Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!
Death Race 2000
Release Date(s)1975 (June 22, 2010)
Studio(s)New World (Shout! Factory)
Whatever else might be said about Roger Corman, he’s a man with very few illusions about his work as both director and producer. Sure, you tried to make a good picture but it was more important to make an inexpensive, marketable and eventually profitable one. In addition, Corman knew his audience. Unlike today’s uber-producers who attempt to appeal to essentially everyone in the world with each megabudget spectacular, Corman made monster movies for people who like monster movies, biker movies for people who like biker movies. If you generally don’t enjoy killer fish movies, Piranha isn’t going to be the one that makes you a convert.
But there are a scattered few gems in the Corman library that transcend their B-movie origins, standing the test of time by mashing up genres and assembling a rare harmonic convergence of talent both in front of and behind the camera. One of the best of this elite group is the gory action/sci-fi/comedy Death Race 2000.
While the plot is by now familiar, it was bracingly original back in 1975. David Carradine, fresh off Kung Fu, stars as Frankenstein, the most popular driver in the world’s most brutal car race. Racers score points for hitting pedestrians as they speed from New York to New Los Angeles. But a group of freedom-fighters led by Thomasina Paine (Harriet Medin) want the brutal race stopped and the oppressive reign of Mr. President (Sandy McCallum) ended.
Credit for the success of Death Race 2000 must be shared between a number of folks, starting with Roger Corman for seeing the potential for dark comedy and satire in Ib Melchior’s original, fairly grim short story. The screenplay by Robert Thorn and longtime Corman collaborator Charles B. Griffith expands on the source material, adding background and a diverse lineup of supporting characters. The characters are brought to life by a stellar range of talent, including Sylvester Stallone as Machine Gun Joe Viterbo, the great Mary Woronov as Calamity Jane, and The Real Don Steele, a legendary L.A. radio personality, as commentator Junior Brown. The low budget puts some limitations on the movie’s ambitious futuristic look, but the designers work around these restraints with wild imagination and creative use of existing locations.
Even amid all the speeding cars, explosions, gore, and gratuitous T&A, the sardonic wit of director Paul Bartel is unmistakable. Although he was a familiar face in front of the camera (he appears briefly here as Frankenstein’s Doctor), Bartel only helmed a handful of features before his death in, ironically enough, 2000. He was the ideal choice to direct Death Race 2000, giving it just enough bite and political subtext. Other directors could have made this and it may even have been entertaining but with Bartel behind the camera, it’s smarter and more subversive than even Corman bargained for.
Shout’s Blu-ray gives Death Race 2000 a nice high-def facelift, although the image quality is ever-so-slightly more inconsistent than other titles in the Corman lineup. The mono audio is just fine, certainly as good as it’s ever going to get. The disc rounds up all the bonus features from previous editions, including a 1999 interview with Corman by Leonard Maltin, a chatty 2005 audio commentary by Corman and Mary Woronov, and the 10-minute featurette Playing the Game: Looking Back at Death Race 2000.
The new stuff is top-notch. There are new interviews with art director B.B. Neel, car designer James Powers, car constructor Dean Jeffries, costume designer Jane Ruhm, author Ib Melchior and composer Paul Chihara. They’re all good but make sure to check out Ruhm’s featurette for some of the best stories. There’s also a nice new interview snippet with the late David Carradine, actually an outtake from a feature produced for the Sundown: The Vampire in Retreat DVD. The new audio commentary by assistant director Lewis Teague and editor Tina Hirsch is solidly informative, despite a few more conversation gaps than in the Corman/Woronov effort. Finally, you get an extensive gallery of posters and stills, TV and radio spots, the trailer (including a fun Trailers from Hell version with commentary by John Landis, who turns up briefly in the movie as a mechanic), a terrific booklet with notes by Dana MacMillan, and reversible cover art.
Death Race 2000 was one of Corman’s most successful movies ever and with good reason. It’s an energetic, lively, original sci-fi thriller with enough memorable characters and moments to fill three movies. It’s hardly a surprise that it became the subject of a remake (although for my money, Death Race 2000 still sounds more futuristic than plain old Death Race, despite the fact that we’re over a decade past the turn of the century). But the original is still the best and one of my favorites in the Corman library. Keep on racing, Frankenstein.
- Dr. Adam Jahnke