Double feature of Doom! Carmageddon! pt 1
The Double Feature of Doom
by M.G. Marshall
Carmageddon!: Paul Bartel, David Carradine,
and the Two Best Car Movies You’ve Never Seen
There are a great many neglected subgenres of film out there that, despite their long-lasting resilience, just never seem to get their due when it comes to people discussing their favorite types of movies. Case in point: the cross-country race movie. From beloved classics like It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World and The Cannonball Run to less beloved fare such as Cannonball Run II and even to children’s cartoons like Wacky Races, it’s practically an American tradition to get a group of colorful characters together, stick them in some cars, and send them off on a wild goose chase, making sure to destroy as many cars and landmarks as you can along the way. And two of the greatest examples of this genre came from the mind of one man: Paul Bartel.
Bartel has an interesting, if small, body of work as a director. He’s occasionally compared to John Waters, a similarity most obvious in Bartel’s Lust in the Dust, which starred Divine and Tab Hunter. In some ways you could almost call Bartel the smarter, classier John Waters. Though, like Waters, he was openly gay and certainly no stranger to camp, Bartel’s sense of humor is much less scatological than Waters’, trending more towards what I can only describe as a kind of understated zaniness. It’s somehow both low-key and energetic at the same time. In addition to directing, Bartel also frequently acted in his own movies and those made by other directors working for Roger Corman’s New World Pictures (I know, I know. Corman keeps popping up on here. I swear it’s been entirely coincidental so far…), like Joe Dante’s Piranha and Alan Arkush’s Rock n’ Roll High School. Bartel’s pudgy, bearded countenance was usually best suited to playing wealthy snobs and priggish squares, and he is just hilarious in those types of roles.
So, how does that sort of sensibility apply to, what are ostensibly, two action movies? Pretty well as it turns out, as is the case with Death Race 2000. The year is 2000. After the “World Crash of ’79,” the United States has become a totalitarian regime led by the nameless demagogue “Mr. President.” The new national pastime is The Transcontinental Road Race, a violent tournament where the goal of each driver is to rack up points by running over as many pedestrians as they can. (As an added bit of gallows humor, children and senior citizens are worth the most points in the game) The current champion of the race is Frankenstein (David Carradine), a leather-clad, gimp mask-wearing cyborg. His challengers are “Machine Gun Joe” Viterbo (Sylvester Stallone, in one of his earliest roles), a Chicago gangster; “Calamity” Jane Kelly (the wonderfully over-the-top Mary Woronov, a Warhol Superstar and frequent Bartel collaborator), a cowgirl with bull’s horns as a hood ornament; Nero the Hero (Martin Kove, of The Karate Kid), a fey, Gladiator-themed driver; and Matilda the Hun (Roberta Collins), a Nazi-themed racer whose car is made up to look like a Panzer tank. Unbeknownst to the racers and government, there is a rebellion brewing. Led by the very Mike Stivic-looking Lt. Fury and the stately Thomasina Paine (a descendant of her namesake) they seek to abolish the race and have planted Annie Smith (Simone Griffeth) in the lead car, posing as Frankenstein’s navigator.
For me, this movie represents just about everything that great B-movie filmmaking can and should be. It works within a limited budget but still contributes big ideas with a sense of humor that’s never cynical or above the material and satire that, while incredibly blunt, is still sharp and subversive but never takes itself quite too seriously with an overall pervading sense of fun. Even the gruesome nature of the race itself is played for laughs in just the right ways. Somehow, Bartel knows exactly which lines to cross and how far to go without becoming too morbid or mean-spirited. When he first dangles the awful detail that children, toddlers, and elderly people offer the drivers more points, we naturally expect the movie to take the most tasteless route it can and actually show us some dead kids and old folks; but it instead completely subverts the expectation it set up with two very different, incredibly hilarious payoffs to those two scenarios that I won’t dare spoil here. Later, when “Machine Gun Joe” is halfway through murdering a pedestrian, he brakes his car, pausing to ask the guy’s coworker if it’s still fair to finish him off. In another notable scene, the death of a young member of Frankenstein’s fan club is played rather poignantly and tragically, and the scene feels very genuine. And that’s the fascinating thing this movie is able to do- it plays so much of its violence with a light, cartoonish touch and speeds by it so quickly that when we actually do stop for a moment and meet one of the victims beforehand, it’s a truly effective, heartfelt moment.
Another element that adds a great deal to the movie is the copious amounts of media satire in the scenes involving the TV coverage of the race. Between soulless interviewer Grace Pander (Okay, not all the jokes can be gems…) who’s somehow a “dear friend” of everyone she speaks to; laconic, droning editorial commentator Harold (who feels very Howard Cossell-ish to me); and loudmouthed, loudly-dressed play-by-play man Junior Bruce, these three form what may well be the most instantly hate-able trio of talking-head newscasters in movie history. At least until Die Hard came along. Also, I have to note how much I really love the immediate government media suppression that swoops in once the Resistance starts successfully bumping off the racers, with the attacks eventually being blamed on the evil, anti-American French. Something about that almost feels prophetic, in a weird way…
Frankenstein is a character who likely could’ve come across as a little flat in many character’s hands- he’s a dry, quiet man of few words with a sullen disposition. Fortunately for the movie- and for all of us- David Carradine proves once again that he is always cool, regardless of the context he’s in. Even when you can’t see his face, like in Kill Bill: Vol. 1, he’s still cool. Also, the weird, vaguely fetish-y leather costume they outfit him in lends him a distinct, memorable look. Also on hand is Sylvester Stallone, and with his greasy, meat-headed “Machine Gun Joe” he very nearly steals the movie and runs off with it. He doesn’t quite know he’s going to be a star yet here, and that’s very good thing. Oh, he’s hammy, he’s mumblin’, and he’s having a blast doing it. Within his first minute onscreen, he’s screaming at the top of his lungs and firing a tommy gun wildly into the air (an omen of Rambo: First Blood Part II…?) This also sort of makes me wish we could get Stallone as a villain more often than we have, because he clearly enjoys the hell out of playing one. Likewise, Mary Woronov and Roberta Collins are great as “Calamity” Jane and Maltida the Hun, respectively. Woronov gets to play up the cowgirl angle quite a bit, and Collins gets the signature, corny move of screaming “BLITZKRIEG!” to the heavens at the top of her lungs any time she runs over something or someone. I obviously approve of this acting choice. They also get into some prime, snarky back-and-forth’s with each other, eventually culminating in a brief, nude catfight. (There’s proper context for that, kind of. I don’t feel like giving it.)
For a film of its budget and esteem, Death Race 2000 has had a surprisingly long shelf life. Aside from its own cult popularity, there was the Alan Arkush-directed pseudo-sequel Deathsport, which actually had no plot connection and was really kinda lame. There was the African-set 1982 cash-in/rip-off Safari 3000, which starred Carradine, Stockard Channing, and Christopher Lee, which was also kinda lame. And then there was the 2008 remake with Jason Statham, which so far has three direct-to-DVD sequels. Hell, Roger Corman himself even returned to the material in 2017, producing Death Race 2050. But they all pale in comparison, in my opinion. They just lack the subtly subversive sensibilities of the original, and there’s only one movie that comes remotely close to replicating it for me: Cannonball!