When is a bad movie a good movie? Death Race 2000 falls short of any serious standards, because it’s campy, cartoonish, and silly, with one-dimensional characters cavorting their way through absurd adventures. Yet the film’s exuberance and lack of pretention manifest as a crude sort of charm, which works in tandem with breakneck pacing—the movie’s like a piece of candy you don’t realize you shouldn’t be eating until it’s all gone. Science fiction delivered by way of black comedy, Death Race 2000 presents a future in which the United States has become the United Provinces. The supreme ruler of the United Provinces, Mr. President (Sandy McCallum), has eliminated many personal freedoms and keeps the population narcotized by presenting an annual blood-sport extravaganza called the Transcontinental Road Race. A small group of drivers, each of whom has an oversized persona and a colorful costume to match, competes not only by racing each other from one coast to the next but also by running over pedestrians for points. During this particular iteration of the race, however, leftist rebels subvert Mr. President’s authority by sabotaging the event.
The main racers are Frankenstein (David Carradine), the reigning champion whose body comprises replacement parts after years of racing injuries; “Machine-Gun” Joe Viterbo (Sylvester Stallone), a gangster-styled competitor determined to replace Frankenstein as the crowd’s favorite; “Calamity” Jane Kelly (Mary Woronov), who works a Western-outlaw motif; Herman “The German” Boch (Fred Grandy), the league’s resident ersatz Nazi; and Ray “Nero the Hero” Lonagan (Martin Kove), a vainglorious putz with a Roman Empire shtick. Each racer is paired with a navigator, so most of the film comprises standoffs in which teams try to beat each other’s racing times and score points by nailing innocent victims. Also woven into the film are running gags related to announcers and fans. Plus, of course, the violence of the rebels.
Based on a story by Ib Melchior, Death Race 2000 was produced by Roger Corman and co-written by longtime Corman collaborator Charles B. Griffith, whose sardonic touch is audible in the film’s playful dialogue. Director Paul Bartel, the avant-garde humorist who later made the cult-fave comedy Eating Raoul (1982), does a great job throughout Death Race 2000 of balancing goofy humor with sly social commentary—every gag is a nudge at consumerism, egotism, sensationalism, or something else of that nature. The movie is never laugh-out-loud funny, but the tone is consistent and the story (mostly) makes sense. Plus, this being a Corman production, there’s plenty of gore and nudity to keep l0w-minded fans happy. Carradine makes an appealing antihero, his casual cool suited to the role of a seasoned killer, and Stallone is amusing as his hotheaded rival. Meanwhile, Woronov lends a touch of heart, Don Steele (who plays the main announcer) sends up showbiz phoniness, and leading lady Simone Griffeth (who plays Frankenstein’s navigator) blends likeability with sexiness. Best of all, Death Race 2000 runs is course in 80 brisk minutes—all killer, no filler.
Death Race 2000: GROOVY