A treasured cult classic from much-loved B-Movie producer Roger Corman, Death Race 2000 can be described as a lot of things - it's cheesy, it's overwrought, it's stupid, it's campy, the special effects are appalling, the plot is idiotic... And it's great fun! The average viewer or critic will almost certainly look distastefully at the film's low production values and the poor acting, and dismiss the flick entirely (Roger Ebert did award it zero stars). To the less cynical, however, this is top-notch campy filmmaking; taking a low budget in exchange for absolute freedom to be as ridiculous and unconventional as possible. With its absurd premise, a macabre sense of humour as well as its dizzying combination of racing and pure ultra-violence (of the bright red tomato sauce variety), Death Race 2000 comes off as a mindlessly entertaining '70s exploitation romp...the kind of fluff one would watch at the drive-in cinema all those decades ago.
Set in the far flung future of the year 2000 (well...it was far flung back in 1975), Death Race 2000 presents America as a fascist empire now run by a powerful dictator after a major global turmoil leaves the world in dismal shape. The ultimate sporting event is now the Transcontinental Death Race - a futuristic annual road race during which skilled drivers gun their customised four-wheeled killing machines from one side of America to the other, and contestants can score points by murdering innocent pedestrians (the more helpless the person, the more points the driver receives). This year, the formidable and popular champion Frankenstein (Carradine) has a new challenge in the form of arrogant rookie driver 'Machine Gun' Joe (Stallone). A twist at this year's Death Race also comes in the form of an organisation trying to bring an end to the immoral sport.
Death Race 2000 is wonderfully compact at a meagre 80 minutes, resulting in a fast-paced, darkly funny comic-book action film. Like most of Roger Corman's movies, Death Race 2000 was quite obviously shot on the cheap. Corman (who served as producer) had a talent for making the most of a restricted budget, and by the time Death Race 2000 entered production he had more experience making successful low-budget movies than anyone else before him. Corman's talent really pays off when it comes to films like this. The cars (though they just look like plain old consumer vehicles given minor body work) look fairly convincing as the speedy, pedestrian-slaughtering station wagons of death. Certain things, such as the futuristic backgrounds at the beginning of the movie, look extremely fake and unbelievably cheesy. This is not necessarily a bad thing, though, as this constitutes half the film's appeal. In traditional with this type of cinema, there's also a sleazy satirical subtext beneath the on-screen violence.
Despite some ham-fisted moralising about violence in American culture, Death Race 2000 is by no means a serious movie - it's infused with Corman's trademark brand of black humour. People get run over in hysterically fake ways (resulting in bright red ketchupy splats), and doctors even wheel the elderly out to the middle of the road for the drivers to hit. It's not the (distinctly lacking) plot or the creative ideas that make Death Race 2000 so enjoyable, but the characters and the cheesy action. The campy qualities of this flick simply cannot be overstated. It's almost impossible for an audience to feel sorry for the innocent pedestrians who are killed mercilessly because it's so entertaining to watch them die! The appalling special effects, the disjointed editing and the shonky film adjustments (when shots are sped up, it's very obvious) make Death Race 2000 a downright hilarious watch. Like most of Corman's work, this has become a cult classic for a good reason.
Director Paul Bartel attempts to compensate for a noticeable lack of plot by throwing in an assortment of colourful oddball characters and moments of comedy, but the frequent narrative lulls become more and more problematic as the film progresses. In fact, the entire story is a one big mess, not to mention the screenplay is fundamentally a congregation of lousy dialogue, shallow characters, a muddled plot and traces of a deeper social meaning. Death Race 2000 is simply so awful that it's good. Only über-producer Corman could produce rubbish of this surprisingly watchable standard.
Face it: you didn't settle upon the decision to watch Death Race 2000 hoping to witness some true acting talent. The movie is crammed with barely passable acting, which is to be expected for a film of this ilk.
Sylvester Stallone's typical tough-guy persona serves him well here as the aggressive Machine Gun Joe. This is one of Sly's earliest performances (in his late twenties here), and he bellows out each line as if he's drugged on PCP. As you'd expect from an action film, Stallone's performance is watchable but very contrived. Oddly, for such a manly man he's clad in an astonishing amount of pink. At the opposite end, David Carradine appears as Frankenstein; a scarred road warrior in a corny costume of a black leather suit and cape (the production values are painfully evident while observing this campy outfit). Where Stallone delivered his dialogue like a kid on a Trix high, Carradine's Frankenstein is more of an anorexic Darth Vader. He ominously mumbles and grumbles as he disperses cryptic musings.
Meanwhile, the other three competitors of the Death Race appear in the form of Mary Woronov, Roberta Collins and Martin Kove - all of whom are forgettable.
Low in budget, high in chutzpah - Death Race 2000 is '70s schlock exploitation filmmaking at its finest. It's a fun, thoroughly campy piece of work let down by the terrible script and a distinct lack of plot. Yet, it isn't difficult to understand why the movie has endured over the years, particularly given the unabashed violent tendencies and the genuinely thrilling racing sequences. The greatest thing about Death Race 2000 is that it's very short, succinct and entertaining. There's plenty of cartoonish action to enjoy, and even when the racing pauses there's gratuitous nudity as well as the spacious, orange-décor hotel suites to keep one rapt. The goofy narrative also concludes satisfactorily. The combination of slapstick humour, satire, and plain camp ensures this movie a place among Corman's finest.
Followed by Death Sport. A re-imagining (not exactly a remake as only a few character names and the general premise are retained) was also released in 2008.