Death Race 2000 (1975)
Score: 4 out of 5
The source of most of the fantasies of everybody who's ever been stuck in traffic, Death Race 2000 is up there with Rollerball (this was made the same year in order to compete with that film), The Running Man, Battle Royale, and The Hunger Games as one of the quintessential examples of the surprisingly broad genre of "dystopian blood-sport action satires". Produced by legendary schlock king Roger Corman, it's as low-budget as you'd expect from that and at times suffers from the lack of money to fully bring its ideas to life, but it makes up for it with enthusiasm, wit, and creativity. Despite its dated aesthetics, it's a movie whose central idea, racing scenes, and black comedy never get old and never stop being entertaining.
The film is set in the far-off year of 2000, in the "United Provinces" of America, a dictatorship under the rule of a man known only as Mr. President who took power in the late '70s after an economic collapse plunged the country into ruin. As bread and circuses for the populace, he's organized the Transcontinental Road Race, a cross-country rally where five of America's top racers compete to go from New York to New Los Angeles, with pit stops in St. Louis and Albuquerque. Points are scored not only for getting to the pit stops and the finish line first, as is customary for auto racing, but also for running down pedestrians, with grown men worth 20 points, teenage boys worth 40 points, boys aged 12 and under worth 70 points, men aged 75 and older worth 100 points, and females of any age worth an extra ten points over males. This year's drivers are the Roman gladiator-themed Nero, the Nazi-themed Matilda the Hun, the cowgirl Calamity Jane, the Chicago gangster Machine Gun Joe, and finally, Frankenstein, a fan-favorite veteran of the race who's clad head to toe in black leather to cover up the many injuries he's sustained and been rebuilt from. Meanwhile, an underground resistance movement led by the elderly Thomasina Paine that seeks to restore the old American democracy is out to sabotage the race and take down Mr. President, and this year, they've managed to get Thomasina's granddaughter Annie Smith installed as Frankenstein's navigator, hoping to kill Mr. President's favored competitor and strike a propaganda blow. What Annie and the resistance don't know, however, is that Frankenstein also has a ton of secrets, and isn't the mythical figure and ally of the regime that he's promoted as.
For most of this movie's brisk 79-minute runtime, you're getting exactly what you'd expect from a movie about a cross-country death race: namely, car chases in which people in souped-up death machines try to kill each other and run down any bystanders they come across. Barring one scene on a highway where the quick cutting makes it hard to follow, director Paul Bartel shoots the car chases quite well, making use of every trick in the book to mask the film's budget. The cars themselves, heavily modified and nearly unrecognizable from the humble VWs, Fiats, and Corvairs they began life as, look appropriately bold and ridiculous, clearly built for a long-distance road rally but all of them covered in cool stylistic touches that make them visually distinct and their drivers' personas immediately apparent -- as they should when I have to know who's driving what at a glance. Numerous scenes in this film exist solely as visual gags, like a scene at a nursing home where the nurses and orderlies bring out all the terminal patients into the street for the racers to "euthanize", when a member of Frankenstein's fan club willingly offers herself up as a sacrifice for her idol to kill, or when Machine Gun Joe kicks off the final leg of the race from Albuquerque to New LA by running down two members of his own pit crew for 40 points, all of them providing some hilarious, darkly comic moments of twisted levity.
Speaking of Machine Gun Joe, he's the source of many of this film's highlights. Played by a young Sylvester Stallone before Rocky and First Blood made him an action star, his character is basically a pinstriped, villainous version of his stock "Italian Stallion" persona, right down to the pose he strikes when he's firing a Tommy gun in the air during his introduction. Even in a low-budget Roger Corman movie, the man had charisma in spades; he's easily the best damn actor in this thing. David Carradine as Frankenstein makes for a good stoic, playing basically the same persona he did on the TV show Kung Fu, but he gets surprisingly little to do beyond look tough and driven to win, while Simone Griffith gets the meatier role as his navigator Annie. Even with her limited range, Griffeth makes Annie into a figure who's both gorgeous and capable. Corman, for all of the '70s-style male gaze he indulges in (pretty much the entire female cast, Griffeth included, gets naked at some point), preferred to see his female characters not be damsels to be rescued, and that is on full display here with both the badass Annie and with Calamity Jane. Played by longtime Corman collaborator Mary Woronov, the cowgirl Jane is the other recipient of many of the film's best moments, most notably a chase involving bikers working for the resistance that's said to have inspired George Miller when making Mad Max.
Overall, this film's shortcomings mostly come down to budget. Outside of the matte painting depicting the futuristic New York in the opening, every scene on the road, from New Jersey to the Midwest to New Mexico, was shot in the distinct Mediterranean scrub of southern California, and it was obvious. It immediately brought to mind a joke from Austin Powers, where they attempt to make the Pacific Coast Highway look like the English countryside just by adding a red British phone booth. The scenes where people are run over are obviously edited in such a manner as to cover up the lack of money they had for convincing gore effects, as is a fight in the garage between Frankenstein and Machine Gun Joe that's far from the best of either Carradine's career or Stallone's. The world-building and social commentary are pretty scattershot, too. The scene in the opening of fans unfurling Nazi flags to cheer on Matilda the Hun is still way too resonant forty years later, and the comments implying that China, Japan, and Mexico are all American colonies while the perfidious French lead the Europeans in a cold war against America did a great job of establishing the world the film takes place in without intruding on the action with infodumps. However, the feeling that this was a country in economic shambles that needed the strong rule of Mr. President never came through despite the multiple scenes of him blaming the French for the rotten state of the country, not even in the moments where we see the resistance plotting to take the country back. This wasn't a film that was interested in making a statement, like the competing Rollerball was; it's about knocking you out with the most outlandish action spectacle that $300,000 in 1975 dollars could afford.
The Bottom Line:
A crazy, gonzo action film whose datedness only increases its charm, Death Race 2000 is rough around its edges but still packs a winning combination of road-rage action and pitch-black humor. It's probably better known by reputation than for its own merits, but don't let that stop you from seeking it out.