CULT CLASSICS: DEATH RACE 2000 (1975)
DEATH RACE 2000 (1975)
Starring David Carradine, Simone Griffeth and Sylvester Stallone
Directed by Paul Bartel
Written by Robert Thom and Charles B. Griffith
Well, the year 2000 could have happened like that. That was my reaction watching Death Race 2000, the Paul Bartel-directed 1975 cult classic that posited a year 2000 where the citizens of a fascist America are kept entertained and pacified by the Death Race, a cross-country dash from New York to New Los Angeles where drivers get points not only for who gets there first but how many pedestrians they kill along the way.
David Carradine, fresh from his stint as Caine on the TV hit Kung Fu, stars as Frankenstein, the disfigured, black-clad hero of the Death Race. His navigator, Annie Smith (Griffeth), has a hidden agenda, while his competition, including Machine Gun Joe Viterbo (Stallone, a year away from Rocky), the libidinous Calamity Jane (Andy Warhol associate Mary Woronov) and Nazi Matilda the Hun (Roberta Collins: Eaten Alive) will do anything (and kill anyone) to win the race.
Producer Roger Corman’s adaptation of the Ib Melchior short story “The Racer” retains the original’s horror at our society’s love of violence but wraps it in black comedy and the usual trappings of exploitation: nudity, action and, well, entertaining violence. The cast gives it their all, and, fortunately, has a good script to work from. (Although we say “chicken!” to Stallone for wearing a towel in the massage scene.)
Bartel, who would go on to perfect his brand of black comedy in 1982’s Eating Raoul, shows a flair for action, and the crew uses their virtually non-existent budget to good effect, creating some excellent race cars and locations to create a futuristic atmosphere.
As for Shout! Factory’s DVD presentation, it’s fantastic. Death Race 2000 is part of the company’s new “Roger Corman’s Cult Classics” collection, and the extras, produced by Red Shirt’s Michael Felsher, are uniformly informative and entertaining, including interviews with Corman, Melchior, costume designer Jane Ruhm (who relates a hilarious story about Carradine), composer Paul Chihara and the late Carradine himself.