‘I had been to the Indianapolis 500 somewhere around 1939, and I sat in the box with the wives of the drivers,’  said Danish-born writer Ib Melchior. ‘There was an accident, and one of the drivers was killed. And the juxtaposition of watching the horror on the wife’s face and the excitement of the fans – this, after all, was what they really came to see – struck me enormously. That became ‘The Racer’ – I wrote it as a short story, a serious kind of piece.’
First published in Escapade in 1956, ‘The Racer’ is a brief dystopia which adopts the narrative strategy of Nineteen Eighty-Four or Fahrenheit 451: the viewpoint character is a relatively privileged member of a society built around near-symbolic injustice who comes to question an evil everyone around him accepts. Willie, the racer, is a contestant in a transcontinental race in which making good time is less important than accumulating pedestrian casualties along the route. Increasingly haunted by his victims but nagged by his bloodthirsty, avaricious mechanic – who wants the bonus which will come with a record-breaking score – Willie finally drives into a brick wall. As in Robert Sheckley’s ‘The Prize of Peril’ and Stephen King’s The Running Man, also filmed, the race of ‘The Racer’ is a caricature violent sport rather than a credible pastime of the future. Oddly omitted is any mention of television coverage, a feature of most future gladiator stories (and the butt of satire in Death Race 2000). In one way, Melchior’s vision was modestly prophetic: he wrote the story well before the inauguration in 1971 of the Cannonball Baker Sea-To-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Dash, the unofficial motor rally which would inspire several films, including The Gumball Rally (1976), The Cannonball Run (1981) and Paul Bartel’s Death Race 2000 follow-up Cannonball aka Carquake (1976).
‘Death Race 2000 was a science fiction film with satiric overtones,’  said producer Roger Corman. ‘It was a sly and entertaining comment on violence in our society. I believe in making films which work on two levels: entertainment on the surface, but with some comment or serious point of view on the subtextual level. So, Death Race 2000 was a picture full of wild action and humour on the surface, with an implicit comment on the escalation of violence in our society.’ It has been suggested the project was Corman’s ‘attempt to scoop Rollerball (1975), a much-hyped, expensive United Artists production starring James Caan, in which a futuristic society is dominated by a lethal game.’  Later, Corman adopted the same strategy to scoop Jurassic Park (1993), securing the rights to a book (Harry Adam Knight/John Brosnan’s Carnosaur, 1984) which predates Michael Crichton’s novel and Steven Spielberg’s film. ‘The Racer’ was published decades before William Harrison’s ‘Rollerball Murder’ (1973), so Corman could claim his project had deeper roots than the big studio competition, which he did beat into theatres.
‘Roger called me and asked if I’d direct Death Race 2000, which I did,’ said Paul Bartel . ‘I also worked on the script. It was rather chaotic working for Roger then. There were times when Roger preferred not to communicate with me directly on this film. It was cancelled several times. There was somewhat of a disagreement on the comedy-violence mixture. I wanted more comedy and less gore. He wanted more gore and less comedy. However, in the compromise the film was successful. The MPAA made us take out some of the gore, and Roger compromised and left in some of the gags.’ The question of how satirical Corman intended the film to be is moot: both screenwriters he assigned to the project had track records in comedic-skewing genre films (Charles B. Griffith wrote The Little Shop of Horrors, 1960; Robert Thom wrote Wild in the Streets, 1968) and Bartel’s previous feature (Private Parts, 1972) is darkly comic. Extrapolated from the story, in which Willie drives a car called ‘the Bull’ equipped with razor-sharp horns, is the notion that racers have custom vehicles which reflect their personalities. The horns turn up on the car driven by cowgirl Calamity Jane (Mary Woronov), while the lead racer, Frankenstein (David Carradine), has a saw-toothed custom special called The Monster. It’s possible the cartoonish personae of the racers, which prefigure the public images adopted by later wrestlers, were influenced also by the animated TV show Wacky Races (1968), itself derivative of big-screen comedies like The Great Race (1965) and Monte Carlo or Bust (1969).
The story includes a radio broadcast on the history of violent sport, suggesting the evolutionary process which has led to the race (paralleled by a speech from a TV commentator that trails off under the end credits of Death Race 2000), but barely sketches its future America. There’s a Newspeak element in Melchior’s vision, where points-winning maimings and fatalities are known as TragicAccs, but Bartel explicitly makes the Transcontinental Road Race an instrument of social control in the United Provinces of America – the circuses offered by an imperial president to pacify an oppressed population. Melchior’s bitter anti-racers are inflated (and defanged) into an inept rebel movement, whose activities are comically credited to ‘the French’ by the official news channels. While Bartel’s approach is cartoonish, to the extent of using Road Runner fake tunnel gags, he trumps Melchior’s rather thudding character development – really, Willie has only just noticed killing people is bad? – with a few quietly disturbing moments between the gags: Frankenstein’s encounter with a fan (Wendy Bartel) who has volunteered to sacrifice herself to up his score, and Jane’s moment of reflection as she pulls off-road and notices she is surrounded by wrecked cars just before she is killed by a land-mine.
Paul W.S. Anderson’s Death Race (2008) is a notional remake, with David Carradine voicing his old character in the prologue, but it takes its plot from Robert Aldrich’s football/prison movie The Longest Yard (1974) – and, indeed, Norman Jewison’s Rollerball – rather than Bartel or Melchior: its convict drivers are encouraged to kill each other (rather than civilians) for points, and the humourless action film approach turns the property into yet another futuristic gladiator picture (cf: The Salute of the Jugger, 1989; Prayer of the Rollerboys, 1990; Futuresport, 1998). Death Race 2 (2010) includes a few more elements from Bartel’s film, but is more of the same.
1: Interviews with B Science Fiction and Horror Movie Makers Writers, Producers, Directors, Actors, Moguls and Makeup, Tom Weaver, McFarland & Co, (Jefferson, N.C.m and London), 1988, p. 271
2: The Movie World of Roger Corman, edited by J. Philip di Franco, Chelsea House (New York/London, 1979) p.197
3: Roger Corman An Unauthorized Biography of the Godfather of Indie Filmmaking, Beverly Gray, Renaissance Books (Los Angeles), 2000, p. 121
4: The Movie World of Roger Corman, edited by J. Philip di Franco, Chelsea House (New York/London, 1979) p.197