The Plot: In the year 2000 the world has made a turn for the more violent side. The president no longer lives within the country and instead rules from afar. The worldwide media has taken on a fanatical obsession with the Transcontinental Road Race that leads contestants across America in a homicidal race for worldwide recognition and fame. While making this trip contestants are encouraged to score points by running down any bystandards who stand in their way. Along for the ride is “Machine Gun” Joe Viterbo (Sylvester Stallone), “Calamity” Jane Kelly (Mary Woronov), Nero “The Hero” (Martin Kove), Matilda “The Hun” (Roberta Collins) and the returning champion: Frankenstein (David Carradine). Frankenstein is said to have lost the majority of his body parts during previous races and is now more machine than man. Placed with a new navigator named Annie Smith (Simone Griffeth), Frankenstein will have to deal with both his opponents in the race as well as Annie who is an undercover agent for the rebel movement against Mr. President.
Death Race 2000 is a movie that I have been familiar with for years, but have unfortunately never really sat down to take in. I have caught bits and pieces on television before and we actually had a showing of it at a VCinema gathering, but in a situation like that you find yourself talking more than watching. So, when contacted by the fine people of Shout Factory! about reviewing the film and their latest special edition DVD for their Roger Corman Cult Classics line, it seemed like a fine time to give the movie a spin! I’m glad that I did, because Death Race 2000 exemplifies the grandiose charm that cult cinema can deliver. Directed by Paul Bartel, the film shows that some times the smartest thing you can do when attacking a situation or a theme is to make fun of it. A raging satire, the film proves to be both an intelligent look at violence and its effects on our society as well as a truly over the top piece of comedy that takes shots at everything from politicians to the media. Before watching the film, I decided I would put forth some thought as to why this film has survived after all of these years. Although it isn’t the biggest cult film ever made, it has developed a relatively large audience and has even prompted a Hollywood remake. So, what is it that draws viewers to this movie? Upon watching and really examining it, I don’t think there is any one single answer to that question. Like most things, the answer is complex and there are a multitude of reasons but the combination of rising star power and the truly bizarre nature of the movie are the key elements for me.
Made in a time when David Carradine was known primarily for his TV work on Kung Fu, it seems that the jump to the silver screen with Death Race 2000 proved to be a very bizarre choice. A campy, violent and over the top satire – one wonders why Carradine picked this project ahead of any other potentially more serious fare. Regardless of his reasons (let’s be honest, it had to be the money…), the choice to do this movie was a brave one indeed. Featuring what for the time had to be considered a tremendous amount of violence as well as frequent bouts of nudity, Carradine jumped into the offbeat cinematic world head first. His co-star, a then unknown Sylvester Stallone, comes to the screen in a larger than life portrayal of your most basic villain. In the year that followed the original release of Death Race 2000, Stallone would score huge with his own film Rocky and of course we all know his career following that. From then on out Stallone would be properly placed right up top alongside Carradine on any promotional materials for Death Race. So as the years have went on, you have these two popular figures from American entertainment in what can only be described as an absolutely bizarre piece of science fiction like no other. Of course audience members are going to be dragged in by that! Still, that doesn’t explain why the fans remain. In the same way that filmmakers such as John Waters have retained an audience, there is something peculiar and fun about watching a film go so completely over the top that it no longer constitutes any semblance of reality.
Placing the picture in the near future (well, for us it is now the past) and painting such a strange cultural landscape, Bartel and Corman did well in establishing the film as being something alternate to reality. They also establish so many changes to the world without ever delving into any kind of drawn out exposition. In this world we are now the United Provinces of America, which paints the future as some kind of dystopian land where perhaps Canada has been absorbed into the US. The president, who has no name other than President, rules our country from houses he owns in foreign countries. What has happened to the constitution up to this time is not known. All we know is that free elections have been outlawed and our governing bodies have outlawed dissent. It almost doesn’t even matter that they have, since the majority of Americans would apparently rather sit back and watch “The Race” instead of possibly fighting back against this totalitarian regime. Technology is shown to have made some progress, with mentions of three dimensional television sets, but for the most part everything except for the fashion seems to have remained the same. Automobiles still apparently run on fossil fuels and people still work in very every-day situations. The morality has changed however, which is infinitely more dangerous than technology proves to be.
The obvious explanation for this lack of digitalization is the budget for the film. Roger Corman, who is infamous for his penny pinching, obviously couldn’t afford to really set the stage for a science fiction blockbuster. The special FX are pretty hokey from the start. The opening moments which show obvious matte paintings that are supposed to represent the thousands in attendance at the start of the race help showcase this. Along with the paintings are pieces of animation that allow us to see some kind of Tram system circling the skyline. Even for 1975, I am quite confident no one fell for this little trick. This adds to the charm of the movie however and simply places you in the cheap world of this film. The special FX may not be of the highest caliber (aside from the moments of gore, which were fun and surprisingly intense), but the performances of the cast help to sell them. Almost every member of the cast is as over the top and unforgettable as any actor could be. David Carradine manages to provide a more subdued attitude for his role and while playing next to someone like Stallone who simply rips the lid off of things, it actually seems to work very well. The two often bounce off of one another throughout the movie, despite their not spending much time together on-screen, their bitter rivalry creates a chess match between scenes and creates a tempo for the movie. Stars such as the media journalists who are consistently giving their play-by-play of the race help to sell the movie and its over the top attitude better than anyone else however. Lines are shouted at all times, one liners are repeated over and over again and a blatant attempt at a Howard Cossell impersonation simply can’t help but to entertain. That is the name of the game with Death Race 2000 though: entertainment.
Shout Factory is releasing this classic on DVD and Bluray as part of their Roger Corman’s Cult Classics line. The film has been transferred with great care and the result is a beautiful looking version of this classic. I highly doubt you’ll have ever found a better looking version of this movie! Shout Factory also delivers a tremendous disk that is packed to the brim with extras. Featuring two commentary tracks, the first with Roger Corman and actress Mary Woronov and the second with assistant director Lewis Teague and editor Tina Hirsh. Corman and Woronov is the instantly noticeable track here as the two are having a lot of fun walking down memory lane. Along with the commentary tracks there are also several featurettes. A featurette looking back on Death Race itself, a featurette on the general design aesthetic of the film, an interview with costume designer Jane Ruhm, an interview with Roger Corman hosted by Leonard Maltin, an interview with Paul Chihara on the creation of the films score, a detailed interview with author Ib Melchior and a short interview with the late David Carradine on his career and Death Race 2000. Aside from the featurettes there are several trailers, radio and TV spots including a trailer with commentary provided by John Landis and the good people of Trailers From Hell. This cult classic has been treated with the utmost respect and care by Shout Factory and should prove hard for them to top in their jam-packed schedule of other Roger Corman classics that are coming down the pipe line!
Based upon the story “The Racer” by Ib Melchior, it of course does not resemble that story in the least. Melchior was at first very disappointed with the direction the movie took, but when watching he decided that in its own way the project was of its own incredible value and retained his overall message.
The largest budget expenditure for the film was David Carradine himself. The cars, which were mostly VW’s that had new bodies built for them, were actually relatively cheap to make.
Roger Corman hired Sylvester Stallone for his role after seeing him in The Lords of Flatbush. He thought he would make a tremendous “heavy” and that would be his main role in film. His wife at one point said that the young actor even had what it took to be a leading man, but Corman was adamant that playing the supporting “heavy” was what the actor was born to do.
Although it has its problems, I don’t think anyone would pretend that this of all things is a “perfect movie”, I do have to admit I am now a fan. Grandiose in its delivery of atmosphere, Death Race 2000 is something wholly unique and one of the better pieces of wacky science fiction you will ever see. It is smart, accusatory and witty in its satire of both we the audience and other filmmakers as well. Violence is shown as a laughing matter. Is the movie ridiculous? Sure, but it has a point. I absolutely recommend it as if it needed saying. A four out of five, for this nice piece of cinematic insanity!