Death Race 2000 (NR)

Review Date: March 3rd, 2021

Fans of Death Race 2000 (they comprise a small but loyal group) argue that the movie's strength lies not in its action but its political commentary. Although it would be fair to say that the film has allegorical elements related to a dystopian future, that's really just window dressing. This is first and foremost a Roger Corman exploitation special and, as such, it offers all the necessary ingredients: cheesy action, laughable gore, and plenty of T&A (I think every woman in the film has at least one topless scene). Those things aren't inherently bad but the movie (made in 1975) didn't play well in 2000 and it doesn't play any better in 2020. That's the thing with "cult classics." They become beloved in large part because people fall in love with their terribleness and ineptitude. And, in the case of Death Race 2000, there's plenty of both.

The film postulates a situation in which the world falls into disarray following the Crash of '79. The United States President now has total control and is answerable to no one. As a means of distraction, the government runs an annual coast-to-coast race, the Transcontinental Road Race, where drivers compete against each other to amass the best scores (points are allotted based on pedestrians killed). The three keys to winning are: surviving to the end, achieving a high score, and crossing the finish line first. In the 2000 race, there are five competitors: fan favorite and perennial winner Frankenstein (David Carradine), whose mask and costume hide reputed hideous deformities; Machine Gun Joe Viterbo (Sylvester Stallone), whose quick temper and penchant for violence make him a dangerous opponent; the cowgirl Calamity Jane (Mary Woronov); the neo-Nazi Matilda the Hun (Roberta Collins); and the would-be modern-day Caesar, Nero the Hero (Martin Kove).

All's not well in the world. A growing resistance movement seeks to undermine the regime of Mr. President (Dandy McCallum) by sabotaging the race and killing the leader. A key member of this movement is Frankenstein's navigator, Annie Smith (Simone Griffeth), whose role in the plot is to kidnap Frankenstein and replace him with a double who would then assassinate Mr. President at the victory ceremony. As it turns out, however, Frankenstein is planning his own attack when he wins the race. Nero is eliminated almost immediately when he tries to kill a "baby" that's actually a bomb. Matilda drives off a cliff (although not until having shown her breasts). Jane drives over a mine (also, only once she has shown her breasts). And Joe is blown up by Frankenstein's "hand" grenade.

During the ‘60s and ‘70s, Corman's name on a movie wasn't unlike that of the Blumhouse moniker in today's market. He made exploitation films quickly and inexpensively. Some were quite good; most weren't. Occasionally, he was instrumental in boosting the career of an important talent (Martin Scorsese, for example, worked for Corman on Boxcar Bertha). Sadly, this wasn't the case with Death Race 2000 -- director Paul Bartel did not go on to develop an impressive filmography.

Aspects of Death Race 2000 have made their way into other, sometimes better films. The Running Man, The Purge, and the quasi-remake Death Race come immediately to mind. All postulate futures in which society has collapsed and the government is using violent entertainment to pacify the masses. Death Race 2000 spends too little time on the political elements for them to have any heft and the action/exploitation elements are handled clumsily. The sense of fun that makes some of Corman's movies legitimately guilty pleasures is absent. Film critics in the ‘70s, even some known for being kind to these sorts of films, were unimpressed. Roger Ebert awarded Death Race 2000 zero stars (although, in later years, he indicated maybe that was a little too harsh). I'm closer to Gene Siskel's opinion - he gave it a single star.

Although the film's political aspects are weak and flabby, the media-related satirical elements have teeth. Three reporters -- Junior Bruce (Don Steele), Grace Pander (Joyce Jameson), and Harold (Carle Bensen) -- act the part of a Greek chorus as they report on events. Carle Bensen's portrayal of Harold is a half-imitation of Walter Cronkite mixed with a half-imitation of Howard Cosell.

The movie's star, David Carradine, made Death Race 2000 immediately after completing filming of the final season of his TV series, Kung-Fu. He reportedly accepted the role (which was first offered to Peter Fonda, who wasn't available) to "kill the image of Caine and launch a movie career." Also in the cast was an up-and-coming actor named Sylvester Stallone. At the time, Stallone was toiling on the screenplay for Rocky, which he would film shortly after completing Death Race 2000, and he was not a marquee name. No one else in the cast is likely to be remembered, although love interest/co-star Simone Griffeth had a nice career working in television during the ‘70s and ‘80s.

Could it be argued that the movie is "so bad that it's good?" I suppose, especially if you're a connoisseur of cinematic guano. For me, Death Race is merely bad. I wouldn't worry about finding a way to append the word "good" to anything associated with this film.

© 2020 James Berardinelli