In the near future the ultimate sporting event is the deathrace. Contestants get score points for running people down as they speed across the country. The sport has crazed fans who sacrifice themselves to the drivers. An overt agency is trying to bring an end to the immoral deathrace and has infiltrated one of their followers in to the race as a navigator. In the end of the race the lives of the competitors, the President and the deathrace itself are in peril.
David Carradine ... Frankenstein
Simone Griffeth ... Annie Smith
Sylvester Stallone ... Machine Gun Joe Viterbo
Mary Woronov ... Calamity Jane
Roberta Collins ... Matilda the Hun
Martin Kove ... Nero the Hero
Louisa Moritz ... Myra
Don Steele ... Junior Bruce (as The Real Don Steele)
Joyce Jameson ... Grace Pander
Carle Bensen ... Harold
Sandy McCallum ... Mr. President
Paul Laurence ... Special agent
Harriet Medin ... Thomasina Paine
Vince Trankina ... Lt. Fury
Bill Morey ... Deacon
David Carradine stars in this classic cult creation. Deathrace 2000 is the 20th anniversary of the murderous trans-continental road race, or, in the words of the US president "what you all want".
You could lose this film in the repertoire of John Carpenter. If you're a Carpenter fan, you really need to see this. Much is made of Corman's production of this film, but this is really not a Corman film in any sense - except for its very obviously low budget. Paul Bartel (of Eating Raoul fame) deserves the directorial credit here, and he really did well given the mediocrity of the material he had to work with.
Ostensibly, the film is about a race involving five participants - Frankenstein (Carradine), Machine Gun Joe Viterbo (Stallone), Calamity Jane (Woronov), Mathilda the Hunn, and Nero the Hero - all of comic book stature. They are joined by navigators who double as concubines, which, I suppose, illustrates the trust and intimacy a driver must have with any partner involved in a high speed transcontinental race where the goal is to kill as many pedestrians as possible along the way. About a quarter of the way through the film, it becomes clear that the real story is about the connection between the US government, religion, mass-produced violence and a resistance movement, all focused on either promoting or ending the race once and for all. As despicable as the empowered elite may be in this film, the critique of the media is even more scathing.
Carradine is race hero Frankenstein. Sly Stallone plays his arch-rival Machine Gun Joe Viterbo, and an ensemble cast of fellow racers, media mavens, politicos, and willing and unwilling victims of "the great race" lend strong support. The acting is predictably campy and sometimes just a little too B grade. But the occasional pacing disaster just enhances the humor-value of the film. Stallone is particularly amusing, and gets great support from his sidekick. Carradine is typically bizarre, and even parodies himself with a few poorly choreographed kung fu techniques during his absurd fight scene with Stallone. As short as he is, Stallone is still a much larger and more fit man than Carradine, but gets handily whooped. The cinematographer makes no effort to hide the absurdity of this scene.
The script for this film is a series of well-delivered clichés strung together with cleverly choreographed racing action sequences. As such, it parodies tough-guy talk in films and in real life. The photography is excellent, and on par with John Carpenter's straightforward visual subtlety.
This film appears, at first blush, as a comedic celebration of violence. But it's really a very campy comment on the use of violence in sport and entertainment, as a way to distract and desensitize the public from serious issues such as economic stress, collectivist totalitarianism, the enshrinement of mediocrity, and "minority privilege" (a euphemism for rule by an entrenched powerful elite). The film is dated and does not need to be seen ten times to get it (though I just completed about my 12th viewing).
The political messages are worth hearing, the humor is worth paying attention to, and, if it's your first time, you will likely find this movie quite entertaining.
When I was younger and my family would go for a drive, my father would often make the remark that if he swerved and hit someone, it would be worth twenty points. In my youth, I never really understood where he picked it up from, but now I think it's safe to say that "Death Race 2000" was his source.
In a post-revolutionary America, racers travel from the East Coast to West Coast, racking up points along the way by running down citizens, with more points given for women, children and the elderly. Starring David Carradine and Sylvester Stallone.
While this movie is fairly cheesy, it's fun in a way most other films simply aren't. I wouldn't even call it a "dark comedy" because the violence isn't dark, it's just campy. And there is some strong underlying message about American values that could be interpreted differently by different people: is America an inherently violent nation? Or are we a nation trying to maximize our freedoms? (This dispute comes into play when "rebels" show up who wish to end the race and restore the old America.) Stallone has a surprisingly small role, despite being the secondary character. He does not speak much and seems to be in the movie for no other reason than to use violence against women. In the vernacular, he "keeps his pimp hand strong".
David Carradine, who never busts out a karate move in this film, is the real hero. He plays the race's most popular character ("Frankenstein") who has been pieced back together year after year. His bondage gear outfit and smooth Carradine attitude make him a clear favorite for movie viewers, as well.
I would need to view this film again to fully analyze it, but I think the parody of American culture is very interesting and there's no surprise this film is shown now on "American Movie Classics". That's something Stephen King's "Running Man" will probably never accomplish.
The B-film industry was once a thriving staple of Hollywood, with directors of all walks and ideals being able to make a film as long as they could raise the cash. Roger Corman, a producer and director among many other things, is one embodiment of the independent spirit. Producing over three hundred films in his career, his name is virtually synonymous with B-level schlock, and it is his productions that have given many of today's major stars their start. In fact, you will find three very familiar faces gracing Death Race 2000. Death Race 2000 is one of his more extravagant productions, but do not let that fool you. Even in 1975, the three hundred thousand dollars he spent on Death Race 2000 would have equaled lunch money on The Godfather Part II, released the previous year on a comparatively lavish budget of thirteen million dollars. While I like both films equally, Death Race 2000 impresses me more simply because it manages to entertain me from start to finish without spending enough money to fund an emergency ward for a month.
Death Race 2000's plot is simple enough. Five drivers in customised cars drive across a repressive American dictatorship, starting on the East Coast before making their way to New Los Angeles. Along the way, they may run over any pedestrians for certain scores. Rather than simply being the first to cross the finish line, the winner is he who can accumulate more points than the others. It is this critical difference compared to other racing films from which much of the comedy is derived. Those who have seen the film before will remember Euthanasia Day with a lot of fondness, and the utter incompetence of the resistance movement is hilarious in itself. But the real comedy derives from the individual drivers and their personalities. By far the most normal driver in the competition is Calamity Jane, a woman with a cowgirl fetish and metallic bullhorns on the front of her car. Coming next is Nero The Hero, who will look very familiar to viewers of The Karate Kid. His whole shtick revolves around being a Roman Gladiator, but the film does not really give him enough time to develop it.
Things get really interesting with racer number three, Matilda The Hun. Sporting Nazi symbolism and screaming "Blitzkrieg" whenever she scores a pedestrian, she is the least subtle indication that the makers had their tongues firmly in their cheeks during the creation of the film. Next are the two big rivals in the competition. Sylvester Stallone plays "Machine Gun" Joe Viterbo like a cranky adolescent who has snorted too much cocaine. There is literally nothing on the road he will not kill, and Stallone's trademark slurred speech suits the character to a T. But the real star of the story is Frankenstein, the other previous race winner and a friend of the President. David Carradine plays Frankenstein like a C-grade Darth Vader, delivering much of the comedy. His diversion on Euthanasia Day and the moment where he kicks Stallone's butt are worth watching the film for by themselves. Learning about why he wants to win the race, and what he will do in order to accomplish it, are hilarious in and of themselves. You can sort of see why Carradine and Stallone went on to become headlining stars whilst Kove enjoyed a brief career as the lead villain.
Death Race 2000 is as dated as hell, let's not kid ourselves. The matte painting of the starting race track is more obvious than an undone bluescreen effect. The blood is so fake that it looks pink at times. The editing makes it very confusing to see how one is getting run over, or who is punching whom during the aforementioned Carradine/Stallone altercation. On the other hand, its story of a dictatorship America that uses sport as an opiate for the masses, its portrayal of the media, and its depiction of blind obedience are timeless. They are even more relevant thirty years on than when the film first premiered. I like to think of the incompetent resistance movement as an indictment of the fact that we would have a better government if we had a credible or even opposing opposition. Seventy-nine minutes is too short a time to go into these political subplots at all, but that Death Race 2000 touches on them at all when far more serious and lengthy films made years later cannot even consider them is a credit to Corman and his company. Death Race 2000 is one of those films that should be preserved in a time capsule for the edification of future generations.
I gave Death Race 2000 a seven out of ten. Were I making it today, there are a few things I would do differently. The television segments would have been filmed using video or line removal rather than a camera at a television screen, for instance. Balancing this out, however, is the fact that so many of the shots are so effectively composed that it is no wonder Tak Fujimoto went on to become a multi-award-winning Hollywood cinematographer. In short, if you have not seen Death Race 2000 yet, then grab the new Roger Corman Classics DVD. It will be the best B-film, in fact one of the best films period, you will see all year.
* The speech mannerisms of the character Harold parody those of Howard Cosell.
* According to Roger Corman, several of the custom cars featured in the movie were later sold to car museums for considerably more than it cost to build them.
* The film retains only the basic premises of the original short story by Ib Melchior; the characters and incidents are all different. The story focuses on just one mechanic and driver, and one anti-racer. In particular, it does not include the President or the special driver Frankenstein.
* The racetrack used for the opening track and grandstand scenes is the Ontario Motor Speedway near Los Angeles.
* The car in which President Frankenstein and Annie drive away in after their wedding is a Richard Oaks Nova kit-car, actually based on the Volkswagen Beetle chassis (but obviously not the body). These were available in kit form for many years starting in the mid-1970s.
* Several of the cars in the movie are re-bodied Volkswagens, including a VW Karmann-Ghia (Matilda's Buzz Bomb). The white Resistance Army car that chases Frankenstein very briefly before crashing and blowing up is a 1965 or 1966 Ford Mustang. Nero's car was based on a Fiat 850 Spider, and Frankenstein's on a Chevrolet Corvette.
* Roger Corman wrote the original treatment of the film, which was serious in tone, but thought it was not right and, in his words, was "kind of vile". He decided the dark material of the story would be better served by making the movie into a comedy and had 'Robert Thom' rewrite the treatment.
* Both Sylvester Stallone and David Carradine did much of their own driving. In addition, producer Roger Corman drove in scenes that were shot on public streets, since the custom-built cars used in the movie were not street legal and the film's stunt drivers did not want to be caught driving them by the police.
* Mary Woronov, who plays Calamity Jane, did not know how to drive a car, so a stunt driver did all the actual driving for her in the movie. For close-ups, Woronov sat in a car towed behind a truck with a camera crew riding in it.
* The role of Frankenstein was originally offered to Peter Fonda, who considered the movie too ridiculous for words. David Carradine, however, was so enthusiastic about the part that he said he would have done the role for free, since he felt he had a reputation in the industry of being something of a "monster", and he wanted to show that underneath it all he was fully human -- just like the Frankenstein character was.