Running time: 80 min.
Release date: April 27, 1975
Do you remember Hanna-Barbera's Wacky Races? You know, the Saturday morning cartoon that featured a cross-country race between colorful characters with equally colorful vehicles? If you remember that show, did you ever think to yourself "You know what this needs? Blood and nudity!" Death Race 2000 is your twisted dream come true, if your warped little mind crossed that bridge. Produced by Roger Corman, Death Race 2000 is part satire, part mindless action as the movie makes a statement about the American media and their giddy fixation on sensational violence while countering that with fast-paced action involving cartoon-like characters and their equally cartoon-like vehicles. It all meshes together into a fascinating and highly over-the-top piece of work.
The setting is dystopian future America under a totalitarian regime and the President and his government have created a transcontinental road race in order to pacify the people. The race features five larger-than-life cars driven by five equally larger-than-life individuals. In a neat touch, the characterization of these racers are embodied in their vehicles; this makes it easier to remember which character is driving which vehicle during the race scenes. Each driver has a navigator of the opposite sex, and these navigators serve the dual purpose of acting as lovers during rest stops. The goal, however, of the race is not just to cross the finish line, oh no! The drivers accumulate bonus points for the killing of roadside pedestrians along the way. In a hilarious scene, a Howard Cosell parody named Harold (Carle Bensen), dryly runs through the points totals for each type of civilian; a baby is with seventy points, for example, with the elderly coming in at a whopping one hundred points. This, of course, leads to another humorous scene where nurses from a local rest home place wheelchair-bound old folks in the middle of the street for a big kill. This is referred to as "Euthanasia Day" and they happen to hold it every year during the race....coincidentally. While all this is happening, a group of rebels plots to kidnap the star racer, the leather-clad entity known as Frankenstein, and hold him hostage in an effort to end the race that is obviously distracting the population from the machinations of the government's rule. This leads to a series of Looney Tunes-esque booby traps for the racers peppered throughout the film's plot. There are several plot twists along the way, some of which work and others that sort of fall flat. The story has great doses of humor, especially at the beginning of the film. The myth of Frankenstein and the unabashed glee of commentator Junior Bruce (Don Steele) were particularly handled with comic flair.
Director Paul Bartel (who also makes a funny uncredited cameo appearance as Frankenstein's doctor) has taken an obvious low-budget and infused creativity into this story. The creative aspects include the car designs, costumes and some surprisingly effective road scenes. The film takes a knock against the human fascination with violence and gore by utilizing violence and gore in shocking manner. However, Bartel does not stand around to linger on the chaos. The blood flows quickly and the race moves on without looking back, much like the participants of the race. Perhaps what Bartel is saying is that we have become so desensitized to violence that we hardly bat an eyelash at it when it occurs. One of the drawbacks of the film, however, is that when the racers are at rest in their cavernous guest bedrooms, the story slows down just a bit. The story is very fast-paced and moves best when the cars are in motion. The backstory with the resistance also tends to bring the pacing down a bit as those characters are far less interesting than the ones inside the cars.
The casting is almost pitch perfect. David Carradine plays the mysterious Frankenstein, the leather-clad and scarred multiple champion. Carradine takes a character with a dark myth surrounding him and plays it mostly serious. His straight delivery of one-liners is quite funny, especially when he reveals the secret within his glove. The only issue here with Frankenstein is the motivation revealed for wanting to win the race, as it was not fully explored as to why Frankenstein wants to do what he sets out to do. This is a fault of the screenplay rather than anything Carradine did. Sylvester Stallone plays Frankenstein's rival, Machine Gun Joe Viturbo, a hot-headed gangster-type from Chicago. "Loved by thousands, hated by millions" is a hilarious line that describes Joe, who will stop at nothing to beat Frankenstein. Stallone hits every angry note perfectly in a memorable performance where the car was actually an extension of the character's personality, rather than defining the character like in the case of several of the others actors. Simone Griffeth portrays Annie, Frankenstein's navigator, who has secrets of her own. Griffeth gives Annie smarts and sex appeal and successfully makes the character likable, even with the hidden motives. Other b-movie stalwarts such as Mary Woronov as Calamity Jane and Roberta Collins as the Nazi, Matilda the Hun, fill out their roles fine but are not given much to do beyond their caricatures. Unfortunately, Martin Kove ("Nero the Hero") is not utilized for more than five minutes, in a role that would have been a hilarious distraction if the screenplay worked out differently.
Roger Corman and Paul Bartel take what could have been low-budget schlock and turn Death Race 2000 into a zany, witty and intelligent piece of action filmmaking. This is a story infused with humor, surprises and, of course, much violence, with some memorable characters, a fast pace and some biting satire. The only down notes would be a few plot holes revolving around character motivation and some uninteresting scenes involving the resistance subplot. However, the action in Death Race 2000 has more than enough in the tank to simultaneously win over and bowl over any discerning pedestrian.
Editor's note: This review was originally published with a rating of ***1/2 (we rate on a scale of * through ***** here at RTM). After some post-publishing thought, we have revised the rating to **** which we believe more accurately reflects our feelings of Death Race 2000. ~CJ