Start your engines for the grittiest, most raw, cross-country road race you’ve ever seen!
Death Race 2000 is a satirical, post-apocalyptic, dystopian examination of a popular murder-sport taking place 25 years in the future. It features a whole cast of proto-stars and some of the most graphic action sequences (for the time) of any road race movie that decade.
The trailer for Death Race 2000 looks like a mashup of The Great Race with The Road Warrior, The Running Man, and The Cannonball Run as drivers race from coast to coast in a brutal road race where the winner takes all. They save the best quote for last: “He was built by the world’s finest surgeons to drive the fastest car ever designed and nothing can stop him now!” This doesn’t look like it’s a film with a lot of complex narrative. But it’s dystopian future car racing! That’s gotta be worth something!
Presented below is the trailer for the film.
The Fiction of The Film
In the dystopian year 2000, the running of the 20th Annual Transcontinental Road Race is about to get underway. Three announcers, an over-the-top radio-styled Junior Bruce (The Real Don Steele), the sympathetic and sycophantic Grace Pander (Joyce Jameson), and the droll and sports-centric Harold (Carle Bensen) introduce the five teams for this year’s race. Each team includes a driver and a navigator in a themed car, including Calamity Jane (Mary Woronov) in a Bull car complete with spiked horns, Matilda the Hun (Roberta Collins) and Herman the German (Fred Grandy) in a Neo-Nazi Buzz Bomb, Machine Gun Joe (Sylvester Stallone) and Myra (Louisa Moritz) driving a car with tommy guns and a giant knife, Nero the Hero (Martin Kove) and Cleopatra (Leslie McRay) in a Greek chariot, and Frankenstein (David Carradine) and Annie (Simone Griffeth), in a dragon styled vehicle. Their objective is to race across the United Provinces of America, from New York Memorial Raceway to New Los Angeles, while picking up as many points as possible by running over civilians, or destroying other racers.
Frankenstein, a scarred veteran of many races who has been repaired by Swiss doctors between each race, is the odds-on favorite to win, while Machine Gun Joe, a tough Chicago mobster, wants to take him down. Joe makes the first kill by running over a construction worker. At a hospital, nurses place patients in wheelchairs into the road for “Euthanasia Day,” but Frankenstein veers onto the sidewalk killing the hospital workers instead. Elsewhere, an older woman named Thomasina Paine (Harriet Medin), tells her resistance fighters to let Operation Anti-Race begin. One of her people, Lt. Fury (Vince Trankina) dresses up like a woman with a family at a picnic. Nero sees them and tries to run over the baby on the blanket, but it turns out to be a bomb, blowing him and his car up. Mrs. Paine interrupts the televised broadcast of the race to call out the “evil and corrupt regime” of the President and openly declare her Army of the Resistance responsible for disrupting the race.
It is soon revealed that Annie is a mole inserted by the resistance as Frankenstein’s navigator. She gets closer to Frankenstein who removes his mask, revealing that the burned area around his eyes is just makeup. His body is pristine with no sign of his previous injuries. At the first pitstop in St. Louis, Machine Gun Joe becomes upset at Myra for flirting with Frankenstein, while later a Frankenstein groupie tracks him down in a hallway to meet him before she “does it.” When the racers leave the next day, the same girl steps out in front of Frankenstein’s car as a tribute to him. The ultimate sacrifice of love. Annie suggests the take a shortcut through a Penitent’s Compound for Congressmen to score some well needed points. She also has given Machine Gun Joe false information on their route, which leads him to get stuck in a dead end.
During their shortcut, a resistance fighter dressed like Frankenstein appears, but the real Frankenstein kills him. After that he makes Annie drive for a while, doubting her intentions. He asks her to run over a boy playing in the street, but when she cannot he knows that something is up. She reveals to him she is Thomasina’s granddaughter and they are fighting to get the race abolished. After Matilda the Hun kills Calamity Jane’s navigator, some rebels set up a detour and force the cars off the road. They create a fake tunnel that leads over a cliff, which Matilda falls for–literally. At the next pitstop for the teams, a race Producer denies any existence of the rebels. On television the President blames foreigners (the French) for the attacks on the race; the great American pastime! Frankenstein covers for Annie when they are asked by government agents about the shortcut. Machine Gun Joe gets into a fight with Frankenstein in the garage, but is bested by the masked man.
Later Frankenstein reveals to Annie that he is one of any number of men called Frankenstein, and that each year a new one is chosen to fill the role of the unkillable racer. As the race resumes the next morning, Machine Gun Joe gets some quick points by running over his own pit crew, still upset from the fight the night before. Some resistance members on motorcycles come after Calamity Jane and force her off road into a landmine. The race is now down to Joe and Frankenstein. Frankenstein drugs Annie’s drink to force her to sleep for a bit while he deals with a Resistance airplane flown by Lt. Fury. Frankenstein’s epic driving abilities force the airplane into a cliff and Frankenstein and Annie race off towards the finish line.
Frankenstein reveals his plan to Annie. He has surgically had a hand grenade implanted in his right hand. When he wins and shakes the President’s hand he will blow him up. Annie can’t believe that their objectives align. Machine Gun Joe tries to crash Frankenstein’s car in the final approach, so Annie uses the hand grenade to destroy Joe’s car. The winning car pulls into the grandstands in New Los Angeles and a black clad figure emerges, heading towards Mr. President. Thomasina Paine jumps from the crowd and shoots the racer, who is revealed to be Annie in disguise. Frankenstein starts the car and runs it into the podium causing it to collapse and kill the President. A short while later Frankenstein marries Annie, who survived the gunshot, and he becomes President. He abolishes the Race, which announcer Junior Bruce questions. He tells President Frankenstein that the American people will not stand for it, and that “the race is the symbol of everything we hold dear – our American way of life. Sure, it’s violent. But that’s the way we love it.” Frankenstein starts his car and runs over Junior Bruce, driving off into a new world.
“A beautiful kill! A neat kill! No calamities for Jane today.” – Junior Bruce
History in the Making
Death Race 2000 is the nexus for many popular film types, but it also inspired a new slate of films through the 70s and beyond. It was another film in the long line of low-budget Roger Corman produced films. To date, IMDb lists over 340 films produced by Corman since 1954. An impressive slate of productions, and one that contains some definite turkeys. Death Race 2000 is not one of them.
Based on a story by Ib Melchior, Death Race 2000 would be the last sci-fi film adapted from his work. His stories have become part of some of the most iconic low-budget films over the past two decades, including Godzilla Raids Again (1955), The Angry Red Planet (1959), Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964), and Planet of the Vampires (1965). He also created an outline for a TV series very much like Lost in Space, called Space Family Robinson, but never received credit for the inspiration.
The film is a mash-up of a number of sub-genres from the 70s, many of which Corman was already producing. Death Race is part road chase, part exploitation, part sci-fi, part satirical social commentary, and part action drama. There’s so much rolled into this film that it’s no surprise that it has become a cult classic. It’s inspired by period car chase films such as 1971s classic Vanishing Point, 1974s Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry (both films that inspired Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof) and the original Gone in 60 Seconds. Corman would continue this thematic style of film with films such as Eat My Dust, Moving Violation (both 1976) and Grand Theft Auto (1977).
The movie was directed by Paul Bartel, an actor and director known for his iconic look and offbeat stories. Death Race was his second film after the low-budget horror/comedy Private Parts. He is probably best known for his 1982 film (which he also starred in with Mary Woronov) Eating Raoul. His follow-up film to Death Race would be simply titled Cannonball, about a modern-day cross country race, based on an actual race, which is more famously chronicled in the Burt Reynolds vehicle, Cannonball Run.
The story goes that Roger Corman saw advertisements for an upcoming futuristic sports film called Rollerball, and decided to rush Death Race into production to get it to market first. It seemed to work as many modern reviewers and critics feel that Corman’s film is the superior of the two. Its action and gore were more cartoony than Rollerball, which took itself more seriously. The satirical nature of Death Race provided a counterpoint to its violent, exploitative scenes.
Death Race 2000 also ushered in an era of ultra-violence on screen even more graphic than A Clockwork Orange. The overt, bloody carnage which includes characters being stabbed by bull horns on the car, gored by giant car-knives, or having their head run over and exploding was something that only the lowest-budget films of the day might revert to. And if that’s all the film had going for it, Death Race might not have been as successful. But it also mixed in a healthy dose of satire and social commentary. Two things that some of the best violent sci-fi films have in common. After watching Death Race, it’s easy to assume that it’s influence, along with Rollerball (also a 1975 sci-fi violent sport film), helped to usher in the production of films like The Running Man, Robocop, and Escape from New York (and L.A.).
Exploitation films of the 70s were marked by a number of factors. The genre capitalizes on current trends (such as the race/chase genre) and also is defined by its use of baser content, such as violence and sex. Death Race 2000 has all these things, but offers more to the cause. Unlike other Corman produced exploitation films of the time like Caged Heat or Big Bad Mama, Death Race uses the futuristic setting to allow it to present scathing social commentary, without grounding that commentary in the reality of a modern film, potentially turning audiences off.
Critics of the film, that were upset by the use of violence and sex, were probably blinded to the real scathing arguments about politics, social injustice, and the government. For example, the film opens with the introduction of the racers, showing crowds of fans cheering for their favorites–much as one would see at a wrestling match. Matilda the Hun’s fans all wave small Nazi flags and have swastika’s on themselves. This is a scene literally in the first five minutes of the film, and one that stands out as shocking, especially in early 21st Century America, given the recent upsurge in popularity for white supremacists.
Death Race 2000 also presents a future where the American system of government has become totalitarian and uses the race to both pacify the populace and kill members of its own society. The President doesn’t govern from the White House, but rather one of his other compounds in Moscow or Peking. Sound familiar? In fact, the politics and attitude of the country are much closer to reality in 2020, than they were in 1975. When the film was created, Bartel and screenwriters Robert Thom and Charles B. Griffith most certainly thought their ideas were farcical at best. Having the President tell the public that the accident they witnessed on the live broadcast of the race was not actually what they saw. But that foreigners (in this case, specifically the French) were responsible, and the rebels do not exist. Fake news indeed.
The Science in The Fiction
An early matte painting shot in the film suggests that the world of 2000 is highly advanced and futuristic. However, very little in the film goes on to prove this fact. The cars, which appear to be custom modeled fiberglass chassis but do not sport any sort of discernible technological advances. Stories are told of Frankenstein, how like his namesake, he has been reassembled time and time again after many racing accidents. But the reality of the film is that he is really a different racer than any previous racer named Frankenstein. The injuries suffered by those previous versions were probably as debilitating as they seemed. The closest thing to cutting edge medical science is the implant of an actual hand grenade into Frankenstein’s right hand (a hand hand grenade!) There are no lasers, or other crazy advanced weapons. Just bombs, missiles, and conventional explosives make up the melee for this future society.
The Final Frontier
As with many Roger Corman produced films, the cast and crew is made up of many people that would go on to greater films. Cinematographer Tak Fujimoto, who got his start on Corman films, would go on to shoot iconic and popular films such as Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, The Silence of the Lambs, and The Sixth Sense, as well as being part of the second unit camera department on Star Wars. As discussed previously director Paul Bartel would go on to direct some other cult classic films, as well as having cameos in a variety of films such as Chopping Mall, Amazon Women on the Moon, and The Usual Suspects.
But by far, the actors in Death Race 2000 were the best example of early roles. Obviously David Carradine was a large draw in this film, having just completed his successful run on the television series Kung Fu. He would go on to perform in dozens of other films, many low-budget as a variety of characters. He may be best known as Bill in Tarantino’s Kill Bill duology from the early 2000s. Obviously fans will recognize Rocky actor Sylvester Stallone in this film. As one of his early films, Death Race stands out for him. Genre fans will also find him in other sci-fi/action films such as Demolition Man, Judge Dredd, and Escape Plan. Mary Woronov would make frequent appearances with Paul Bartel in his later films, and may be best known for her sadistic scientist in the 80s cult-classic sci-fi film Night of the Comet. Fans may also recognize two other actors that are not sci-fi mainstays, but rather famous for other roles. Martin Kove is better known as Kreese, the evil leader of the Cobra Kai dojo in the Karate Kid films, plus as a host of bad guys in 80s action films. Also appearing as Mathilda’s navigator is Fred Grandy, better known from his role as yeoman purser Gopher on The Love Boat TV series.
The cult status of Death Race 2000 no doubt was an inspiration for producers to dust it off for a remake in 2008. Directed by Paul W.S. Anderson and starring Jason Statham, this film updated the film simply calling it Death Race, and altering the plot slightly. This film led to a series of spin-offs including two direct-to-DVD prequels, Death Race 2 (2010) and Death Race 3: Inferno (2013), and a direct-to-DVD sequel, called Death Race: Beyond Anarchy (2018). Not to be outdone, Corman produced an official film sequel to the original film titled Death Race 2050 in 2017.
Death Race 2000 still stands as strong example of sci-fi satire, seemingly more relevant today than it was 45 years ago. The strong violent content for the time pales in comparison to the gore and violence of more recent films, but still provides the necessary shock for audiences to realize the stakes the racers play for. For those that have never seen the film, a viewing is in order if only to help understand the influences it created for other more popular films.
Having grown up on comics, television and film, “Jovial” Jay feels destined to host podcasts and write blogs related to the union of these nerdy pursuits. Among his other pursuits he administrates and edits stories at the two largest Star Wars fan sites on the ‘net (Rebelscum.com, TheForce.net), and co-hosts the Jedi Journals podcast over at the ForceCast network.