If you had told Charles B. Griffith he was responsible for one of the most perfect comedy videogames, he probably would have asked, “What’s a videogame?” Griffith was a prolific screenwriter from a bygone era. In the 50s and 60s, he was a go-to guy for producer Roger Corman when Corman needed a template for another crappy low-budget movie. I don’t know most of the movies based on Griffith’s scripts, but I can imagine what they’re like based on the titles: It Conquered the World, Attack of the Crab Monsters, Ski Troop Attack, Beast from Haunted Cave, A Bucket of Blood, Not of This Earth (apparently the last two aren’t as terrible as the others). Griffith is best known for Little Shop of Horrors, which was a crappy Roger Corman movie before it was a Steve Martin movie adapted to a hit musical. From this, you might guess better filmmakers could have made good movies from his scripts. We may never know.
But Griffith’s most enduring contribution is a videogame he had nothing to do with.
In 1975, Griffith participated in a minor subgenre of a subgenre: killer cars as a subgenre of sentient AI/robot/objects as a subgenre of horror/sci-fi. Steven Spielberg and Peter Weir laid the groundwork in this remote corner of horror/sci-fi. Although like most cool horror/sci-fi, you can trace it back further to something Richard Matheson wrote. In this instance, short fiction in Playboy about a psychotic trucker trying to run down a motorist. As a young TV director, Spielberg stumbled across Matheson’s story among the tastefully naked ladies. He claimed he didn’t find it himself. Someone who read Playboy for the articles showed it to him, he insisted. Having established plausible deniability, he then negotiated it into a made-for-TV movie called Duel. In Duel, you can see a lot of what Spielberg will do in Sugarland Express and Jaws, his first feature films. Duel was later padded with extra footage to be long enough for a theatrical release, which is why we have this sweet poster:
On the other side of the world, up and coming filmmaker Peter “Green Card but also Picnic at Hanging Rock and Gallipoli” Weir was shooting a movie called The Cars That Ate Paris. You’ve never heard of it for two reasons. 1) It was retitled The Cars That Ate People when it was released outside its native Australia, because you might otherwise be nonplussed that the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe, and the Louvre aren’t getting destroyed by the cars in question. Weir’s budget only allowed for the destruction of a tiny fictional Australian town. Called Paris, of course. 2) It sucks.
The Cars That Ate Paris/People is one of those weird Australian movies you watch and think, “Huh, maybe it made sense to people in Australia.” It did, however, get a few balls rolling at home and abroad. Locally, it was an obvious inspiration for George Miller’s Mad Max and especially Road Warrior. You can’t watch those beat-up tricked-out cars dismantling the town without feeling like this is what Road Warrior would have been if it had been made by a director with no sense for kinetic action. And I’m not sure why it took so long, but you can even see one of the iconic cars from Fury Road forty years before Fury Road was made. Here’s a closer look at one of the cars:
Unlike Duel, I wouldn’t quite put The Cars That Ate People in the killer car genre. It’s really a biker movie about a biker gang too backwoods to get motorcycles. But it deserves indirect credit for kicking into high gear the killer car genre that would eventually include Duel, The Car, Christine, Killdozer, and, well…that’s pretty much it (the less said about Maximum Overdrive, the better). Because The Cars That Ate Paris is directly responsible for a 1975 American movie called Death Race 2000, itself directly responsible for a videogame called Carmageddon.
But what’s notable about Death Race 2000 and therefore Carmageddon is that they aren’t horror. Not one whit. Horror is horror because it plays on universal fears. No one makes a horror movie about holding a kitten in your lap because no one is afraid of kittens. No one makes a horror movie about a pet unicorn turning feral because it never happens. Horror must be horrifying and relatable. Everyone can relate to getting hit by a car. Even if you’ve never driven a car, you’ve stood by the side of the road. You’ve seen a car hurtle by and you’ve briefly entertained the thought that if you’d been standing a few inches forward, something terrible would have happened. The killer car genre is about the impact of a few tons of metal travelling at a high speed into a human being. It’s the same principle as a bullet, but less precise.
But someone unthinkingly stepping into the road or a driver not paying attention at a crosswalk aren’t particularly horrifying. We call those things accidents. They’re senseless. Maybe tragic. They happen all the time, which is why there aren’t horror movies about them. What would make such a thing horrifying is intentionality. When you stand by the side of the road or drive past a pedestrian on the curb, you are part of a social pact that says those few inches are inviolable. Driving cars is like everyone firing guns at each other, but promising to only shoot a few inches to the side instead of directly at someone.
With intentionality, it would be so easy for those few inches to be crossed. With intentionality, 500 people are killed or injured when a psychopath plows a truck through holiday crowds in Nice. The horrifying angle is that social pact being willfully violated. What if a car were driven by something savage, inhuman, demonic?
That’s what the killer car genre is about. That’s why Duel is so effective. Its 18-wheeled leviathan is a wonderfully cinematic monster, a modern day dragon. The truck stalks Dennis Weaver, harassing him, sizing him up, circling its prey before striking. It’s big, ominous, and calculating. Because Spielberg hides the driver, only giving you a glimpse of his arm, he deliberately downplays the human element, stopping just short of the supernatural. The intentionality is clearly there, but the humanity is minimized. As for the other movies, The Car is — no joke — a remake of Jaws with a demon car instead of a shark. Christine is just Carrie with a haunted car instead of a prom. Killdozer is a bulldozer possessed by murderous blue meteorite light. They’re all as ridiculous as they sound, but not on purpose.
The Cars That Ate People also downplays its drivers in favor of its cars, but it’s not particularly a horror movie. The cars are painted to look scary, to telegraph their murderous intentionality. But there’s only so much you can do with Australian junkers past their prime, with teeth painted on the spare tire or on the side of the front fender, like a World War II fighter plane. That wonderfully cruel Beetle — and, yes, someone does get impaled on the spikes — is the exception. A car bristling with cruel intentionality!
When Roger Corman went to the 1974 Cannes Film Festival, he saw The Cars That Ate Paris. He was involved in negotiations to release it in the US. But he backed out and went home to make his own The Cars That Ate Paris. It was called Death Race 2000. It stands out among Corman’s movies for one important reason: it’s a comedy.
Corman peddled cheap trash that was the worst kind of cheap trash because it took itself seriously (ironically, this is what makes his movies funny). So when he comes back from Cannes wanting to make a horror movie about cars with spikes on them, he calls Charles B. Griffith. I can imagine Corman pressing the button on his intercom and barking to his secretary who’s in the next room, “Get me Chuck Griffith on the phone! And call Bartel, tell him I got a job for him!” Then he gets on an old timey telephone while his secretary puts the calls through. Actually, it’s 1974 and not 1954, but indulge me here. You can imagine he’s wearing bell bottoms.
Director Paul Bartel wasn’t really in his element with Death Race 2000. You can see in his later movies the kinds of pictures he wanted to direct. Lust in the Dust, Scenes from the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills, and Eating Raoul. Bartel isn’t funny so much as he’s weird, kitschy, and sexually confused. Bartel is to Hollywood what John Waters is to Baltimore.
So here he is at the helm of a movie Corman wants to be about spikey cars. Corman also wants it to go up against an upcoming movie called Rollerball. Rollerball will be a big budget United Artists picture directed by serious director Norman Jewison and starring serious Godfather actor Jimmy Caan. It will be about bloodsport in a near-future dystopia. It will be a big hit — actually, it won’t — and Corman wants in on the action. He just needs a script. “Chuck, give me something about bloodsport in a near-future dystopia,” he barked into the his old timey phone, “and it has to have cars with spikes on them!”
“Corman tried to make it serious,” Griffith said in an interview. “He was enraged with me for trying to make it funny, but he took me to see the cars and they were all goofy looking with decal eyes and rubber teeth. I said, ‘You can’t be serious,’ and he tells me, ‘Chuck, this is a hard-hitting serious picture!'”
(Corman will get his chance at a “hard-hitting serious” Death Race in 2008, when he produces a Paul W.S. Anderson “reboot”. Anderson never met a property he couldn’t take too seriously. This Death Race and it’s sequels are safely contained in a prison where there are no pedestrians. Instead, cars drive over power-ups to use against the other cars. You know, like Mario Kart. What little social commentary is on the menu is a plate of low-hanging reality TV fruit.)
But Griffith’s Death Race 2000 script is obviously a comedy. In fact, the movie arguably works because it’s a comedy. Because it’s ridiculous. The main character’s plot is to assassinate the President of the United States by winning the race and thus earning the privilege of shaking the President’s hand during the victory ceremony. At which point he will detonate his prosthetic hand. He pulls off his glove to reveal a grenade embedded in the palm.
“Is that a grenade?” his co-driver asks.
“A hand grenade,” David Carradine responds grimly, without the slightest hint of a wince, wink, or grin. The joke was so dumb it probably slipped right past Corman. Griffith loads the script with this sort of silliness and Paul Bartel obligingly shoots it.
And what’s most comedic is how it plays with the horror of cars hitting people. It inverts the social pact for the purpose of satire. These cars are supposed to hit people. They’re driven by celebrities intentionally hitting people to earn points in a nationally televised sporting event. Babies and old people are worth extra points. If they’re female, they’re worth even more. Bystanders cheer the drivers. Announcers broadcast their progress. A guy playing William F. Buckley comments on them eruditely. The event is used to whip up support for America’s war with France.
A resistance movement is trying to murder the racers. They lure one of them into a trap with a family picnic because they know the driver will single out the infant, so they use a doll with a bomb in it. A toreador engages a bull-themed car. A Nazi chick is done in by a Wile E. Coyote fake tunnel. Members of a religious cult want to be hit by the cars. There’s a ponderous social commentary in here about violence, with a voiceover in the end just to make sure you don’t miss it. But at its core, Death Race 2000 is an unmitigated, ridiculous, heavy-handed, over-the-top R-rated comedy. It will be another twenty years before Griffith’s unmitigated, ridiculous, heavy-handed, over-the-top R-rated comedy is fully realized; it will be another twenty years before Carmageddon is made, fully expressing the absurdity of what it would be like if we violated the social pact that cars will not hit people.
I saw someone hit by a car once. I was in London, walking beside a busy city street under a light rain. Out of the usual noises of a busy city street, three sounds suddenly happened, one after the other, so quickly that I couldn’t tell you their order. Screeching tires, a honking horn, and that sick thud. I turned my head to look. Everyone did. Those sounds demand your attention. They say: you must look at this.
What I saw when I turned my head was outrageous. There was a man in the air, upside down. His legs were above his head and he was moving laterally, about five feet above the ground. You never see that. You never see a man upside down. You never see a man moving through the air. I’m ashamed of my reaction: I immediately looked away. I saw only one frame in the sequence, an outrageous snapshot, unbelievable and unforgettable. When I looked back, he had disappeared behind cars and people. Making my way over to him, I found him sitting up on the curb. Several people were kneeling around him. It was a relief to see that he was crying. Not screaming in pain, not silently shellshocked, not unconscious or dead, but sobbing. He seemed intact. His limbs hadn’t flown apart. He hadn’t burst like a tick filled with blood. He wasn’t crumpled up like a ragdoll character model. He didn’t even seem banged up. The black taxi cab that hit him idled with its door open. The cabbie must have been one of the people kneeling by him. The cab’s windshield was smashed in and a single twisted windshield wiper rotated back and forth at a weird angle, like a bird trying to fly with a broken wing.
There’s a scene in Death Race 2000 when the old people have been wheeled out of a hospital into the middle of the road. “Euthanasia day at the geriatrics hospital,” David Carradine explains, “They do it every year.” Fodder for the Death Race. The elderly and infirm being put out of their misery. Easy points for the drivers and easy bloodsport for the spectators. Carradine sees them up ahead. Disgusted with humanity, he veers off the road and instead plows through the hospital staff who have gathered to watch. Bartel shoots the scene by having people jump into the air from behind a low wall, as if impact of the car was hurtling them into the air. I’ve seen similar visual gags in cartoons. It should remind me of the mental snapshot I have of that afternoon in London. It doesn’t because it’s funny.
Death Race 2000 isn’t very gory, but not because it doesn’t want to be. It throws its share of stuffed dummies under tires and it even squashes a head. At one point, a tire spins against a man’s crotch throwing out a rooster tail of bright red 70s blood. Corman demanded blood in the same way he demanded breasts. Death Race 2000 also has breasts by imagining a dystopian future bloodsport in which everyone’s co-driver is a hot chick obligated to have sex with the driver. That would add an interesting twist to Dirt Rally.
But in terms of gore, it was a time when movies had to suggest a lot. Not because they were timid, but because special effects were bad. You couldn’t linger on them, so you cut away quickly, before the viewer can really examine the scene. A wire holding up a spaceship was fine because the audience had an implicit agreement with the filmmaker not to look at the wire. But the point of gore is that you’re looking at it. The point is that it’s seen. So Death Race 2000 mostly resorts to stunt people feigning impact and flinging themselves to the ground. Besides, better to imply and let the viewer’s brain provide the effects. People know exactly what it looked like when the knife plunged into Janet Leigh’s naked body in Psycho, but not because Hitchcock showed them. So even schlock like Death Race 2000 can only get you so far before your brain has to take over. It has to resort to gags like the hospital personnel jumping up from behind the wall.
It will take Carmageddon to fully realize what’s supposed to be going on behind that wall. The outrageousness of it. The impact and the blood and the flying limbs. Carmageddon — and videogames in general — does what movies wish they could do. In fact, even modern movies are coy about the violence that might happen when someone is hit by a car. We’ve all seen the cheap CG effect of an actor instantly knocked aside when a car arrives suddenly from outside the frame. Final Destination’s seminal bus kill set the stage for hundreds of these shots. Hundreds of stunt men who would have feigned impact and flung themselves to the ground, put out of work.
The gore in Carmageddon is absurd. It’s ridiculous. It’s explicit. It’s funny. It’s arguably the point of the game. Heads pop off and spurt blood. Blood splashes on the cars. Limbs are severed. The hapless victims shriek and gasp. And I never think of that moment in London when I’m playing because, like Death Race 2000, it’s too funny to be horrific.
I couldn’t tell you what the backstory is in Carmageddon, although it’s probably written somewhere. It might even be in cutscenes I’ve skipped so I could just get to the driving. I just know that hitting people adds time to my time limit and points to my score (which is basically money and experience points in the latest version of Carmageddon). Blood, dismemberment, people hurtling through the air. Actual people who had just been going about their business. They’re not even zombies, which is the usual stand-in for wholesale videogame massacres. Carmageddon is about running over real red-blooded people, from different walks of life. Scientists, fat people, business men, hot chicks, old ladies with walkers, dudes on bicycles, construction workers. The earlier Carmageddons managed to do an end run around German censorship by changing the blood from red to green. Look, now they’re zombies, Carmageddon said hopefully. Okay, Germany said, now you’re allowed.
Carmageddon is a comedy. It is one of the purest and most perfect comedy videogames because the comedy is the gameplay. When people say humor is difficult to do in videogames, they’re thinking of things like Leisure Suit Larry, or Psychonauts, or Borderlands 2, or Telltale’s Lego game cutscenes. In those examples, someone writes a joke and then the joke plays during or between the gameplay. Preferably between to make sure you’re paying attention.
But no one at Stainless, the longtime developers of the Carmageddon games, sat down to write jokes. Okay, they kind of did, but it’s on the sidelines. The written humor consists mostly of bad puns for the cars, paint jobs, and power-ups. Someone at Stainless thought it would be hilarious if all the pedestrians were Hillary Clinton and/or Donald Trump, so they released an official mod. It could have been funny if it were more judiciously applied. Running over a Presidential candidate could theoretically be amusing. Running over an army of identical Presidential candidates implies an understanding of humor in which something a little funny becomes a lot funny if you repeat it a thousand times.
But the real humor is in the emergent absurdity. Stainless accomplishes this with the three P’s of Carmageddon: pedestrians, power ups, and physics. By playing out in an arena littered with people, by strewing silly power ups throughout the arena, and by tying everything together with a physics model that was amazing in the 90s and is still impressive today, Stainless created an infinite DIY joke machine based on the absurdity of cars intentionally hitting people. Can any videogame joke compare to the comedic setup and payoff of Carmageddon’s football stadium (which is why it’s such a frequent centerpiece in the games)? The killer car not as horror, but as comedy, an approach taken only by Charles B. Griffith’s Death Race 2000 script.
Oops, I’ve hit a bear. He’s stuck on the spike on the right side of my front bumper, messing up my steering because his carcass is dragging on the ground. I’m trying to scrape him off on something when I hit a cow. Now I’ve got a bear on the right spike and a cow on the left spike. I can barely control my car. We all drive into a cactus. It’s as funny as anything Al Lowe, Tim Schafer, or Anthony Burch has ever written. Okay, maybe you had to be there:
Here’s something that happens at the beginning of every race, but never gets old:
There are police in Carmageddon, usually in little annoying Eurosmartcars. Fat lot of good it does. Here’s what happens in front of the police station:
This crowded corner is miraculously spared any deaths until it isn’t:
Okay, just one more:
I can’t stop. Here are some choice blood effects and dismemberment physics:
A great example of the three P’s at work:
Comedy is all in the timing. This cow, who only has one line, has impeccable timing:
Or this, in which I’m trying to catch up with the car in front of me. Stainless didn’t have to script this, because they knew it would happen sooner or later:
Carmageddon is these moments, sometimes for their own sake (chase down pedestrians to win or try to kill all the pedestrians in the level), sometimes during an earnest racing game. One of the remarkable things about the series is that, for better or worse, it hasn’t changed a lot since the first game in 1997. So some specifics about Max Damage are in order, especially since it follows so closely on the heels of last year’s Carmageddon: Reincarnation.
Reincarnation and Max Damage are the same game, both the fourth in the series. The first in 1993, the second in 1998, and the publisher turned it over to another studio for a third in 2000. After getting the rights back and running a successful half million dollar plus Kickstarter campaign, Stainless made Carmageddon: Reincarnation in 2015. And it was good. Very good. They called it a reboot, so you can’t very well be disappointed that it adhered to that common videogamer whinge, “Why don’t they just remake the original with better graphics?”
Max Damage is the console version of Incarnation with a few refinements. It’s available as a free upgrade for owners of Reincarnation, which no longers exists as of the Max Damage patch. It’s still a very good game, and it’s full of gradually unfurled content. I can sit and play for hours. I have. I will. But I’m disappointed Stainless hasn’t learned more about game design to showcase the fundamentals. The three P’s are as good as they’ve ever been, but the game around them could use some work. You don’t need to reinvent the wheel, but sometimes new rims are in order.
For instance, the multiplayer support misses entirely the point of the game by not having pedestrians, AI cars, or a multiplayer community. The last one isn’t the developers’ fault, but my theory is it’s partly because of the first two. Stainless also completely whiffs a perfect opportunity to plug the game into this generation of Twitch and YouTube. The excellent replay feature needs to be a little more accessible, but more importantly, it’s needs to be a lot more persistent. There is no way to save videos, much less upload them to social media where they belong, and where they would probably cultivate more Carmageddon fans. Those videos up there were a pain in the ass to make. Come on, guys, you’ve pulled up to the 21st century, just a little more, a little more, keep going, almost there, a little more, you got about a half foot to go…
Stainless is a bit too in love with the car-to-car combat and given the driving, physics, and damage modeling, who can blame them? But too often the car combat is one driver (usually the AI) pushing another one against a wall (usually me). The Twisted Metal games, also an expression of killer cars but without a sense of humor, went all-in for car combat by just giving everything guns. Avalanche’s Mad Max does car-to-car combat better than anyone else, hands down, and it doesn’t need to mount machineguns on the hood. Carmageddon still hasn’t succumbed to gunplay, so it relies on the power-ups. Which are a key part of the comedy, but their implementation is clumsy. They’re scattered around the levels in generic barrels so you never know what you’re getting. Sometimes it’s something awesome like a giant anvil or springs that push pedestrians or a button you press to just make everyone’s head explode. A lot of times it’s something you haven’t seen before and who knows what it does. Sometimes it’s a booby prize. Stainless added an in-race power up store where you can buy your favorite power ups once you’ve unlocked them. But the currency you spend is the same currency that advances you in the game and unlocks new locations and challenges. That’s a terrible choice to ask the player to make, partly because it’s no choice at all. Do I want to shoot this car or do I want to make progress in the overall game? Imagine if casting your fireball spell in an RPG meant spending your experience points. That’s how Carmageddon treats one of it’s core concepts.
But regardless of any specific issues with this release, Carmageddon remains a classic and a rare example of gameplay as comedy. Who’s to say whether it would have been created if Charles B. Griffith hadn’t written Death Race 2000? But it’s worth noting that there hasn’t been a movie like it, either in the tiny killer car genre or otherwise. And I’m not aware of gameplay in any open-world game that specifically involves hitting pedestrians. Either it simply can’t happen (The Crew), or you just pretend it didn’t happen (Watch Dogs 2), or you acknowledge that anyone driving over pedestrians is a psycho, so have at it if that’s your bag (Grand Theft Auto V). But Carmageddon: Max Damage is unique, hilarious, a little long in the tooth, and a comedy Charles B. Griffith would be proud to have inspired.