Thursday, January 3, 2013
Death Race 2000: Driving a Hard Bargain
I’m proud that my Roger Corman: Blood-Sucking Vampires, Flesh-Eating Cockroaches, and Driller Killers (now –- at last! –- available as an ebook) has loyal fans. One of them, Jerry Lentz, just referred me to a recent Roger Corman interview on PBS. Here, as always, my former boss comes off as genial, articulate, and modest. When discussing Death Race 2000, though, he casually enlarges his own role and slights the contributions of others. As Roger’s assistant story editor at New World Pictures, I was involved from the beginning. So it seems high time to set the record straight.
Roger tells host Ernie Manouse that Death Race 2000 started with a short story by Ib Melchior. In Roger’s telling, “The Racer” is about “car racing in the future, in which the drivers try to knock each other off the track.” Disappointed with the initial script, he personally added a new wrinkle: the film would chronicle a cross-country road race, with drivers accumulating points for every pedestrian they ran down along the way. The goal was a serious action flick, until Roger realized, “Y’know, this idea is so audacious, it’s got to be done with humor.” Out of this change of heart came a cult classic.
Sorry, Roger . . . that’s not how it happened. In the beginning, there was indeed the Ib Melchior story. It contained the germ of the idea fans remember today: that drivers win the race by “scoring” pedestrians. This was hardly a Corman brainstorm, nor was it the product of Melchior’s fertile imagination. Most of us who were kids on 1950s schoolyards -- far too young to have experienced real tragedy in our own lives -- played the naughty little game of assigning points to various traffic victims. (A pregnant nun on roller skates was worth at least 15 points.) Anyway, although Melchior’s story contained that one morbid element, it was also pat and sentimental. The leading character, having just run down (ugh) a pretty school teacher and her young charges, sees the error of his ways and decides to covertly change the system.
What we took from Melchior’s story was its gruesome idea but not its sentimental approach. Still, our first screenwriter didn’t seem to get the picture. Science fiction author A.E. Van Vogt couldn’t buy the idea of a driver deliberately hitting pedestrians. So he established that all drivers were being brainwashed by futuristic devices hidden in their dashboards. Van Vogt was quickly replaced by the sardonic Robert Thom, who’d written Wild in the Streets and could never be accused of soft-heartedness. Thom had the right spirit, but when he wrote an opening scene that went on for 20 (handwritten!) pages and showed a stadium packed with nude people making love, it seemed time to look elsewhere.
Roger eventually turned to an old crony, Chuck Griffith, creator of Little Shop of Horrors and Bucket of Blood. But the film’s most inspired comedic touches came from director Paul Bartel. The laughter at early preview screenings infuriated Roger, because he wanted a straight-ahead futuristic action film, like United Artists’ Rollerball. Joe Dante, who worked in the editing room, laments Corman’s decree that new scenes of gore be added to a movie that was “a real pop art masterpiece before Roger got to it.”
Roger’s not a liar, exactly. He’s 86, his memory is selective, and he’s great at telling stories that burnish his own legend. He used to credit me with thinking up the film’s twist ending. Now that I’ve written his biography, though, my contribution too has been erased from his memory banks. Sad, but predictable.