Whenever some­one asks Your Humble Reviewer what his favorite sci­ence fic­tion film is, the answer is sim­ple: Death Race 2000.  This respon­se some­times gets raised eye­brows because it is thought of as an action movie or an exploita­tion flick.  However, a movie doesn’t have to have aliens or space­ships to be good sci­ence fic­tion.  All that’s required is an imag­i­na­tive view of the future, prefer­ably shad­ed with some sort of inter­est­ing social com­men­tary.  Death Race 2000 deliv­ers all of the above with smarts, style and a very dis­tinc­tive per­son­al­i­ty.

The premise mix­es sure­fire dri­ve-in movie con­tent with deli­cious­ly sub­ver­sive satire.  It is set in a poten­tial future where the United States is ruled by a sin­is­ter gov­ern­ment that uses reli­gion and media to keep the pub­lic under its thumb.  Their most effec­tive tool is the Transcontinental Road Race, a mix­ture of rac­ing and vehic­u­lar mur­der in which rac­ers mow down as many vic­tims as pos­si­ble as they race from New York to Los Angeles.

Competitors include the sul­try Calamity Jane (Mary Woronov) and hot-tem­pered sociopath Machine Gun Joe Viterbo (Sylvester Stallone) but the race’s reign­ing champ is Frankenstein (David Carradine), an end­less­ly injured-and-rebuilt tough guy who hides his scars under a black leather jump­suit and mask.  He’s the odds-on favorite but he doesn’t know he has anoth­er foe hid­ing in plain sight — his love­ly nav­i­ga­tor, Annie (Simone Griffeth), is a dou­ble agent and a mem­ber of an anti-gov­ern­ment resis­tance group that plans to sab­o­tage the race.

Thus, the stage is set for crash­es, corpses and explo­sions galore, all deliv­ered with a sly, barbed sense of wit.  At just under 80 min­utes, Death Race 2000 crack­les with ener­gy as it tears through its sur­pris­ing­ly involved sto­ry­line at whiplash speed.  The may­hem is crisply lensed by Tak Fujimoto, who would go on to shoot count­less Jonathan Demme clas­sics (there’s also some great 2nd unit cam­er­a­work by Eric Saarinen, who would soon shoot The Hills Have Eyes).  Tina Hirsch’s edit­ing also plays a role in cre­at­ing the film’s adren­a­l­ized feel, giv­ing it the punchi­est jump-cut style this side of a Russ Meyer flick.  Also wor­thy of note is an eclec­tic score by Paul Chihara, who mix­es jazz, sym­phon­ic, funk, prog and elec­tron­i­ca ele­ments to cre­ate a con­stant­ly-shift­ing musi­cal back­ground with a delight­ful retro-futur­ist feel.

However, Death Race 2000 has more on its mind than just cheap thrills.  The script was penned by Robert Thom (the genius behind Wild In The Streets) and vet­er­an Corman col­lab­o­ra­tor Charles B. Griffith.  They off­set the fre­quent bursts of action with clev­er dia­logue that com­bi­nes the speed and rhythm of screw­ball com­e­dy with acidic, post-mod­ern sense of humor and a clev­er, mul­ti-lay­ered plot packed with sur­pris­es that dove­tail nice­ly with the car­nage.  It’s also ahead of its time in sat­i­riz­ing the par­a­sitic rela­tion­ships between the gov­ern­ment, media and big busi­ness.  The end result plays like a refresh­ing and mor­dant­ly fun­ny flip­side to the grim dystopi­an dra­mas that dom­i­nat­ed pre–Star Wars era of 1970’s sci-fi.

Better yet, Paul Bartel’s smart direc­tion high­lights the sub­ver­sive humor in the film, fore­shad­ow­ing the skill for chic com­e­dy he’d lat­er devel­op in films like Eating Raoul and Scenes From The Class Struggle In Beverly Hills.  He’s also got a great eye for pop-art imagery (large, emp­ty rooms with a futur­is­tic design are used to daz­zling effect).  However, the most unique and inter­est­ing thing he does with the sto­ry is draw out some unusu­al moments you would nev­er expect a film like this to have.  Your Humble Reviewer’s favorite sce­nes in this cat­e­go­ry include a moment where Frankenstein shares a dance with his nav­i­ga­tor in their room while wear­ing only his mask and under­wear as well as an odd­ly mov­ing scene where Frankenstein has a philo­soph­i­cal exchange about the race with a rep­re­sen­ta­tive from his fan club.

Finally, the per­for­mances in Death Race 2000 are pure gold.  Carradine under­plays his role with a dry wit, mak­ing his anti­hero char­ac­ter appro­pri­ate­ly tough and sto­ic but pos­sessed of a con­vinc­ing, steely intel­li­gence.  Stallone steals every scene he’s in as Viterbo, play­ing the heavy with rel­ish and show­ing a nice sense of comic tim­ing that he’s rarely used since.  However, the most under­rat­ed per­for­mance comes from Griffeth as the turn­coat nav­i­ga­tor: like Carradine, she car­ries her­self with grace and a sub­tle humor that allows her to hold her own in her fre­quent sce­nes with Carradine.  It’s a shame she didn’t have a big­ger career because she def­i­nite­ly had the chops for it.

Their work of the afore­men­tioned leads nice­ly sup­port­ed by a who’s who of Hollywood exploita­tion flick vets.  Woronov and wom­en-in-pris­on flick reg­u­lar Roberta Collins (as Matilda The Hun) cre­ate per­fect tough-chick arche­types and Karate Kid fans will be amused to see the future lead­er of the Cobra Kai Martin Kove camp­ing it up as an effem­i­nate rac­er.  Another stand­out is “The Real” Don Steele, a real-life disc jock­ey who invests his race com­men­ta­tor char­ac­ter with an bom­bas­tic, rat-a-tat-tat style of humor that makes him a vital part of the film’s dark­ly wit­ty appeal.

In short, Death Race 2000 is not only a peak-lev­el exam­ple of the savvy dri­ve-in fare Roger Corman pro­duced at New World Pictures but also a rebel­lious, intel­li­gent peak of 1970’s sci­ence fic­tion.  It remains every bit as excit­ing and tren­chant­ly fun­ny today as it was in 1975 and is a must for any self-respect­ing schlock afi­cionado.

Death Race 2000

Death Race 2000

New Anamorphic Widescreen (1.85:1) High-Definition Transfer from the Interpositive Film Element FormatAspect RatioLanguageSubtitles NTSC, Region 1, Color1.85:1 (Widescreen)EnglishN/A Run TimeRatingNo. DiscsOrig. Release 78 min­utes­R11975

Death Race 2000 (Blu-ray)

Death Race 2000 (Blu-ray)

New Anamorphic Widescreen (1.85:1) High-Definition Transfer from the Interpositive Film Element FormatAspect RatioLanguageSubtitles NTSC, Region 1, Color1.85:1 (Widescreen)EnglishN/A Run TimeRatingNo. DiscsOrig. Release 78 min­utes­R11975