It’s interesting when the de facto king of schlock makes a movie condemning violence and shock value. Death Race 2000, produced by Roger Corman, admonishes violence through pointed commentary and irony, but there still seems to be a creative discordance running throughout the picture.

Apparently Corman and director Paul Bartel were at odds over the tone of the movie. Bartel, known for his later hit Eating Raoul, wanted there to be more focus on dark comedy, where Corman wanted “crushed heads and bloody squibs.” Ultimately, the producer got his way, and perhaps for the better, but nevertheless Bartel’s sardonicism shows through and together these combined elements make for a very unique tone.

Set in the futuristic year 2000 where the world lives in economic ruin following the “Crash of 1979,” the film is as gross as it is astute. The United States itself is run by a totalitarian government who promotes segregation and a rigid class system. Each year the government puts on the Transcontinental Road Race, where five drivers race across the country from New York to Los Angeles and score points for hitting and killing people along the way. Each age range has a different point value and women are worth 10 more points than men.

The reigning champion is Frankenstein (David Carradine), a mysterious masked man who serves as the president’s dog in the fight. He’s apparently got so many replaced parts that he’s basically half-machine, but we find out that he’s actually just a regular guy who’s been heavily trained, given a false mystique, and put in place to strike fear in the other racers, as well as give the rest of the country someone to root for.

The very idea of Frankenstein is perhaps the most interesting aspect of this film and one that’s not nearly explored enough. The themes surrounding the government’s motives for Frankenstein are never really touched upon, and neither is his own relationship with them in the first place.

There’s also a resistance group that’s planted secret police all over the country to pick off each racer one by one, and they succeed for the most part. The resistance leader, Thomasina Paine (Harriet Medin), plants her granddaughter, Annie (Simone Griffeth), as Frankenstein’s navigator in order to lead him directly into their traps. He’s their number one target. But naturally, over the course of the film, Annie and Frankenstein develop a relationship that complicates matters.

For as much context as there is behind the plot, not much of it is shown outside of the limited views we get of the racers themselves, the crowds who sit in the bleachers at the starting line, and the small resistance group. Unlike something like The Hunger Games, where we get a firm grasp of this dystopian world prior to the unethical games that follow, there seems to be not much else in the way of the society that this film is commenting on.

In fact, The Hunger Games is a much more realized version of this movie and may even help to put into context for the audience our view of the participants in the race as well. We get the idea that these racers here are motivated by winning, but there’s not much else to them other than empty bravado.

Toying with the tricky perspectives of good and evil, Death Race 2000 has us convinced for much of the film that our protagonist is not just morally flawed, but downright immoral and hedonistic. Good or bad, the audience is challenged to not only accept him, but root for him, which can become a difficult task as his worst qualities are played for dark comedy more than they are an unfortunate reality of his world and forced situation. In fact, it never quite feels like his situation is all that forced to begin with.

Carradine does a very good job in the starring role, toeing the line between the confidence of Paul Newman and the action prowess of Steve McQueen, even if he never quite reaches the astronomical heights of either.

Sylvester Stallone, in one of his earliest roles, plays a fellow racer and rival to Frankenstein. Even in the limited space, it’s so very clear that the actor has a unique charisma that will make him the household name that he will soon become just one year later.

For all its flaws, Death Race 2000 is still a very fun, and unique, movie filled with hypnotic futurism, a dissonant musical score, and blatant matte paintings that feature hand-colored animation. Establishing a verisimilitude early on, Bartel utilizes these aesthetics well to define this world, and the limited cast as a way to make the film feel apocalyptic, even if unintentionally. With clever and effective editing, the gore manages to feel more real that it has any right to be, and the exaggerations even happen to seem plausible at times.

Challenging the audience to take part in the spectacle that is Death Race 2000, Corman and Bartel almost say something with their one and only collaboration together. Violence shouldn’t be celebrated—that is, unless you’re watching a Roger Corman picture. Perhaps not quite as deep as it appears to be even without the incongruity behind the scenes, the film succeeds not because of its polemics, but rather due to the very oddity that it exists in the first place.

About the Author: Ethan Brehm

Ethan Brehm

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