his brilliant performance as Woody Guthrie in Bound for Glory (1976), stars as the enigmatic racer Frankenstein, national hero and poster boy for the annual Transcontinental Road Race. Frankenstein is equal parts sexy and dangerous in a skin-tight leather bodysuit, and handles his spikey race car like he handles his women: long and steady, with quick precision. Also starring is Sylvester Stallone, then a struggling actor, in a hilarious caricature of many of the roles he would play later on in his career. Of course, a year after this film’s release, Stallone became famous for his film Rocky (1976). The dark humor in Death Race 2000, like the points system for running over innocent pedestrians and the odd accusation that France is to blame for America’s destroyed telephone system, coupled with the dystopian setting was appealing to me, especially since I was very active in political and social causes at the time. That might seem a bit odd to say, but once you looked beneath the layers of camp and red tempera paint-looking gore, there is a pretty serious commentary on the dangers of an all-too powerful government, an intrusive and reality-obsessed media and pervasive and entrenched singular thought.

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While there are countless great cult films, including personal favorites like Russ Meyer’s Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970), Lee Frost’s The Thing with Two Heads (1972) and John Waters’s Female Trouble (1974), Death Race 2000 is quite possibly the greatest B picture ever made. With the film recently added to the Criterion Channel on FilmStruck for a limited engagement, I decided I was long overdue for a re-watch of this cult classic. It’s still a hilarious, campy romp, but also eerily prescient, especially considering our obsession with so-called reality programming and our current political climate both here in the states and globally. But mainly it’s just a really fun movie filled with fast cars, half-naked women, Roger Corman’s signature gore and a great cast in Carradine and Stallone. And you better believe I called my mom after this re-watch.

Jill Blake

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3 Responses Mom, Me and Death Race 2000 (1975)
Posted By Doug : July 15, 2017 9:53 am

Another case of ‘Doug’s arrested development’. I may have heard the name “Death Race 2000″ when it was still fresh and new, but it remained only a name until the late 1980′s when I bought a secondhand VCR and was able to rent tapes. There was no “Drive In” theater anywhere close to where I grew up, so all such Corman treasures were unknown to me in my teens.
What I remember of “DR2K” (aside from Simone Griffeth) is Carradine’s quiet presence; the eye of the storm, so to speak, amid all the crazy action. As Jill mentioned, Carradine had just just come from the show “Kung Fu” and that persona was still part of him.
By the time I saw the film Stallone was ruling the box office-it was funny to see him in a minor role.
Thank you, Jill, for this post of a fun film which obviously is streaming on Filmstruck.
Still haven’t succumbed to streaming. As much as I love movies, I prefer to have them sitting on my shelves as having been bought rather than rented. If I saw something wonderful great on Filmstruck, I would probably end up buying it anyway.

Posted By George : July 15, 2017 2:51 pm

“Death Race 2000 is quite possibly the greatest B picture ever made.”

Better than DETOUR?

I saw DEATH RACE 2000 at a drive-in when it was released, in 1975. It was probably one of the first R-rated movies I saw. (I was under 18, but they never checked IDs at the drive-in.) I loved its satire then and I love it now that I have it on DVD.

I’ve read that Bartel wanted the movie to be more satirical, but Corman cut some of the humor and added more gore. Roger knew the drive-in audience. It’s still obvious that the movie was not to be taken seriously.

Is Filmstruck going to stream its 1976 followup, CANNONBALL, also directed by Bartel and starring Carradine, and with cameos by Stallone, Corman and Martin Scorsese? I saw that one at a drive-in, too.

Posted By Robert : July 16, 2017 5:41 pm

In Canada how films were classified varied from one province to another, and growing up in British Columbia allowed me the benefit of seeing plenty of films that had been branded with the “R” rating in the U.S. but skated by as all-ages “Mature” in BC courtesy of a Censor who seemed to tackle the job in a very relaxed fashion. DEATH RACE 2000 carried a warning of “frequent scenes of brutal violence” but still went out as “Mature”, so I saw it during a 1976 return engagement at my local cinema. I was all of nine, having seen the movie advertised on television and being very aware of Mr. Carradine’s connection to KUNG FU. My parents dropped me off at the cinema and picked me up after the move ended, and on the next school day I was raving to my friends about all of this gonzo material I’d just experienced. When DEATH RACE first played the local in 1975 it was on a double feature with another New World offering, TIDAL WAVE but when it returned several months later in 1976 our cinema had been turned into a twin screen; DEATH RACE 2000 ran on one side and the Mexican disaster film SURVIVE! played in the other auditorium.

During the remainder of the 1970s I was fortunate enough to catch a number of the other New World titles at the same cinema: EAT MY DUST, CANNONBALL, GRAND THEFT AUTO, and ROCK N’ ROLL HIGH SCHOOL (on a double feature with HOMETOWN U.S.A>). It was a very different era of film making and also one that was extremely entertaining to be an audience member for. In 1988 I was attending the annual Vancouver Film Festival and was standing in line for popcorn when I glance over at the adjacent lineup and see Paul Bartel standing there. He had a film titled OUT COLD at the festival but on this day he was just another audience member, and just the sight of him instantly transported me back to those days of New World Pictures output landing on the local screen for a few days.

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