Review by Bob Ignizio
The notion of a dystopian future in which gladiatorial bloodsports make a comeback as a form of entertainment/means of social control for the populace goes back at least to Robert Sheckley's 1953 short story The 7th Victim. It has continued to be a popular premise even to the present, most notably in the best selling Hunger Games trilogy of young adult novels. For my money, though, the idea was perfected in 1975's DEATH RACE 2000. The film was based on a reasonably serious-minded short story by Ib (ANGRY RED PLANET, REPTILICUS) Melchior about a cross-country car race in which the drivers try to kill each other and any pedestrians who get in their way. Producer Roger Corman thought the story would work better as satire, and also had the good sense to hire Paul (EATING RAOUL) Bartel to direct.
In the year 2000 (hard to write that without thinking of Conan O'brien now), the most popular sporting event in the nation is the Transcontinental Road Race. The racers and their cars are just as cartoonish as the film's colorful pop-art opening credits sequence. There's cowgirl Calamity Jane (Mary Woronov), Nazi Matilda the Hun (Roberta Collins), effete self-styled emperor Nero the Hero (Martin Kove), and Machine Gun Joe Viterbo (Sylvester Stallone), who styles himself after thirties gangsters. But the man to beat is Frankenstein (David Carradine), the only 2-time winner of the race and a man so scarred from past wrecks that he barely has any factory parts left on his body.
Not everyone in this future America is willing to settle for bread and circuses, though. There's a resistance led by Thomasina Paine (Harriet Medin), and Paine's own great-granddaughter Annie (Simone Griffeth) has infiltrated the race as Frankenstein's navigator. As the vehicular carnage gets underway and the rebels try to sabotage the race, we also learn that Frankenstein has more than a few surprises up his sleeve.
Although the humor was already there in the script by Charles B. Griffith and Robert Thom, having a director like Bartel who knows how to play camp just right is crucial to the film's success. Even though the gore probably seems tame (and pretty obviously fake) by today's standards, it still takes a special touch to play this kind of violence for a mix of horror, laughs and social commentary and make it work. In addition to the gratuitous violence, the film also boasts considerable nudity and sex which helps make the point that American culture eroticizes violence. Either that or it's just good exploitation value, take your pick. No one says you have to pay any attention to the film's critique of the American love affair with cars, sports, sex and violence, least of all producer Corman who always believed any message in his films should take a back seat to entertainment, but it's there if you want it.
This was Carradine's first starring film role after the success of his Kung Fu television series, and was intended to help him break away from that image. It must have worked, as the guy continued to topline low budget genre pictures, with the occasional part in a big budget film like KILL BILL here and there, until his tragic death in 2009. Supporting actor Stallone, of course, went on to bigger, though not always better, things. Bartel went on to have a successful career as a character actor in films like PIRANHA and ROCK N ROLL HIGH SCHOOL, and directed the occasional film when he could get the financing (his masterpiece was 1982's EATING RAOUL) before sadly dying from a heart attack the same year his DEATH RACE was set in. As for the film itself, it's undeniably dated in spots, but for the most part still holds up pretty well. 3 out of 4 stars.