Death Race 2000: Where you get more points for running over infirm people.
Ever been driving behind a really slow group of bicyclers and someone said that they’ll give you $15 if you hit them? Welcome to the concept of Death Race 2000. Replete with maximum campiness and a dose of violence exploitation, Death Race 2000 is a B movie from 1975 that refuses to go stale. Starring David Carradine and Sylvester Stallone, the movie describes the far-future year 2000, a brutal time in which society has collapsed and a more bloodthirsty civilization has risen in its wake. This new totalitarian society holds annual Death Races for fun. Death Races are like other cross country car races, except that it’s acceptable to kill other drivers, bystanders, and pretty much anyone else. The movie is barely more than an hour long, but is thematically dense and rich in exploitation.
Hitting People Isn’t Really the Point, But It’s a Plus!
The main characters of Death Race 2000 are “Frankenstein” (Carradine) and “Machinegun Joe” (Stallone), two professional and popular drivers in the Death Races. Other drivers include national socialists, cowboys, and “ancient” Romans. Each driver is accompanied by a thematically-similar navigator. Conveniently, nobody affiliated with the race has any scruples about killing other people. Killing members of the public during the races earns the drivers “points” of different quantities depending on who is getting killed, and grannies are worth a bundle. Conversely, some members of the public seem to be quite upset about the prospect of murderous villains stampeding across the country. I can’t seem to figure out why.
Hatred of the Death Races has simmered for 20 years, resulting in an armed resistance movement intent on abolishing the race. Weirdly, the leader of the resistance movement is “Thomasina Paine”, who allegedly is distantly related to the Thomas Paine of American revolutionary canon. Despite their partisan groups managing to disrupt the race and kill some of the drivers, the public at large is not impressed.
Little to the race managers’ knowledge, Frankenstein sympathizes with the resistance, and seeks to win the race in order to further their cause. Unknown to Frankenstein, his navigator is a member of the resistance. Though he still runs down anyone in the way, Frankenstein’s plan is to assassinate the president during this opportunity to meet with him after his victory in the race.
Comically, Frankenstein’s idea is to explode a grenade concealed in his false right hand–a “hand grenade”. Ultimately, Frankenstein succeeds in assassinating the president, though not via his grenade. To put an exclamation point on the end of the film, Frankenstein becomes the president, marries his comely navigator, and plans to rebuild the country–but not before running over one of his political rivals, much to the public’s pleasure.
Flagrant Violence, Sexism, Political Commentary, and Improbable Circumstances Just Aren’t Enough Any More
There’s a lot going on in Death Race 2000. Amidst the sequences of pedestrian death lies some political commentary. Politically, fascists and socialists alike are maligned and lampooned. The flag of the US has had its stars replaced with a gloved fist. The president is implied to have come to power by illegitimate means, and pursuing foreign and domestic policies which the working people of the country are deeply opposed to. The moral tenor of the government and the mass media seem to be completely at odd with that of the regular people–a sentiment far too edgy to appear in a film today!
In the United States of Death Race 2000, euthanasia is not only legal, but encouraged, with nursing homes bringing their oldest residents out to the road for the Death Race. Consent issues and horrible methods aside, at least there’s a societal understanding that the infirm shouldn’t suffer.
Needless to say, a movie in which geriatric people are run over en-masse wouldn’t be made, but blunt commentary could probably make it into the film. In the concluding sequence of the film, the race announcer protests the abolishment of the race by arguing that despite the race being violent, Americans love violence more than anything else, and will not be appeased by lesser entertainment. This is prefaced by the president starting the race with the ominous, “and now, I give you what you want”, clearly referring to the predictably gruesome events of the race.
Closely related to the movie’s insistence that Americans love violence is its insistence that women are merely sex objects–a satire, to be sure. Frankenstein’s navigator is introduced to the viewers as a “red hot sex pot”, and it seems clear that her function is mostly aesthetic, despite her insistence on her education as a nurse and advanced qualifications to be a navigator.
There is also a notable lack of outrage when Machinegun Joe punches his female navigator in the face when she is dishonest with him. This commentary is supplemented by the fact that all female characters are heavily sexualized, and are worth 10 points more than men when run over. Though it is satire, the blatant objectification of women might draw criticism today, as it did when Death Race was released.
America Needs Its Heroes … Even if They Die
Aside from political commentary, Death Race 2000 has an interesting message about a society’s need for heroes. At the start of Death Race the character Frankenstein is deified by the media to be an all-American icon and national hero, despite his propensity for slaughter of innocents. In another lampoon of America, Frankenstein is described as hating doctors and intellectuals, “just like any red blooded American”. It is clear that some of the public is not actually happy with Frankenstein at all, as they can see him killing people. With that being said, it seems as though Frankenstein does have some legitimate fans, who offer themselves to be killed so that he may get the high score.
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In the course of the film, it is revealed that the Frankenstein that stars in the film is in fact not the original man, but rather a concept. The character “Frankenstein” has actually died numerous times in various Death Races, but the man in the suit has been replaced so as to avoid the national sadness at losing an icon. In this sense, Death Race seems to be lampooning the idea that public figures can be genuine.
If anything, the message of Death Race is that we are the most threatened by getting exactly what we want. Additionally, we should be loath to let other people infer what we want based off of their sampling of our behavior, as this can result in gross excesses which are actually not in our best interest. It’s a hard sell to a culture bent on excess, but Death Race makes a compelling argument that we should probably ease off the over-the-top stuff, lest we end up closer to the Death Race society than we would wish.
Featured Images: New World Pictures