It’s not difficult to let yourself get carried away by full-bore dystopian satires like “Death Race 2000” (1975), for a landfill full of reasons. Two immediately pop into mind: on one hand, unsavory poppycock like Roger Corman and Paul Bartel’s infamous film make plain the simple fact that science fiction, when it’s done properly, isn’t about thrills. It’s about ideas and social speculation, and is therefore a far closer cousin to pure satire than it’s ever been to horror films (the genre with which sci-fi is usually clumped).
You could argue it a dozen ways pro or con, but sorry, without the twisted birth imagery and post-industrial wage-slavery context and equation between commerce and rabid predation, “Alien” (for one example) would be just a horror film and also not worth remembering. With it, it’s a scalpel taken to the thorax of our socioeconomic Manifest Destiny.
Examples are everywhere, and once you grow up, you learn to appreciate dystopias particularly, because they are baldly about the present, and they wield the sharpest blades of any topical fiction. Sadly, they’re a touch out of date — virtual-life entries like “Gamer” and “Surrogates” have unsharpened teeth and tend toward action-movie bathos.
Of recent films, only “WALL-E” had the walnuts to satirize the entire thrust of the American lifestyle, even if it charmed us, too, and made a half-billion dollars in the process. If nobody got angry, chalk it up to the same superhuman self-indulgence powers the Pixar movie skewered.
In the ’60s and ’70s, things were different — fierce, wicked dystopian scenarios were hot, often popular and remarkably eagle-eyed. (When they’re remade today, as “Rollerball” or “Death Race,” they’re turned into Disney Channel young adult actioners.)
“Death Race 2000” was in its day an inevitable splooge: the future-fascist-state-ruling-by-homicidal-sport idea is at least as old as Elio Petri’s “The 10th Victim” (1965) (which is very much a comedy about televised human hunting, and vulnerable to a humorless remake soon). It’s not a notion that could’ve arrived before television, because no one had seen social control like TV before.
In Bartel’s outrageously silly take (based on a story by genre maven and filmmaker Ib Melchior), America rules the world and remains entranced and juiced only by a televised cross-country race in which the drivers accumulate points by running over pedestrians.
Think for a moment on the statement that makes to filmgoers just a few years after the cessation of fresh war footage broadcast every night from Southeast Asia, and then consider how much closer the film is to “Network” than, say, “Star Wars,” and how much closer today’s televisual fads are edging toward real-life mortal risk in order to nab viewers.
Good thing the text resonates, because Bartel is a proudly tasteless oaf, and his movie was crude even by Corman’s standards, tracking David Carradine’s mysterious Frankenstein (dressed, provocatively, in B&D zippered leather) and his broad-comedy competition (including Sylvester Stallone when he could be funny) across desert byways in a set of absurd roadsters clearly inspired by Hanna-Barbera’s “Wacky Races.” (One of the racers, Pam-Grier-prison-movie vet Roberta Collins, is a Nazi covered in swastikas — imagine that today.)
“Death Race 2000” is a poundingly obnoxious film. As the TV host, The Real Don Steele, a famous LA disc jockey, is practically the film’s lead character, braying hyperbolic announcer baloney directly into the camera in a manner that should make us ashamed of advertising media in general. The cheap gore and glib attitude toward road death is its own kind of commentary, of course, as is the Orwellian agitprop-villainization of the French (!).
The race’s victims aren’t forgotten — their widows are trotted out in front of the cameras game-show style and awarded vacation homes. This was us in the Nixon era, and guess what, it still is. In the ’70s, plenty of critics (like Roger Ebert) were dismayed by the movie’s amoral attitude, but today it looks positively ethical.