Today I watched Paul Bartel’s Death Race 2000 (1975)
In the distant future of the year 2000 America has become a totalitarian, violence obsessed nation, whose populace is controlled by obscene sporting events, not unlike reality. In this world the greatest sports spectacle of all is the Transcontinental Death Race, a three day race the goes from New York to New L.A. in which racers can score points by hitting and killing pedestrians. Cult film superstar David Carradine plays the reigning champion Frankenstein, a mysterious driver clad in black leather which apparently covers a body that has been broken and put back together more times than anyone can remember. Not everyone in this futuristic dystopia is happy with the races though and a group of rebels are planning to launch an attack, furthered by their placement of an agent as Frankenstein’s navigator. So while the race plays out for all the adoring fans at home, another conflict rages beneath the surface as the rebels try desperately to disrupt the operations of the authority’s race celebrations, but whose side is Frankenstein really on?
This classic of social satire delivered in wonderfully bad taste, really is something to behold. The low budget action spectacle is like a live action Wacky Races with extra sleaze. This film fits into a particular ideology that I have been looking for in films recently, that of the liberating weird. In this film the government and those in power are most certainly bad guys but the resistance is not portrayed as being much better, they are a bunch of goofs! Really the only figure to put any faith in is Frankenstein, this strange man of few words dressed up like a gimp. This continues a trend I have been looking for in films recently, that of the liberating power of the weird. What is a literary hero after all but one who doesn’t conform to the norm of the background characters? Though unlike normal heroes, these liberated strange are more like an anti-everyman, relatably unrelatable.
This idea of an anti-everyman is all over cult cinema, the creators of which are often pretty unrelatable themselves, and I think there are few better actors at portraying this than David Carradine. The guy just exudes an aura of strange magnetism, especially during his earlier career when he helped define the 70’s hard man after his stint as a half Chinese martial artist on television and a sense of unknowable exoticism (despite him not being exotic in any way) has followed him everywhere. This film is a great starting point for both B and cult movies and also for David Carradine, it is a masterpiece of cinematic strange. An artifact of pure pulp kitsch with way more going on than some would care to admit, it is truly deserving of the cult legend it has cultivated. 5/5