Death Race 2000 is a 1975 cult action film directed by Paul Bartel, and starring David Carradine, Simone Griffeth and Sylvester Stallone. The film takes place in a dystopian American society in the year 2000, where the murderous Transcontinental Road Race has become a form of national entertainment. The screenplay is based on the short story The Racer by Ib Melchior.
In an alternate timeline of the late 1970s, the United States is no more due to a financial crisis and military coup. Major political parties have collapsed into a single Bipartisan Party, which also acts as a unified national church. The resulting fascist police state, the United Provinces, is headed by “Mr. President” (Sandy McCallum). The country is kept satisfied through a stream of gory gladiatorial entertainment, including the Annual Transcontinental Road Race, a symbol of “modern values and way of life”. During the coast-to-coast, three-day race points are scored not just for speed, but for the number of innocent pedestrians killed during the race.
Mr. Frankenstein (David Carradine) is the most celebrated racer and is the government’s champion and national icon. He is supposedly part human and part machine, rebuilt after numerous crashes over his career, and constantly wears a mask in the face of public because of supposed facial disfigurements. Though he regularly quarrels with the other drivers, Frankenstein’s main foe is “Machine Gun” Joe Viterbo (Sylvester Stallone), who is constantly bitter about being overshadowed by Frankenstein’s celebrity and is obsessed with trying to beat him.
Each race driver has a theme. Frankenstein drives a Shala Vette, a custom-built car designed by Dick Dean cast in the semblance of an alligator. Joe is a Gangster, and his car has a giant knife and machine guns mounted on the front. His navigator is the feisty, blonde haired Myra (Louisa Moritz). Nero The Hero, a fan of the Roman Empire, drives “The Lion”, a feline-shaped Fiat 850 Spider, and his navigator is Cleopatra. Matilda The Hun, a Nazi, has the “The Buzz-Bomb”, a VW Karmann-Ghia shaped like V-1 flying bomb, and her navigator is Herman ‘The German’ Boch. Cowgirl Calamity Jane’s car resembles a bull and her navigator is named Pete.
Race commentary is provided by Junior Bruce (Don Steele), an egotistical and often annoying sportscaster. Color commentary is given by the fawning Grace Pander (Joyce Jameson) and the stoic “Harold” (Carle Bensen), a character apparently modeled after veteran sportscaster Howard Cosell, who provides historical insight to various parts of the race coverage. In one notable scene, Harold describes the scoring system, with points given for hit-and-run victims ranging by age range.
In 2000, during the 20th annual race, a resistance group led by Thomasina Paine (Harriet Medin), a descendant of 1770’s American Revolutionist Thomas Paine, plans to rebel against Mr. President’s regime by sabotaging the race (killing every driver) and abducting Frankenstein as leverage against the President. The group is assisted by Paine’s great granddaughter Annie (Simone Griffeth), Frankenstein’s latest navigator. She plans to lure him into an ambush to be replaced by a double. Despite a pirated national broadcast made by Ms. Paine herself, the resistance’s disruption of the race is covered-up by the government and instead blamed on the French, who are also blamed for ruining the country’s economy and telephone system.
As he nonchalantly survives every attempt made on his life during the race, Annie comes to discover that the Frankenstein she knows is anything but a willing government stooge, nor is he the original one. The current Frankenstein is, in-fact, one of a number of random ward’s of the state trained exclusively to race in the role. “When one is used up, they bring in another,” he tells Annie. The current Frankenstein also reveals that he has his own plans: when he wins the race and shake hands with Mr. President, he will detonate a grenade which has been implanted in his prosthetic right hand (he calls it his “hand grenade”), which he has kept concealed by keeping his glove on at all times (even while undressed).
Frankenstein successfully outmaneuvers both the rival drivers and the Resistance, and is declared the winner, although he is wounded and unable to carry out his original grenade attack plan, since Annie used the grenade to kill an attacking Joe Viterbo. Annie instead dons Frankenstein’s disguise and plans to stab Mr. President while standing in for him on the podium. Greeting the president as he congratulates Frankenstein (and simultaneously declares war on the French and appoints Frankenstein leader of the war), Annie is mistakenly shot and wounded by her own grandmother, desperate for revenge against Frankenstein for having supposedly killed Anne during the race (he’d actually just drugged her). The real Frankenstein takes advantage of the confusion and rams the President’s stage with his car, finally fulfilling his lifelong desire to kill him.
In the epilogue, Annie and Frankenstein marry. Frankenstein, now President, abolishes the race and the perverse laws of the Provinces. He does make a point, however, of running over sportscaster Junior Bruce as he protests the abolition of the race. As the closing credits roll, Harold can be heard giving a brief narration of the history of violence.
David Carradine as Frankenstein
Simone Griffeth as Annie Smith
Sylvester Stallone as “Machine-Gun” Joe Viterbo
Sandy McCallum as “Mr. President”
Louisa Moritz as Myra
Don Steele as Junior Bruce
Mary Woronov as “Calamity” Jane Kelly
Roberta Collins as Matilda the Hun
Fred Grandy as “Herman the German” Boch
Martin Kove as Ray “Nero the Hero” Lonagan
Joyce Jameson as Grace Pander
Carle Bensen as Harold
Leslie McRay as Cleopatra
Harriet Medin as Thomasina Paine
Roger Corman wanted to make a futuristic action sports film to take advantage of the advance publicity of Rollerball (1975). He optioned a short story by Ib Melchior and hired Robert Thom to adapt it. Director Paul Bartel felt this was unshootable, so Charles B. Griffith rewrote it. Corman wanted Peter Fonda to play the lead but he was unavailable, so David Carradine was cast instead. Carradine was paid 10% of the film’s gross – he and Ron Howard were the only stars of Roger Corman productions to ever get a percentage of the gross.
The cars in the Transcontinental Road Race each have a specific theme.
Nero the Hero – Roman. The car, a Fiat 850 Spider resembles a lion (the historical Nero threw his enemies to the lions). Nero is the first destroyed when he runs over a booby-trapped doll planted by the Resistance, which he mistakes for a real baby. His Navigator is named Cleopatra.
Matilda the Hun – Nazi. The car, “The Buzz-Bomb” (a modified VW Karmann-Ghia) resembles a V-1 flying bomb. She drives off a cliff while obeying a fake detour set up by the Resistance. Her navigator is ‘Herman the German’ Boch.
Calamity Jane – Cowgirl. The car resembles a bull and runs over a matador. Her navigator is named Pete, who is run over by Matilda while fixing Calamity’s car. Later she fights off a half-hearted attack by the resistance which is meant to drive her to a car wrecking lot where they have a landmine set to blow her up. Initially thwarting the attack and missing the landmine, Jane drives over it while escaping the area.
Machine Gun Joe Viterbo – Gangster. His car has a mounted knife and machine guns on it. He is the last racer to die (killed by Frankenstein’s “hand grenade”).
Frankenstein – His car (a Shala Vette by Dick Dean, known as “Gator’s Car”) resembles an alligator with red eyes, scales and teeth. He is the sole survivor of the race.
Many of the cars were re-bodied VWs and a few were sold after the film to museums for more than it cost to make them, according to Roger Corman.
The car seen in the epilogue is a Sterling Nova.
Roger Ebert gave the film zero stars in his review, deriding it as being in “poor taste, unnecessarily gratuitous in both nudity and violence.”
The film, however, has long been regarded as a cult hit, and was often viewed as superior to Rollerball, made in the same year; another dystopian science fiction sports film, similarly focusing on the use of sports as an “opiate”.