Retro Review: DEATH RACE 2000: It’s Not Whether You Win or Lose, It’s How Many You Kill Along the Way

By Mark Arson, Contributing Blogger

DEATH RACE 2000 (1975); Dir: Paul Bartel; Starring David Carradine, Mary Woronov, Sylvester Stallone; Sat. March 26;  SPLATTERDAY NIGHT LIVE Stage Show at 9:30 pm; Screening at 10 PM; Plaza Theatre; $10.

DEATH RACE 2000 is one of my favorite films of all time, and I could probably stop at that. But I also could talk about this movie for hours, so I’ll meet you wonderful readers halfway. I was tempted to watch the recent remake with Jason Statham just as a reference point, but having heard about the differences between the two films beforehand I decided to skip it. Why? Because killing people for points has been removed in the remake, entitled simply DEATH RACE. Now, the concept hardly even seems to make a difference in the original film (it is implied that finishing first means more than scoring the most anyway), but DEATH RACE 2000 is first and foremost a dystopian sci-fi film, and in this case, the point that drives the state of the world home is that people are watching other people being run over by cars on TV.

It is the year 2000, and Mr. President, who presides over the United Provinces of America, is giving people what they want, the annual Transcontinental Road Race. All of the participants have a theme, Mary Woronov as Calamity Jane, Roberta Collins as Matilda the Hun (providing for lots of Nazi-sploitation, well ahead of the swastika’s use for shock value in punk rock), Martin Kove as Nero the Hero, an especially over-the-top young Sylvester Stallone as Chicago’s Machine-Gun Joe Viterbo, and of course, David Carradine as Frankenstein, the most popular contestant. Carradine took this part specifically to put his role of Caine in KUNG-FU behind him, and he does an excellent job of it. His presence in the film is always striking and terrifying, often appearing as an all-black apparition in front of an elaborate white or red backdrop (In the ‘70s, nobody thought that buildings would need cleaning in the future). Even as Frankenstein becomes the protagonist of the film, he remains dark and unpredictable, making him an interesting contrast to the rest of the racers. His rivalry with Viterbo provides a lot of the tension and is always fun to watch. Also he drives a car that looks like an alligator.

Before STAR WARS made sci-fi into big business (read: marketable to the whole family), there were several similar dystopian films only suitable for adults. The mid ‘70s gave us ROLLERBALL, LOGAN’S RUN, and ZARDOZ, just to name a few. DEATH RACE 2000 is definitely gory, but the gore really takes a backseat to the cutting satire. In this version of the future, the media is shrill and two-faced (sound familiar?), people have nude arguments on live TV (again…), fans of race participants sacrifice themselves on the street, the government successfully tricks the public into thinking that the French are attacking the race instead of the resistance movement, and on and on. Any dystopian cinema has to do a good job of getting across the point that Things Are Bad, and this film does a fantastic job; the “Bread and Circuses” in this case being the race that the film is built around, and propaganda is everywhere. If there is any major inaccuracy to pick at, it’s that if something like this actually happened, people would hide indoors, possibly for days afterward. There’s probably a farmer in the midwest right now that thinks Al-Qaeda is planning an attack on his grain silo. Paranoid reality aside, if there weren’t any targets, it wouldn’t be a death race, so……

The scoring system goes as follows: women are worth 10 points more than men, teenagers are worth more points than adults, toddlers are worth even more than that, and the elderly count for the most points. Why the system is set up like this is never explained. One would expect it had something to do with population control, but it doesn’t seem like a particularly crowded future (remember, in the ‘70s it wasn’t possible to digitally insert 5 billion people into your B-movie). It is also implied that a major disaster led to the political system in place. So yeah, there is no overcrowding and people are out on the street for the killing. Suspension of disbelief is necessary, but this is more of a fun movie than a serious one. Drivers invent rules as they go along. Is it OK to score (kill) a guy hanging up a banner? A race official? Another driver’s navigator? Your own pit crew? Anything goes!

I mentioned STAR WARS earlier for a reason as there was a definite tradeoff of mature content for dazzling effects later in the decade, but DEATH RACE 2000 falls on the…er…other end of the spectrum. Race footage is sped-up film, city skylines are sometimes hand-drawn backdrops, and news personalities look like they’re…from the ‘70s (hey, predicting the future is hard. Go back and watch that one good Stallone movie from the 90’s, DEMOLITION MAN). Blood and guts are cherry red, though they are unquestionably the best effects in the movie. Does all that really matter? Not at all! DEATH RACE 2000 has more action than in most of the STAR WARS films, not to mention better dialogue and acting. More importantly, this is a movie that turns a mirror on the worst aspects of human nature and makes us laugh at it. Is there anyone among us that hasn’t jokingly assigned a point value to some pedestrian as we were driving along? Didn’t think so.

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One Response to “Retro Review: DEATH RACE 2000: It’s Not Whether You Win or Lose, It’s How Many You Kill Along the Way”

  1. Jenifer Fashaw
    on Jun 1st, 2011
    @ 2:03 pm

    This is a very good movie

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