“Machine Gun Joe, thousands love him. Millions hate him,” intones the announcer Junior Bruce while introducing Sylvester Stallone’s invulnerable character in Roger Corman’s dystopian cult race movie Death Race 2000. The same was being said about Donald Trump in the run-up to his presidential upset in 2016. Yes, it was also being said about his competition, the former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, but she didn’t have a reality TV show and she was ultimately fired. Corman and his indomitable American International Pictures called all this back in 1975, before there was even The Gong Show. The legendary filmmaker spoke with Den of Geek about the pileup that awaits.
Death Race 2000 was a prescient satirical look into a future when satire wasn’t our everyday norm. The country is ruled by a wacky despot who likes things big and fast. The world’s media is captivated by the Miss America-contestant-worthy presidential aides, the country is experiencing a perennial rebound and reality TV is so real you just might get run over.
Slightly more than half of America wants to find the off-ramp. Progressives are now cringing at the thought of what kind of apocalyptic future a Trump presidency will usher, when just a few years ago, millenials of all ages and in all districts welcomed the Tracker Venom of surrender. Death Race 2000 was one of the granddaddies to the glut of the dystopian fiction that overwhelm contemporary fiction, but Corman isn’t quick to take the blame.
“It’s been written a number of times that Hunger Games is very similar and may have taken some ideas,” Corman told us in 2017. “I didn’t think that’s true. It is true that Hunger Games is very similar but I think these ideas are in the air and they just came up with a similar idea a little bit later.”
Violent entertainment goes “all the way back to the gladiatorial games and the bread and circus of the Romans,” Corman said. But while most races are about speed, in Death Race 2000, it’s the journey and the collateral damage that puts that ornament on the hood.
“I started out with simply the fact that this was a futuristic car-racing picture where drivers try to knock each other off the road,” Corman said. “Then the thought came to me: why not have the drivers kill pedestrians and get points from that?”
Drivers get more points for running down pedestrians than they do speed, unless they drive fast enough to ensure a painless death. They get 10 points for a man, 20 for a woman, 40 for a baby, 70 for putting the elderly out their misery, and 100 points for “feebs,” which is the politically correct term for disabled people in the world that followed the World Crash of ’79. Does that sound familiar? We’ve already seen how the President feels about the disabled. This is the world we’re choosing, people. Get ready to ride.
For the competition at the center of the film, they upped the ante. Teenagers pull in 40 points, and toddlers under 12 get 70 points, and anyone over 75 years old is worth 100 points. Stallone’s Machine Gun Joe starts the race off right – pulling in 40 points for running over his own teenage mechanic. The man was a genius. That’s why he was the only survivor besides Frankenstein, played by the late, great David Carradine. His old man, John Carradine, played Count Dracula in The House of Frankenstein and The House of Dracula and David is a credit to his monster predecessors.
Frankenstein the legend is the only two-time winner of the Transcontinental Road Race. Frankenstein the indestructible was the sole survivor of the titanic pile-up of ’95. Carradine’s Frankenstein is ripped up, wiped out, battered, shattered, creamed, and reamed. He is a dancer on the brink of death. Frankenstein lost a leg in 1998 and an arm in 1999. He may only have half a face and half a chest, but he’s got all the guts in the world.
Except for the guts he leaves on America’s highways and by-ways. Road kill ain’t just good eatin’. In the world of Death Race 2000, neo-Nazis are a key demographic and a formidable voting bloc. The film also introduced the concept of minority privilege: A fertile field where anyone would just die to be buried. America’s population is kept in check by their favorite reality competition show. The biggest ratings get the biggest payoffs and reality TV has gotten too real. It’s virtually impossible to satirize the parody when there are too many afflicted to mock.
“The idea of the car racing action film as a black comedy with some social comment, is what makes the picture go,” Corman told us.
Death Race 2000 (1975) was directed by Paul Bartel. The screenplay was written by Robert Thom and Charles Griffith off the short story The Racer by Ib Melchior, who wrote and directed the films The Angry Red Planet (1959), and The Time Travelers (1964) and wrote novels like Code Name: Grand Guignol and The Watchdogs of Abaddon. The short story focuses on the death-race driver’s conscience, not the political call to pull over.
Besides Stallone and Carradine, Death Race 2000 also stars Simone Griffeth as Annie, Frankenstein’s latest navigator. Annie is the great granddaughter of Thomas Paine, the guy who had the common sense to rent battlefields for the American Revolution. She and his other granddaughter, Thomasina Paine (Harriet Medin), lead a rebellion that’s got nothing to do with the alt-right, which misappropriated alt-variety and all the alternative alts that came before 2016. She wants to use her red-hot sexpot wiles to navigate Frankenstein off-road and out of the running. The resistance wants to topple the totalitarian regime that came into power after martial law only pissed people off.
The Resistance airs a pirated national broadcast that the government blames on the French, although they never think of renaming hot potato side dishes Freedom Fries. Did I write potato? It should have been potatoe. They are thwarted in their attempt to sidetrack Frankenstein, but the monster saves the day, as monsters often do. He also gets the girl, Annie, and when Junior Bruce opens his mouth to say why these two shouldn’t be married, Frankenstein runs him over. There’s no quicksand ending for this Frankenstein.
While intellectuals worry that we’re headed headlong into the future that Idiocracy foretold, at best, regular people can look forward to the cool post-Armageddon rides we’re going to mount on our endless quest for sustainable energy. The cars in Death Race 2000 have to be smoking. They are the key to raking up points. Frankenstein drives a Chevrolet Corvette. Machine Gun Joe drives a Manta, customized to fit machine guns on the bonnet. Matilda the Hun drives a VW Karmann Ghia. Nero The Hero drives a Fiat 850 Spider nicknamed the Lion.
The cars are the stars in Death Race 2000 and they have diplomatic immunity. Dystopia may be bad for people, but it’s a great excuse to pimp out your ride. Look at the cars, trucks, and SUVs in the Mad Max movies. Or that crazy armored truck in Demolition Alley. If Donald Trump was elected by the same people who watch Monster Trucks on Ice, or whatever it was that Jesse Pinkman was hooked on in Breaking Bad – love that fucking kid – just imagine what the car of the future will look like. GM and Chrysler are probably even rethinking their plans to make cars beyond whatever wall is coming.