I’ve ridiculed many a Roger Corman film in my time, but I have nothing but love for his 1975 B-movie triumph Death Race 2000 (although, to be fair, most of the credit should go to director Paul Bartel). In this brilliant black comedy satire, Corman gives us what we want – fast cars, hot naked gals, and lots of glorified violence, not to mention brilliant performances by David Carradine and a pre-Rambo Sylvester Stallone – and all with a budget of only 300 grand.
In this futuristic vision of the year 2000, America has devolved into something of a fascist police state called the United Provinces, ruled from overseas by Mr. President (Sandy McCallum) who, like all good dictators, has established an external outlet for whatever bloodlust, anger, and general discontent that may exist among the populace. Enter the Transcontinental Road Race, better known as the Death Race. Now in its 20th iteration, this fierce competition pits the greatest, most fearless drivers in the land racing from New York to New Los Angeles. Lest any visions of Cannonball Run threaten to run your head, know this: the beauty of the Death Race is the fact that extra points are awarded for any and all innocent spectators you kill along the way, with children and seniors bringing in the most points (if you don’t think this is great fun, you haven’t played any of the games in the Carmageddon series, which count among my favorite games of all time).
This year’s contestants are Nero the Hero, Matilda the Hun (with Representative Fred “Gopher” Grandy as her navigator Herman the German), Calamity Jane Kelly, Machine-Gun Joe Viterbo (Sylvester Stallone), and the fan favorite, Frankenstein (David Carradine). Frankenstein is something of a mystery man, his mask and cowl hiding a body that has had more parts replaced than your grandfather’s beat-up old pickup. He and Machine-Gun Joe are bitter rivals, but this year the greatest threat Frankenstein faces is a plot by the Resistance, led by Thomasina Paine (Harriet Medin), to put an end to the barbaric race once and for all (using – wouldn’t you know it? – barbaric methods of their own).
From euthanasia day at the hospital to the wickedly tripped-out cars designed for human carnage as well as speed, Death Race 2000 is a tour de force of B-movie entertainment. The sociopolitical statement the film makes is also very real and important, but I’ll leave the interpretation of all that to the individual viewer. Carradine’s amazing, Stallone’s a brilliant bonus, the supporting cast make hay with even the smallest of parts (The Real Don Steele, anyone?), and Simone Griffeth is fun to watch both in and out of her clothes (and I haven’t even mentioned the whole French Air Force thing). Death Race 2000 is the epitome of cult classic.