Death Race 2000
July 2, 2020
1 Hr., 20 Mins.
ci-fi movies with a dystopian lift typically have embedded in them some sort of sermonizing. The sermonizing usually comes in the form of, if we don’t stop doing [insert social problem here], then, who knows, we might find ourselves living in a hellscape like the inflated fictional one depicted in the movie. (I’m thinking 1973’s Soylent Green, 1975’s Rollerball, 1976’s Logan’s Run, 1985’s The Running Man, the Hunger
Games series of the 2010s.)
Death Race 2000, a 1975 B movie produced by Roger Corman and directed by Paul Bartel, is a delightfully batty parody of these kinds of movies. It takes so much hot air out of them that I can’t imagine watching a product of their consort in the future and not feeling as though it’s been pre-deflated. Set at the turn of the millennium, in a parallel universe, Death Race 2000 transports us to a new America — controlled by a typical-for-dystopian-fiction totalitarian regime — where the most popular spectator sport is the Transcontinental Road Race, which is almost universally broadcast. The race is sort of like a hundreds-of-miles-long, real-life version of Mario Kart, except competing drivers get extra points if they kill pedestrians along the way. The more defenseless a casualty is — i.e., if they are a child, someone who uses a wheelchair — the more tallies a competitor gets.
Death Race 2000 covers the 20th iteration of the event. (It began shortly after the “World Crash of ‘79.”) Its point of view flip-flops between the five drivers (played by David Carradine, Sylvester Stallone, Roberta Collins, Mary Woronov, and Martin Kove), who have goofy personae just a couple notches up from the WWE style of image-making. A subplot involves a resistance group, led by a scion of the revolutionary Thomas Paine, using the race as a tool to overthrow the government. (It plans to kill off each driver using sedulously placed obstacles on the main course, and then kidnap Carradine’s character.)
The movie, a fleet 80 minutes, is so enjoyable in part because of what it doesn’t do. It isn’t trying to take a flimsy moral high ground and indict the American consumer’s long fascination with entertainment products that include violence almost as an aesthetic device. It’s too silly to fully work as something of an allegory for government surveillance and what could theoretically happen if it went "too far." And it isn’t, underneath its pulp-fiction images, trying to be a misguided polemic on the television industry. It’s more like a John Waters movie making fun of features that try to do some or all of these things with varying degrees of seriousness. The elements are there but presented with a wink. The nuts premise is the sealant on the parody. (Perhaps the greatest subversion of Death Race 2000 is that the action sequences are genuinely well-shot rather than well-shot in quotation marks, which so much of the feature seems to live inside.) The performers — particularly the in-on-the-joke cool Woronov and the comically always-fuming Stallone — know precisely what kind of movie this is and seem to be luxuriating in the material, just as we are. A-