Readjusting the critical grading curve to favor the filmmakers’ attention to “concept” is, let’s face it, what a lot of us B-movie aficionados do to justify our enthusiasm for mostly indefensible potboilers. It’s the “bad movies we love” defense, and only the most humorless of cineastes would refuse to play that particular card every now and again. As a director, Roger Corman has certainly contributed generously to the pool of potential BMs we love. But at the same time, I can’t fathom the value of a critical mindset that would deny the effectiveness of Corman’s blunt, B.T. Barnumesque hucksterism behind, for instance, X—The Man with X-Ray Eyes. As Stephen King noted in Danse Macabre, there’s no excuse for missing out on that film’s downright mythic examination of our primordial dread over the vulnerability of our eyes simply because it’s also the type of movie that would give Don Rickles a supporting role and a dead-end subplot.
Corman didn’t direct the drive-in hit Death Race 2000 (he served as producer, handing the helming duties over to Paul Bartel, an even more reckless kitchen sink director), but it bears his imprint of economic utilitarianism. Approximating the experience of playing Mad Libs and discovering that you’ve been inserting dirty nouns and verbs into George Orwell’s 1984, Death Race is a maladroit but exuberantly gamey mix of social commentary and blue-collar goofiness. Taking place at the turn of the millennium, the essentially defunct United States of America has now become an autocracy, run from overseas by Mr. President (played with a great used car salesman zest by Sandy McCallum, who is incidentally my college roommate’s grandfather). In order to satiate his uniformly destitute proletariat constituency’s curdling political rage, Mr. President has orchestrated an annual pageant of industrial bluster and unbridled violence: the titular Death Race in which five superstar car racers tear pavement across the country, impaling, blindsiding, and otherwise mowing over pedestrians for points. David Carradine plays the race’s manufactured “protagonist,” a driver named Frankenstein for the number of times he’s been stitched back together after each crash. (The truth eventually comes out that he’s only the latest in a string of drivers acting the part of Frankenstein so that word doesn’t get out that the government’s poster boy has actually died behind the wheel many times over.)
The entire event is just a splashy (in a number of senses of the word) PR blitz for the government. Ludicrously, the theory seems to be that if people can watch widely-televised, sanctioned vehicular homicides, they’ll be too distracted to realize that they’re no different from the roadkill, from a class-conscious perspective. Both are being slaughtered so that the powers that be can rack up points, but at least the widows who are only getting metaphorically destroyed get a few consolation prizes when their construction worker husbands fall below the racers’ wheels. And it’s not for no reason that, as fender targets, babies and the geriatric are worth more than women, who are (in turn) worth more than men. It’s a sick joke illustration of what each individual is worth in manpower weighed against their cost on the strapped economic machinery. Most of Death Race’s political commentary, like the hilariously puerile jokes, is equally blunt. (There was actually a video game based on the film that came under the same scrutiny as its modern descendant: Grand Theft Auto.)
The media complex covering the race boils down to two equally officious TV reporters, one an obsequious starfucker who claims to be “close personal friends” with everyone she interviews, and the other is a real ’70s vintage faggot who goes all gay with jingoism while covering the race. (Speaking of gay, that’s The Karate Kid’s villainous sensei Martin Kove playing the queenly race driver Nero, who can’t bring himself to run over boy scouts for patently obvious reasons.) The old lady leader of the rebel underground bent on stopping the bloodsport and restoring America to its former glory is subtly named Thomasina Paine. Whenever the rebels successfully sabotage or blow up one of the drivers, the media blames the terrorism on the French. And the movie’s questionable punchline puts Frankenstein and the rebels in charge of the government, which they immediately promise to bring back stateside. This punchline, in which the bleeding hearts are the unwitting architects of a neo-nationalism, is just the most obvious example of how the Corman blueprint could result in accidental trash-art brilliance. That and his anti-matinee B-list casting coups. There isn’t anything wrong with a film that puts Mary Woronov in the driver’s seat of a bullhorn-festooned hot rod charging at a DIY roadside matador played by fellow schlock director Lewis Teague.