Death Race 2000 (1975)/Deathsport (1978)

Both of these films have been rather handily bundled together for Australian release, so I may as well review them the same way…

Death Race 2000: this was great. In what was then the near-ish future, America has become a fascistic empire after some sort of worldwide crash or something, and panem et circenses is the order of the day. The specific circus here being the Trans-Continental Road Race, with the top racers this year being Sylvester Stallone’s “Machine Gun” Joe and David Carradine’s Frankenstein; the drivers compete to not only get from one end of the country to the other in as close to one piece as they can, but also to score as many points as possible by, you know, killing as many people along the route as they can. All while trying not to get killed by the “French” resistance before they get to the end. The satire on America’s love of violence is less subtle than a sledgehammer to the gonads, of course, but subtlety isn’t the point here; on the contrary, Death Race 2000 revels in the dubious taste of its premise (“Euthanasia Day” is particularly glorious) and in its own broadness. Stallone shouts a lot and I’m not 100% sure Carradine is “performing” exactly, but somehow they’re both perfectly right for the film (although I think the three odious media personalities commenting on the race’s progress are the real highlight of the thing to some extent); the film’s basic lack of seriousness works in its favour, and at a nearly fat-free 80 minutes it gets on with its job admirably, spending just enough time on advancing the story without getting bogged down in bullshit. Terrific fun.

Deathsport: having had an enormous hit with the above film, Roger Corman decided more of the same should do similar business. Replace the cars with bikes and move it into a more post-apocalyptic future, keep David Carradine as the lead (albeit in a sort of loincloth rather than Frankenstein’s funky black bodysuit), and a hit should follow… except it didn’t. Credited director “Henry Suso” was actually one Nicholas Niciphor, a USC graduate whose first and last directorial effort this was after Corman fired him; co-director Allan Arkush was brought in to save the production but by his own admission he was unable to do so, and, well, on the evidence I don’t think he was being falsely modest. Whereas Death Race 2000 was positively delighted to be the lean, brisk B-movie that it is, Deathsport evidently has higher aspirations to being a genre film but one of quality; alas, it was clearly hobbled at budget and script level, and it’s really unable to support the deadly seriousness with which it plays out. It’s like an Italian knock-off of itself, if you know what I mean. Some sort of sense of humour or camp would’ve helped; as it is, it’s just kind of lame…

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