47 FILMS: 32. DEATH RACE 2000
In our continuing series of 47 films to watch before you are murdered in your dreams, we look at cult classic Death Race 2000.
Set in a fictional 2000, Paul Bartlet’s Death Race 2000 posits a future in which a dictatorship ensures its continued popularity via the Transcontinental Road Race where competitors in souped up death cars pick up extra points killing pedestrians along the way, with the most points for the very old or babies. Whereas Rollerball – also released in 1975 – is a melancholy take on the same idea, Roger Corman’ rip off is gleefully inventive and funny. The gore is over the top and sensationalized and the absurdity of the premise is played up for laughs.
David Carradine is Frankenstein, a veteran racer whose body has been replaced so often that he is a walking version of my father’s ax! Simone Griffiths plays Annie, his new navigator and a member of the resistance who has her own motives for getting involved in the race. A young Sylvester Stallone is glorious as Machine Gun Joe Viterbo, a real live version of the leader of the Ant Hill mob, with a silk tie and a tendency to machine gun people and eat with his hands. A year later he will break out in Rocky. Roberta Collins plays the neo-Nazi Matilda the Hun, with her lackey Herman the German.
The racing is exciting and Corman’s low budget aesthetic adds a kitsch charm, but there is also some genuine satiric intent, which nails the supine media celebration of violence and death even as it insists on cloying sentimentality. ‘He is a close personal friend,’ the interviewer opines. Even the rebels are a bunch of deluded crazies, with a Tomasina Paine who claims to be great grand-daughter of Thomas Paine. With its brilliantly punning script and its cartoon characters and ludicrous exaggeration, Death Race 2000 is an exploitation classic that hits its targets with bloody precision and eager vim.