“Death Race 2000” is notable, not only for being one of the best cult action films ever made, but for the amazing foresight it showed in being one of the many fictional tales predicting the entertainment of the twenty first century. Sure, video game violence and reality television were established before the twenty first century, but it didn’t become prevalent and common until much later, when the extremes for entertainment were established as norms for amusement. “Death Race 2000” is a prophetic and darkly genius action thriller that pinpoints the very nature of human illness and how we view violence as nothing more than a mortal hurdle we can ignore in the face of rewards.
Director Roger Corman and Paul Bartel tackle disturbing violence, graphic images, and sharp commentary on America with their entertaining and rather sleazy dissection of our consistent fascination with violence “Death Race 2000.” Even in the days where cinematic violence has reached all out extremes and broken many taboos, Corman’s film is still an ahead of its time glimpse at a world that thrives on violence portrayed on television through cameras and sensationalism. The massive race our villains and anti-heroes take part in is, indeed, reality television, and it’s life or death for everyone involved. In this game called the Transcontinental Road Race, the players earn points by running over pedestrians (Yes, “Grand Theft Auto” ripped it off) and for every person or civilian with a branded customization (Nurses, Old people, et al), there is a certain set of points rewarded if you run them over and fully murder them with your car.
Many of the world’s greatest racers, paired with navigators, pit crews, and customized death cars, are granted the privilege of competing in this competition to rack up as many points as possible with human bodies and blood. “Death Race 2000” has that particular Roger Corman mark with an utterly enthusiastic atmosphere thanks to Paul Bartel’s demented energy that keeps the film an oddly visionary science fiction film that specializes in dark humor. The direction by Bartel is fantastic with scenes of pure tension and suspense, as well as Stanley Kramer esque madcap that will make you laugh for all the wrong reasons. “Death Race 2000” is a scathing indictment on our fascination with violence, and when we do laugh at the displays of sheer cruel murder, we ourselves are giving in to the observation that perhaps we’re not just the audience, but the spectators who really want to see where it’s all going and who dies. Even in 1975, we’re still just as bad as the folks in this universe who want to see old people in wheelchairs be mowed down by a giant race car.
Holding true the semi-grindhouse formula, Bartel’s film holds a bevy of busty women in the likes of Mary Woronov, Simone Griffeth, and Leslie McRae, while the racers themselves are utterly magnetic personalities. These murderous anti-heroes are also praised, coddled, and sensationalized by a hungry press who will do everything to ensure a story and grant them recognizable press in spite of the sport; yet another interesting societal self-reflection. Particularly there’s the over the top and scene chewing performance from a young Sylvester Stallone who plays resident villain and dirty racer “Machine Gun” Joe Viterbio who grumbles and shouts in every other word of dialogue and seeks to win the race by any means possible. There’s also my favorite character “Frankenstein,” a scarred and disfigured man who is touted as being the best racer of them all.
David Carradine is very much downplayed as this cloaked and costumed man who uses his “Monster” car as a lethal swift form of death on the roads, and is so popular people even willingly put themselves in front of his path to be hit. He’s a man who has been involved in so many accidents that his entire body is built from government technology and he walks in a very stiff and robotic posture. As usual, there are the rebellious individuals in the society who seek to overthrow the president and stop the race and they’ve planted assorted moles among the racers to sabotage them, and this adds a thicker sense of rivalry, as paranoia strikes fear and the drivers begin battling among themselves. They’re led by Thomasina Paine who is depicted as a sensationalist just as bad as the president.
Meanwhile, we’re kept up to date on the race thanks to commentators, and various reporters who take great amusement in the murders that occur to gain points, and ultimately the battle against the rebels to rig the race, and the president’s call to arms to stop the moles becomes a cluster fuck of violence, confusion and a sick ending that pretty much lays the cards out on the table. “Death Race 2000” isn’t just a science fiction dark comedy, but a wonderful commentary on our obsession with violence, our disturbing obsession with violence for sport, and our ability to make spectacles out of human misery, all the while submitting to a government distracting us from the economic problems with our world by submitting to our lust for blood to keep us from revolting. Though a camp classic, it’s also one of great significance that has yet to be paralleled.