Written by: Robert Thom & Charles B. Griffith
Starring: David Carradine, Simone Griffeth, Sylvester Stallone, Sandy McCallum, Louisa Moritz
Dating back to ancient Rome, entertainment has been utilized as a form of distraction for the masses, as those in power quietly do whatever they want. The passion fans have for these sports always reaches a strange level of dedication even if it means ignoring the horrendous results it has overall. Death Race 2000 provides a look at just how ridiculous things can get where a sport involves literally killing innocent people.
The annual Transcontinental Road Race brings together the greatest racers this country has to offer. At this year’s event, five have been selected with Frankenstein (David Carradine) being the favorite to win it all once again. As the race commences rumblings of a rebellion begin to get louder as they try to interfere with the race.
As a Roger Corman 70s film, Death Race 2000 arrives with a certain level of expectations. It was never going to be the highest production quality but it should be entertaining and it surely delivered on that account. Examining the world found in this movie opens up levels of confusion as to how America has relegated itself to this level. It has fallen to complete totalitarian control at the hands of the government and their hopes to quell any anger appear in this race. It begins in New York and concludes in Los Angeles and the object becomes to get to the finish line but the racers could be assisted by killing people along the way.
Surely, the title makes complete sense now as the racers get incentivized to mow people down with different demographics providing various levels of points. Mowing down elderly people provided the largest amount. The sheer idea of this being a sport is astounding but the citizens adore it strangely enough. People watch the NFL where players constantly collide with each other and the impact of concussions and CTE continues to require more research and even the Romans watched gladiators die for entertainment purposes. This road race however involves killing innocent people and rewarding the racers for doing so. It raises several questions, including why some people are gallivanting outside with the widespread coverage this event receives. The entertainment value gets at some cynical societal dynamics, which displays a scene where medical professionals roll out elderly people to get run over for entertainment’s sake but they’re also likely sick of having to deal with these patients. As ridiculous as this sport seems, it would not shock me to have something similar in our reality because people have proven they’ll watch anything if it proves to be entertaining.
The vehicles and kills bring the typical violence a Roger Coram production would provide with the exaggerated blood along with the questionable acting. It becomes a game of bumper cars with serious stakes and a host of interesting characters at the helm. Frankenstein serves as the protagonist, but other racers include the jealous and braggadocious Joe Viterbo (Sylvester Stallone), “Calamity” Jane Kelly (Mary Woronov), a literal Nazi Matilda “The Hun” (Roberta Collins), and Ray Lonagan (Fred Grandy). With each of them having their own navigator, I would have loved to be in the room where the writers conjured up these characters. The presence of the Nazi character still does not completely make sense, but I figure it just shows anything goes when everything has fallen apart in a once-great country. Each of these characters embodies a commitment to winning, even if they have to kill innocent people to do it. The comedic value comes with their ridiculous costumes and how seriously they take something available only for propagandist purposes.
Mixing the fun of the plot with the disturbing larger context of the story makes this film one anyone can easily enjoy. It works on both of these levels because the totalitarian government seeks to mask things for the audience at home in ways we can recognize while also serving as a basic racing story with plenty of intrigue and over-the-top characters. Sure, none of this reaches the level of greatness, but it certainly provides the dual approach of having some semblance of meaning along with the hilarious entertainment.
Death Race 2000 provides respectable thrills on the track and shows us one of Sylvester Stallone’s earliest roles. It establishes a world dominated by fear and how sports entertainment can be used to delude people to enjoy watching their fellow citizens killed just for fun. Fairly damning but also very entertaining in bursts.