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Death Race 2000 (1975)
Tonight's Feature Presentation

DEATH RACE 2000 (1975)

Starring: David Carradine, Sylvester Stallone, Simone Griffeth, Roberta Collins, Mary Woronov

Written By: Robert Thom, Charles Griifith, Ib Melchior (short story) Directed By: Paul Bartel

The Short Version

This is one of Roger Corman’s signature classics.

The violence is ridiculously over the top… and it has a point.

If you’re easily offended, this movie will find a way to tweak you.

Hopefully you’re not, because if you are, you’ll miss out on a whole lot of fun.

Death Race 2000 is a low budget automotive action great, and absolutely worth seeing.

The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?


Cheap and tasty.

Pairs Well With...


Nothing else will do here.

“Jesus Chrysler!  Get off the road!”

They say that when legendary filmmaker Roger Corman first put together a screen treatment based on Ib Melchior’s short story, “The Racer,” he considered the result “kind of vile,” so he handed it off to someone else with the instructions to turn it into more of a comedy.  And so was born the screenplay for Death Race 2000, a violent, over the top action classic that some still might consider “kind of vile,” but which is in fact an outstanding piece of high octane satire and “that’s just wrong” style humor.

How wrong, you ask?

Let’s have a look at the premise.  Five two-person teams are engaged in the 20th Annual  Transcontinental Road Race from New York to New Los Angeles, with mandatory overnight stops in cities along the way.  They drive customized cars with sharp objects protruding from the front bumpers (at least), and the race is a “no holds barred” affair while the rubber’s on the road.  Rarely do all of the participants survive.  What’s more, getting to the finish line is only part of the contest: teams are expected to accumulate points along the way.  How do they do that?  Here’s a recap of the latest revisions to the rules, courtesy of one of the race’s announcers:

“Women are still worth 10 points more than men in all age brackets, but teenagers now rack up 40 points, and toddlers under 12 now rate a big 70 points.  The big score: anyone, any sex, over 75 years old has been upped to 100 points.”

That’s right, ladies and gents: the racers are expected to run over as many pedestrians/bystanders as they can along the way.

As for those racers: we have a narcissistic windbag named Nero the Hero (Martin Kove, The Karate Kid), a wannabe cowgirl called Calamity Jane (Mary Woronov, Chopping Mall), a Nazi from Milwaukee looking to win one for the Master Race and styling herself as Matilda the Hun (Roberta Collins, Caged Heat), a Chicago hothead who is “loved by thousands, hated by millions” by the name of ‘Machine Gun’ Joe Viterbo (Sylvester Stallone, Cobra), and a crowd favorite who’s supposedly a stitched-together monster after surviving more races than anyone else in history, appropriately called Frankenstein (David Carradine, G.O.D.).  Each is partnered with a member of the opposite sex who is officially referred to as a “Navigator” but who is also expected to serve as an in-race mechanic by day and as a sex object for her or his driver by night.

Oh, yes, folks; the cheese is poured on very thick indeed for Death Race 2000.  And so, as I’m sure you’ve guessed by now, is the violence.

The auto action is wild.  People are rammed and impaled in spectacular fashion.  A head gets smashed under a tire with a highly pronounced “splat.”  Hospital staff wheel patients of a “euthanasia ward” out into the street for the first racer who comes along to finish off, only for said racer to pull to the side and run over the nurses and orderlies instead.  A navigator instructs her driver that if a targeted group of (alleged) picnickers scatters, he should “go for the baby and the mother.”  Toss in some fisticuffs, a few bullets, and a couple of good old fashioned explosions, and you’ve got more than enough material to make for a very bloody and morally outrageous eighty minutes.  Polish things off with plenty of shameless nudity (and let’s not forget Matilda’s swastikas), and you can rest assured that any audience that wants to be offended by Death Race 2000 will absolutely find at least one way (if not five or six) to be offended by it.

And that’s a shame, really, because any such audience would be missing the point.

As noted up top, Death Race 2000 is a work of extreme satire; specifically, satire via absurdity.  On the surface, the over the top violence and injustices and moral outrages are played for laughs, and sure, one can absolutely watch and enjoy the movie on that level alone and be done with it.  (Most of us – even those who understand the next part – will, and that’s just fine.)  But anyone with even the slightest bit of clue must surely realize that no one making this movie actually advocates such behavior, nor are they numb to it.  Indeed, all of the over the top violence that plays out during the course of Death Race 2000 is meant as a protest against the general bloodthirstiness of society as a whole, and an invitation for the members of the audience to look in the mirror after the show to see if they might in fact resemble one of the characters they were just laughing/cringing at more than they might care to admit.  And for the especially slow class, the hero spells it out in plain English during the final scene, after which a voiceover courtesy of one of the film’s newscaster really hammers it home via a monologue describing the social evolution of humanity, noting that violence is the purview of cavemen while thought is the purview of civilized people.

A glorification of violence?  I don’t think so.  As did Rollerball in the same year and RoboCop twelve years later, Death Race 2000 uses its extreme violence to make a very solid point.  And, yes, to entertain through its absurdity, because there’s still a bit of Ancient Roman in all of us, whether we care to admit it or not.

Looking at things from a critic’s perspective, Death Race 2000 accomplishes a lot on a relatively tiny budget; not that one would expect anything less of a Roger Corman production, of course.  David Carradine does a solid job in his first breakout film role after leaving the successful comfort zone of the “Kung Fu” television series that made his reputation, and Sylvester Stallone – just a breath away from the superstardom of Rocky – chews the scenery with outstanding flair in a rare turn as the movie’s most prominent villain.  Indeed, the entire cast does a great job, particularly when it comes to (deliberately) absurd deliveries and comic timing.  The automotive scenes look great (despite the fact that the real cars barely functioned, if at all, and one of the actors playing a driver did not in fact know how to drive), and the pacing is perfect.  When it comes to old school action flicks made on the cheap, you really can’t do much better than Death Race 2000.

Bottom line, why don’t you own this already?  Death Race 2000 is an all-time classic that very much deserves to be seen and then revisited at regular intervals.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, February, 2014

More From The Bar! | Death Warrant | Mad Max | THX 1138 | Death Race |

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