Some of the biggest book news this year has been George Orwell’s 1984’s bestselling popularity on Amazon, and the book is still dominating the top spot among Classic Literary Fiction rivals like A Prayer for Owen Meany and The Odyssey. The book’s recent boom in readership started with a spike in 2013 after Edward Snowden leaked the NSA’s secret surveillance program. Four years ago, for lots of Amazon’s customers, Big Brother arrived.
Or maybe Big Brother was back? Americans have always loved dystopian visions, and films like The Running Man (1987) and The Hunger Games (2012) have both cast our dark future as a life and death reality television show drenched in video violence.
But, before those films, 1975’s Death Race 2000 gave us vehicular decapitations as black satirical commentary on days that look a lot like these here now. Third Man’s 16mm screening of the film gives viewers a chance to see David “Kung Fu” Carradine duke it out with Sylvester “Rocky” Stallone in the middle of a cross country road race where drivers score points by running down unlucky pedestrians. This is the ninth installment of Peripheral Visions: the '70s and '80s cult action and horror films series Third Man presents with the Belcourt Theatre. It’s also a 91st birthday salute to Death Race 2000’s legendary producer, Roger Corman.
Death Race 2000 might remind contemporary audiences of the Amazon series The Man in the High Castle, which offers an alternative history of America after the Allies have lost World War II. Death Race traces its dystopia to a 1979 collapse of the U.S. which leads to the rise of a totalitarian government that remakes the American flag into a red and white striped banner depicting a raised fist and a lightning bolt. Martial law is the law of the land, and the massive majority of powerless citizens supports a tiny minority of the ultra-wealthy. For 20 years, the rabble have been kept docile by the Transcontinental Road Race – a car racing competition from New York to New Los Angeles. There is also an underground resistance that plans to infiltrate the race in a bid for their own liberation.
Death Race is an action comedy, and it’s a horror film about murderers in weaponized cars. The vehicles are all equipped with various guns, cannons, spikes, blades and oil slick sprays to make getting rid of the competition and killing pedestrians as easy – and gory – as possible. Death Race features outrageously gory sequences, but the film’s low-by-even-1970s-standards budget means most of the effects are as likely to make you laugh as make you wince. I’d love to know just how much bright red paint was spilled during this production.
All of the racers in the film are divided into teams of two – one driver and one navigator. All the drivers have distinct personalities: the sex-crazed cowgirl whose car looks like a Texas longhorn bull; the Nazi fraulein with the blonde hair, blue eyes and swastika on her helmet. Stallone plays a gangster type named Machine Gun Joe – he reads all of his lines in one long sneering shout. Carradine is genuinely mysterious as the legendary masked driver, Frankenstein, and a moment dancing with a beautiful girl in an outrageously designed hotel room oozes with the same sinister menace that Quentin Tarantino must have seen when he cast Carradine as the title character in his Kill Bill films.
The film is also a satire about class and political power that can always find a reason for an actress to take her top off. Death Race isn’t very zealous about its messages, but our contemporary challenges like reality warping reality television, police oppression, surveillance and espionage, propaganda, infotainment, economic disparity and class warfare, Nazis and determined resistance all find analogs in this zany flick. If Death Race 2000 isn’t a serious film, it’s a seriously fun film to watch in 2016.
Roger Corman’s Death Race 2050 just came to Netflix. I haven’t seen the movie but the plot seems very similar to the original, and the new film features the legendary Malcolm McDowell in a role that comes complete with a Trump-inspired comb-over. The more things change the more they stay the same. Happy Birthday, Roger.
Death Race 2000 screens in 16mm this Wednesday night, April 5, in the Blue Room at Third Man Records. Doors at 7 p.m., film at 8 p.m. Tickets are $10, $8 for Belcourt members, and can be purchased at www.belcourt.org.
Joe Nolan is a critic, columnist and performing singer/songwriter based in East Nashville. Find out more about his projects at www.joenolan.com.