In the realm of dystopian exploitation cinema, there is arguably no greater than "Death Race 2000". Filmed in '75 and just surpassing it's fortieth anniversary release, this drive-in classic was produced by legendary Roger Corman and directed by eccentric Paul Bartel. Their innovative talents made the movie an alternate-reality satire on politics, television, violence and human rights. It's even inspired a series of films by director Paul W.S. Anderson: lead-ins (per his DVD commentary on the 2008 chapter) to events depicted in the original.
"Death Race'"s inception came from both serious and frivolous ends. Initially, it was conceived as a serious treatment, based on Ib Melchior's short story, "The Racer", but once scripted by Robert Thorn and Charles Griffin, and orchestrated by Bartel's dry sense of humor, it became a warped farce, of which some say Corman was none too pleased. Another claim is that Corman pitched the film based on a set of far-out vehicle sketches, and let the cards (or cars) fall where they may.
Whatever the case, "Death Race" does generate guffaws, though the rules of the annul, transcontinental race may make more sensitive viewers cringe: not only be the first to cross the finish line, but earn points by killing innocent pedestrians or those queued for sacrifice by any of the racers' overzealous fans.
The story commences with the U.S. political parties having merged into the a bipartisan dictatorship, led by Mr. President (Sandy McCallum): a socialistic pope of sorts, who bestows his blessing of Death Race upon the masses, claiming it's what the people want. During the televised event, a rebel group sets forth to sabotage the race and overthrow the government, but its efforts are obscured and blamed on the French, thus keeping the public oblivious to the home-grown discontent.
The rebels are led by a descendant of patriot Thomas Paine, Thomasina (Harriet Medin), whose great granddaughter, Annie (Simone Griffeth), is selected to navigate for the most popular racer, the enigmatic Frankenstein (David Carradine).
Frankenstein has evidently gained his name for having been re-assembled several times after several crashes. He sports a cape and leather outfit, matching mask and helmet, and his car resembles Godzilla. He's quite a formidable character in appearance, but is he really what the televised medium claims?
It's Annie's mission to guide Frankenstein into the rebels' hands, where he's to be replaced by a fake, who'll then assassinate the President after victory. This will be ensured by having the other racers knocked off in the process. Frankenstein, however, has no love for the President or the absurd carnage in which he participates, but uses the ghastly rules as a means to an end.
Unlike Frankenstein, the other racers accept the competition at face value. There's Frankenstein's primary adversary, Machine-Gun Joe (Sylvester Stallone); Calamity Jane (Mary Woronov); Matilda the Hun (Roberta Collins); and Nero the Hero (Martin Kove). As with Frankenstein, each driver has a navigator, most as quirky as those they accompany.
Stallone is the stand-out among the lot, punchy and funny when expressing his jealousy over Frankenstein's fanfare. In fact, his impulsive behavior acts in perfect contrast to Carradine's cool, calm demeanor, and Joe's gun-tooting frustration over the famed racer's successes pushes him to dastardly extremes, often eclipsing the rebels' attempts to restore order through their own violent means.
Sport casters (portrayed by Don Steele, Carle Bensen and Joyce Jameson) underscore the weird revelry, their commentary ranging from giddily enthusiastic to Cosell-like. It's from these narrative interludes that the film's "Theater of the Absurd" becomes most embedded, establishing the fable as a sort of "Wacky Racers"for the socially inclined.
"Death Race" is also not shy in showing carnage: not exactly H.G. Lewis, but relentless (if not sadistic) nonetheless. The film also features nudity, but such salacious seasoning only helps to support its exploitative status.
Whether Corman/Bartel sought to create an enduring, thinking person's action film is yet debatable, but the intent doesn't really matter. "Death Race" has built a following, perhaps because time has actually reached its prophetic message. It reminds us that we shouldn't believe all we see or hear, especially when the government peddles it through one of its sacred mediums, and just because the deception is packaged as lurid fodder doesn't mean it's good for us, let alone, as Mr. President claims, what we want.