Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
"LAST OF THE MONSTER KIDS" - Available Now on the Amazon Kindle Marketplace!

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Director Report Card: Paul Bartel (1975)

2. Death Race 2000

A lot of famous future directors came out of the Roger Corman / New World Pictures factory: Peter Bogdanovich, Joe Dante, Jonathan Demme, Coppola, James Cameron, Ron Howard, etc. Out of all those directors, Paul Bartel is probably one of the less well-known. Which is a shame because, not only was he a fine director, but his output for New World was some of his best. “Death Race 2000” stands above as the definitive Paul Bartel movie.

The premise is pure drive-in punch-line brilliance. In the far-off future date of 2000, America has become a crazy dystopian society, ruled over by a quasi-cult leader like, The President, who perches love while blaming all of the world’s problems on outside countries. What is the opiate of the people, that keeps the masses in line with such dictatorial rule?: Death Race! A cross-country race in which no one is safe, not the drivers, and especially not the pedestrians.

Sounds like pretty dark and grim stuff, right? Here’s the thing, “Death Race 2000” plays it all for laughs. It’s the comic book parody version of not only the death sport concept, but of many aspects of American society in general. The movie is a rich satire of America’s love of violence. Points are awarded for each pedestrian run down, with the elderly and infants being worth the most, and women of any age being worth double! Keep in mind, “Death Race 2000” predates ultra-violent video games and reality television. The movie is knowingly absurd.

Each one of the drivers have a personal gimmicks, like professional wrestlers, with themes ranging from cowboy to Nazi. People gleefully volunteer for their favorite drivers, throwing themselves to the cars or even playing matador with one of the vehicles. Brainless media personalities like the appropriately named Grace Pander or The Real Don Steele, essentially as himself, report slavishly on the race, talking about the murder and mayhem in strictly sports-talk style. An underground resistance group, who themselves talk in jingoistic Americana speech, are attempting to derail and destroy the race. Their methods, which include bombs, mines, motorcycles, and a bomber jet, are indistinguishable from terrorism. The attacks are blamed by the President on the French army. Hell, a religious figure even gets cavalierly ran down. Nobody is spared by the Death Race. While all of this is obviously cartoonish in nature, honestly, in today’s era, it doesn’t seem too out-there. “Death Race 2000,” with its strictly broad intentions, ends up being kind-of close, in tone, if not actuality.

This is fine stuff, obviously, if you go for it. But what really makes the movie work for me is its cast of characters. The five racers all fit a clear role. Nero the Hero, with his navigator Cleopatra, driving the Lion, is based from gladiator tropes and fills the role of the has-been, screw-up driver. Martin Kove plays the part as a lisping homosexual fairy. Matilda the Hun drives the Nazi-themed car, the Buzz-Bomber, with her ironically nebbish navigator, Herman the German. Matilda is, obviously, the most abrasive and obnoxious of the group, determined to up-stage the rest of the racers and win for Aryan ideals. Roberta Collins has great fun playing off the rest of the cast.

Calamity Jane, driving the horned Bull, is by far the snarkiest and most entertaining of the drivers. She’s cocky, sarcastic, but also the most intelligent of the drivers. Played by the great Mary Woronov, in her first collaboration with Paul Bartel, Jane is certainly the scrappiest of the group. I love the sequence of her fighting off the Resistance attackers, jumping onto her car from motorcycles. Woronov plays the whole role with a sardonic twinkle in her eye. She’s in on the joke but is fully committed to creating this highly memorable character.

That’s really all window-dressing though. The main characters of the film are Frankenstein, his navigator, and Machine Joe Viterbo. Frankenstein is the nation’s hero. He’s been in so many Death Races, has survived so many gruesome car wrecks, that he is now supposedly more machine then man. Played by David Carradine, right off his “Kung-Fu” run, Frankenstein cuts an intimidating figure in an S&M-style leather suit, a deformed face peeking through the mask and Darth Vader-like helmet. Carradine plays the part as a heartless bad ass, initially, somebody who kills because it’s his duty. However, as the movie goes on, the character evolves. He’s not deformed, he's not the original Frankenstein, and he’s got motives of his own. I wouldn’t call it a great performance but it’s an incredibly entertaining one. Frankenstein, if nothing else, is an iconic grindhouse hero. It’s maybe my favorite Carradine role.

Frankenstein’s navigator, Annie, is played by the very attractive Simone Griffeth. Griffeth and Carradine have great chemistry together. Their back-and-forth definitely forms the backbone of the movie. Machine Joe Viterbo, played by Sly Stallone on the brink of stardom, is Frankenstein’s main rival for the Death Race title. He’s a grease-head gangster, an asshole, almost homoerotically fixated on defeating Frankenstein, and a wonderfully funny villain for the film.

The production design of the movie, despite its tiny budget, is honestly pretty impressive. Early on, we see a painfully bad mat-painting of a futuristic city-scape. After that, the movie sticks to scenic road views. The money obviously went to the five cars. They are so cool, man. The Monster, Frankenstein’s car, is a green, dinosaur looking thing. For a horror fan, I can’t imagine a cooler set of wheels. (Except for maybe Christine. Or The Car.) The rest of the cars are pretty awesome. In particular, I like the Bull, armed out with horns and a nose-ring, and the Buzz-Bomber, designed to look like a cross between a Panzer tank and a V4 rocket. Machine Gun Joe’s car, with a giant switchblade and two-machine guns mounted on the hood, is maybe the only design that goes too silly. The costume design, though also done very cheaply, is impressive too. Each character's personality easily shows in their outfits.

As only his second film, Paul Bartel hadn’t really show any strength or interest in action direction. But, make no mistake, “Death Race 2000” is a bad ass action flick. There are some inventive camera shots, mounted from the front of or the side of the cars. The sequence where Frankenstein outruns a jet fighter is the best action scene in the movie. The climatic struggle between Frankenstein and Machine Gun Joe is impressive as well. The action is powered by Paul Chihara’s varied, funky score. The movie is full-speed ahead and is almost completely action.

Except for the brief pit stop scenes. This is a ‘70s exploitation movie after all. These scenes indulge heavily in gratuitous T&A. Our characters stop, rest, eat, get massages, but its all mostly a story device so some sex scenes can be introduced into the film. Because what's violence without a little sex thrown in? The female drivers and navigators lay on the massage tables, totally in the buff. (The males are at least covered with towels.) Carradine and Griffeth's are at their best here. I especially like the moment where he leaves his fetishistic Frankenstein mask on during the love making. Oh yeah, of course, the nudity and sex is completely unnecessary. But I can’t say it doesn’t add to the enjoyment of the film. In addition to Griffenth and Woronov, I have to mention Louisa Moritz, another buxom blonde all too willing to shed her clothes.

Apparently, when Paul Bartel submitted this film to Roger Cormon, the producer was disappointed by the lack of blood in the film. Some nasty gore shots where hastily inserted. We get a crotch slammed across a giant knife. A head is crushed under a spinning tire, blood spraying into the air. There’s more too, of course. These shots are obviously inserted, pretty roughly, but it just adds to the flavor of the film. It wouldn’t be Death Race without some bloody death, after all.

The movie wraps up on a hilariously ironic note. The Government of United Provinces could have learned a lesson from the same year’s fellow blood sport flick, “Rollerball.” One player should never be bigger then the game, after all. The epilogue, in which things get changed and Don Steele delivers the iconic line, “Death Race is America!,” couldn’t better sum up the exploitative, smart-ass tone of the movie. So, yeah, I love this movie. It’s got just about everything you could want in 1970s drive-in/grindhouse cinema. Check it out. [Grade: A-]

1 comment:

Sean Catlett said...

I saw this years ago and may have been under the influence of narcotics at the time (woops) and that still didn't do much to increase my enjoyment of the film. That all but cements my reputation as a hard-to-please asshole. I should really give it another chance... the "hand-grenade" type gag works in Aylett novels so why not in a movie?