Throughout elementary school, 1975’s “Death Race 2000” was one of those fabled movies I’d hear about on the playground and think that it couldn’t possibly be true. A race where people mow down pedestrians for points? No way!
Yes way, as I finally discovered via a rental in the late 1980s. Although Paul Bartel’s film clearly was satirical “ a no-budget actioner steered toward bosoms and blow-ups by ever-thrifty producer Roger Corman to make a quick buck “ yet it bothered me. I liked it, even as it got under my skin.
That’s held true through the decades, and even more so today, where its message is frighteningly more relevant than ever in a TMZ age. What seemed like pure science fiction back then is on the verge of becoming factual tomorrow. No wonder Shout! Factory chose to inaugurate its new line of “Roger Corman’s Cult Classics” with a truly special edition of this enduring B gem.
Participating in the road ruckus of the coast-to-coast contest are fan favorite Frankenstein (not to be confused with the monster), played by the late David Carradine, most notably pitted against Machine Gun Joe Viterbo, a pre-fame role for Sylvester Stallone. Behind the wheels of souped-up cars fitted with armor and weaponry, they make their way through America, clocking pedestrians in hopes of winning the big prize. It’s a nationwide craze, and sanctioned by the government.
The carnage doesn’t disappoint, flying by fast; the whole thing is over and done with in less than 80 minutes. “Death Race 2000″ is one of those movies where the stars aligned, enabling it to transcend mere genre product and emerge with something to say, however over-the-top. Speaking of, the performances are a deadpan delight, mercilessly chewing and spewing one-liners. As Annie, Frankenstein’s partner in the car (and occasionally in the bed), Simone Griffith is easiest on the eyes.
Extras? There are more of those than squeals of tires, starting with a genial commentary from Corman (who’s always a delight to listen to) and supporting cast member Mary Woronov. Corman’s also on hand for a brief onscreen chat with film critic (and surprising “Death Race” fan) Leonard Maltin and a making-of featurette. Other bonuses delve into the music, the costumes and even the original short story by Ib Melchior, who tells a story that refutes Corman’s tight-ass reputation.
One of the most fun bits is the original trailer, assembled then by Joe Dante and now sporting commentary by an admiring John Landis. But best of all is the most lo-fi: Flip the disc’s cover over to get the much-cooler Japanese poster art. I promptly did. “Rod Lott