Film Review: Death Race 2000 (1975)

Also known as: Frankensteins Todesrennen (Austria)
Release Date: April 27th, 1975
Directed by: Paul Bartel
Written by: Robert Thom, Charles Griffith
Based on: The Racer by Ib Melchior
Music by: Paul Chihara
Cast: David Carradine, Simone Griffeth, Sylvester Stallone, Sand McCallum, Louisa Moritz, Don Steele, Mary Woronov, Roberta Collins, Martin Kove, Joyce Jameson, Paul Bartel

New World Pictures, 80 Minutes

Review:

“As the cars roar into Pennsylvania, the cradle of liberty, it seems apparent that our citizens are staying off the streets, which may make scoring particularly difficult, even with this year’s rule changes. To recap those revisions: women are still worth 10 points more than men in all age brackets, but teenagers now rack up 40 points, and toddlers under 12 now rate a big 70 points. The big score: anyone, any sex, over 75 years old has been upped to 100 points.” – Harold

When Roger Corman stepped away from directing to start New World Pictures, it really opened the door for young filmmakers to usher in a new era of outside-the-box indie pictures. Paul Bartel was one of the premier guys to come out of the Corman camp and while he made a few really good films, none of them had as big of an impact on me as the super stylish and insane Death Race 2000.

The film is about a transcontinental race from New York City to Los Angeles, a race where the drivers earn points for killing human targets. The more offensive the target, the higher the points. So babies and old people are prime meat for the sadistic drivers and their high octane killing machines.

The movie takes place in a not-too-distant future where society has kind of evolved similar to those more modern Purge movies. America is a fascist state and this grand motor race is patriotic. Those who die, as victims of the drivers, are considered heroes and their sacrifices usually come with rewards for their loved ones.

Within this severely screwed up America is a group of rebels who are trying to end the race and overthrow the sick and twisted president in an effort to reestablish an America that is closer to what the Founding Fathers fought for. There is a lot of political and social commentary sprinkled in throughout the film and it almost exists as a response to the American government’s expansion into the world and its quest for occupation and control. It makes sense that this was made at the tail end of the Vietnam War.

The film stars David Carradine as Frankenstein, the most elite of all the racers. He is a literal living legend but he has his own ideas on the race and his government’s politics, which play out subtly as the film progresses, leading to a big rebellious crescendo at the end.

The rest of the cast is rounded out by a very young Sylvester Stallone, who was a year away from Rocky fame, as well as Paul Bartel’s favorite collaborator, Mary Woronov. We also get Roberta Collins, who spent a large part of her career in exploitation films, a young Martin Kove, a decade before becoming the iconic John Kreese from The Karate Kid films, Joyce Jameson, who was a part of a lot of Corman’s ’60s horror productions, Don Steele, a charismatic and over the top shock jock from the ’70s, as well as two beautiful ladies: Simone Griffeth and Louisa Moritz, both of whom play navigators to the two top drivers. Paul Bartel even has a small cameo as Frankenstein’s doctor when the iconic racer is first introduced in the film.

One thing that makes this picture work so well, is that it is a tongue in cheek critique on the government and society but it doesn’t beat you over the head because of how ridiculous and stylized everything in the film is. Every character is more or less a caricature, every car has some sort of bizarre and hokey gimmick and things are so over the top and goofy that you don’t find yourself buried in serious subject matter. And maybe the political statements are sort of lost in this circus of a film but the sentiment seems pretty clear, even if it’s not fine tuned enough to be specific.

Bartel would follow this up with another action car picture for Roger Corman called Cannonball. That one also starred David Carradine and is enjoyable but it doesn’t stick out in quite the same way Death Race 2000 does.

This would also spawn a horrible remake that had even worse sequels. Eventually, a true sequel to this was made called Death Race 2050. I haven’t seen that one yet but I plan to give it a watch in the very near future.

Film Review: They Call Him Holy Ghost (1972)

Also known as: Uomo avvisato mezzo ammazzato… Parola di Spirito Santo (original Italian title), …Y le llamaban El Halcón (Spain), El halcón de Sierra Madre, Blazing Guns, Forewarned… Half-Killed… the Word of the Holy Ghost, His Name Was Holy Ghost
Release Date: March 30th, 1972 (Italy)
Directed by: Giuliano Carnimeo
Written by: Tito Capri, Federico De Urrutia
Music by: Bruno Nicolai
Cast: Gianni Garko, Pilar Velazquez

Astro C.C., Lea Film, 94 Minutes

Review:

They Call Him Holy Ghost is a film that sounded much cooler from its synopsis than what the final product actually was. IMDb describes the film as “Gianni Garko returns as the Holy Ghost, a supernatural gunfighter dressed in white and with a dove sitting on his shoulder.” Man, that sounds friggin’ badass.

Gianni Garko is a legendary spaghetti cowboy, a supernatural gunfighter sounds intriguing and a sidekick played by a white dove… well, why the hell not? Plus, one of the pictures I saw online had Garko’s Holy Ghost blasting off one of those giant machine guns that were synonymous with Django and other roles Franco Nero played.

Then the film started and the opening sequence was just purely f’n awesome! Evil men, people treated like garbage to the evil men’s amusement, then the just and righteous Holy Ghost shows up with his dove and a machine gun, drops some quirky dialogue and turns the bad guys into Swiss f’n cheese! Sadly, it all goes downhill from there, though.

For 94 minutes, the film is slower than it should be. I had hoped that this would be as energetic and nuts as the original 1966 Django but it was pretty talkie and actually quite goofy. Sure, it had some action but this picture evolved into more of a comedy as it progressed. In fact, the longer the film ran, the sillier it got to where the big finale was sort of like a spaghetti western reinterpreted by slapstick performers. This would have been a cool film to have seen in a realistic and gritty spaghetti style.

This movie was mostly enjoyable even if it went off the rails after it’s great opening. Gianni Garko is always fun to watch and he committed to this role very well but the schizophrenic tone pulled me out of the movie and turned potential into disappointment.

Film Review: Flesh Feast (1970)

Also known as: Time Is Terror
Release Date: May 20th, 1970 (Bridgeport, Connecticut)
Directed by: Brad F. Grinter
Written by: Thomas Casey, Brad F. Grinter
Cast: Veronica Lake

Viking International Pictures, 72 Minutes

Review:

“Creeping, crawling, flesh-eating maggots!” – film tagline

Veronica Lake was incredible in the era of film-noir. She was one of the top actresses in the genre and found good work in the 1940s, always being at the forefront of that time’s cinematic and stylistic shifts. So it is really tragic that this pile of absolute shit was her final film.

Lake was a producer on this and somehow I feel like she was aging, maybe a bit out of sorts and was taken advantage of by some young but talentless filmmakers needing a few bucks to get this shit sandwich served in grindhouses and drive-ins across America.

The plot sees Lake play a mad scientist who is developing maggots that prefer human flesh. During the process, she is used to male a clone of Hitler. She cooperates with this evil and goofy plan. However, her mother was executed as a Nazi political prisoner and Lake wants revenge. She convinces everyone privy to her research that the maggots are to be used for regeneration purposes. However, she just wants to resurrect Hitler so that she can throw the maggots on him and watch him be devoured alive. She succeeds in her plot and the audience succeeds in sitting through one of the worst and dumbest films ever made.

With the title and with the style of film you’d assume this is, one would expect more gore than what this picture actually offers. Had it been a senseless gore festival, it may have had some redeeming quality about it. It has a similar title to Blood Feast, which was synonymous with gore and was also filmed in and around Miami Beach, as this movie was. However, this would disappoint gore hounds just as it would disappoint decent normal people. This actually makes the awful Blood Feast look good by comparison.

Flesh Feast is really one of the worst things I have ever seen. It fails in what it sets out to do in every way. You’d have to try really hard to make something this terrible.

All that being said, this needs to be run through the Cinespiria Shitometer. The results read, “Type 6 Stool: Fluffy pieces with ragged edges, a mushy stool.”

Film Review: The Final Comedown (1972)

Also known as: Blast! (recut version)
Release Date: April, 1972 (Chicago)
Directed by: Oscar Williams
Written by: Oscar Williams
Music by: Grant Green, Wade Marcus
Cast: Billy Dee Williams, D’Urville Martin, Celia Kaye, Billy Durkin, Raymond St. Jacques

New World Pictures, 83 Minutes

Review:

“Billy Dee Williams…Badder than ever!” – tagline

The Final Comedown isn’t very good but it does approach the issue of race relations in post-Civil Rights America in an uncommon way. This isn’t just about urban blacks taking it to the man, this has a deeper philosophical subtext to it and while Billy Dee Williams expresses his character’s concerns, every chance he encounters an ear, the narrative sort of pulls the rug out from under any sort of real solution.

The white man is evil, especially with a badge or a lawmaking pen. The young white liberals in the film try to right the wrongs of their parents and ancestors but even their call for justice and equality is met with an extremely violent end.

I actually liked this film more than the average bear, based off of other reviews I’ve read. Others considered this to be too preachy and to just beat its message over your head, relentlessly. While I don’t disagree with their claims of heavy handedness, within the context of the film, it works.

I thought that Billy Dee Williams was great in this, even if he spent the last half of the film, shot up and bloody, sitting in an alley. The real superstar here was D’Urville Martin. I’ve seen Martin in just about every blaxploitation film he’s ever been a part of and this is the best he’s ever been. Usually, he is a comedic sidekick or a stylish villain type. In this film he gets dramatic and is more real than I’ve ever seen him. From a serious acting standpoint, this is the high point of his short career, as he sadly died way too young.

If you are a fan of blaxploitation pictures, this one is jam packed with action. The second half of the film is essentially a street war between youthful blacks, liberal white kids and the racist police force. It is heavy handed and unapologetic but I don’t have a problem with that. I just wish Billy Dee Williams had more to do in the second half than sitting in an alley, waiting to bleed out.

Film Review: Alien (1979)

Release Date: May 25th, 1979
Directed by: Ridley Scott
Written by: Dan O’Bannon, Ronald Shusett
Music by: Jerry Goldsmith
Cast: Tom Skerritt, Sigourney Weaver, Veronica Cartwright, Harry Dean Stanton, John Hurt, Ian Holm, Yaphet Kotto

Brandywine Productions, 20th Century Fox, 117 Minutes, 116 Minutes (2004 Director’s Cut)

Review:

“Ripley, for God’s sake, this is the first time that we’ve encountered a species like this. It has to go back. All sorts of tests have to be made.” – Ash, “Ash, are you kidding? This thing bled acid. Who knows what it’s gonna do when it’s dead.” – Ripley, “I think it’s safe to assume it isn’t a zombie.” – Ash

I saw Alien on the big screen once before. I think it was in 1999 when it was re-released for its twentieth anniversary. Granted, I can’t miss the opportunity to see this or its first sequel when they come back to theaters. Both are perfection and both are very different. While people have debated for decades, which film is better, I still can’t decide. Why can’t they both be the best? I mean, they are perfect compliments to one another because of the different things that each brings to the table, setting them apart narrative wise and tonally.

Where Aliens is a badass action thriller, the original Alien is really a pure horror movie set in space. The Alien formula was actually so effective, that people are still ripping this film off today. Almost every year, there is at least one film dealing with an isolated crew battling a dangerous creature in tight confines, whether it be a spaceship, an underwater facility or some science research base in the middle of nowhere. Alien is still the best of these kind of films, although John Carpenter’s The Thing is a very, very close second.

What makes this film work is how dark and how cold it is. Everything just comes off as bleak and hopeless. The film has incredible cinematography and its really unlike anything that was made before it. A lot of the visual allure, as well as the film’s looming sense of doom, is due to the design work of Swiss artist H.R. Giger. His style is like German Expressionism from the future in that it is dark, disorienting but also very tech-like and beautiful. Giger’s art is very unique and very much his own. Without Giger, I feel like Alien would have been a very different film.

With as iconic as Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley has become and as synonymous with the franchise as she is, it is weird seeing her not being the top billed star. That honor goes to Tom Skerritt but Ripley does become the focal point and Weaver gives a great performance, even if she isn’t as incredibly badass as she would become in the next film.

This film benefits from having a pretty amazing cast, though. In addition to Skerritt and Weaver, you’ve got Harry Dean Stanton, Yaphet Kotto, John Hurt, Ian Holm and Veronica Cartwright. All seven of these people have had pretty impressive careers with multiple notable roles.

The film is also directed by Ridley Scott, who has gone on to resurrect the franchise with new energy since he returned to the series with Prometheus in 2012 and then followed it up with the lackluster but still interesting Alien: Covenant in 2017.

Alien is still a very effective film and even if I have seen it dozens of times, there are certain parts in the movie where I still get chills. The effects hold up really well and still look damn good. And even if the sets and computers look really outdated for a movie set in the future, it still has a certain aesthetic that just works for me.

All things considered, there really isn’t a negative thing I can say about the film. It moves at a nice pace, builds suspense effectively, still feels chilling and has aged magnificently.

 

Film Review: White Lightning (1973)

Also known as: McKlusky (working title)
Release Date: August 8th, 1973
Directed by: Joseph Sargent
Written by: William W. Norton
Music by: Charles Bernstein
Cast: Burt Reynolds, Ned Beatty, Bo Hopkins, Jennifer Billingsley, Diane Ladd, R.G. Armstrong, Laura Dern (uncredited)

United Artists, 101 Minutes

Review:

“I was tryin’ to save these two buddies of mine from getting knocked up by a homosexual.” – Gator McKlusky

White Lightning is a decent movie but not anything exceptional. Yet it still holds a special place in history because it’s popularity would help it to kick off a new type of film genre in the 1970s. Without this, we might not have had all those other car and trucker movies. Hell, who knows what Burt Reynolds would have done had he not carved out his place in history with this sort of role.

This took that ’70s whitesploitation shtick and made it mainstream. This was a film put out by a major studio and had some semblance of a budget compared to the similar grindhouse pictures of the time.

Burt Reynolds, himself, referred to the film as “…the beginning of a whole series of films made in the South, about the South and for the South. No one cares if the picture was ever distributed north of the Mason-Dixon Line because you could make back the cost of the negative just in Memphis alone. Anything outside of that was just gravy. It was a well done film. Joe Sargent is an excellent director. He’s very, very good with actors. And it had some marvelous people in it whom nobody had seen before. Ned Beatty for example. I had to fight like hell to get Ned in the film.”

The film had a pretty good score done by Charles Bernstein, who would make that famous A Nightmare On Elm Street theme a decade later. The score here may sound familiar to fans of Quentin Tarantino, as he reused some of it for his Kill Bill films.

Reynolds was pretty good as Gator McKlusky and he would get to return as a character in the sequel Gator, three years later.

The plot sees Gator initially try to breakout of an Arkansas prison but his attempt is foiled. He then works out a deal to bring down a crooked Sheriff, who is responsible for murdering his brother. Gator wants revenge, the system wants justice and everyone loves moonshine and fast cars.

White Lightning isn’t my favorite film in the genre it helped popularize but it is still worth revisiting from time to time due to its cultural significance and because well, Burt Reynolds is cool. Although, I prefer him alongside Jerry Reed.

Film Review: The Black Dragon’s Revenge (1975)

Also known as: Long zheng hu dou jing wu hun (original Mandarin title), The Death of Bruce Lee (US dubbed version), The Black Dragon Revenges the Death of Bruce Lee (UK)
Release Date: November, 1975 (US)
Directed by: Chin-Ku Lu (credited as Tommy Loo Chung)
Written by: Norbert Albertson Jr.
Cast: Ron Van Clief, Charles Bonet, Phillip Ko

Yangtze Productions, Howard Mahler Films, 90 Minutes

Review:

Ron Van Clief was a legit martial arts badass that decided to become an action star during the height of kung fu and blaxploitation movies. Unfortunately, he lacks the charisma and charm of Jim Kelly, who was the true champion of black martial artists in this era. Van Clief’s moves are impressive and his skills would translate into being a fight choreographer on 1985’s cult classic The Last Dragon, as well as doing stunts in other pictures.

The film taps into one of the many strange conspiracy theories surrounding the death of Bruce Lee. Here, it is believed that Lee was murdered by greedy film producers. Really, this is just one of dozens of cheap attempts to capitalize on Lee’s popularity, just after his death.

The film starts off being a slight bit interesting but it doesn’t have a lot of steam to begin with and we are just treated to lots of fights. While the choreography and action are decent, this feels more like a cinematic display of martial arts skills, as opposed to feeling like a real movie. Even though I love kung fu flicks, this gets monotonous and boring pretty quickly.

The Black Dragon’s Revenge is also hindered by the quality of the prints available. They haven’t held up well and frankly, I guess it is what it is because no one will probably spend the money on preserving this long lost dud of a blaxploitation/Bruceploitation hybrid.

I have no real choice other than to run this through the Cinespiria Shitometer. The results read, “Type 7 Stool: Watery, no solid pieces. Entirely liquid.” I guess the trusty Shitometer felt the need to be harsher than I was.