Drive-In Dust Offs: DEATH RACE 2000

2015/06/13 20:39:39 +00:00 | Scott Drebit


If you are of a certain vintage like me, Saturday morning cartoons in the 70’s were something special. I would make myself a bowl of cereal and stare transfixed as cartoon apes, dogs, and rabbits would drive across my screen in ridiculously shaped hot rods and blue and green Mystery Machines. Roger Corman, always on the lookout for the next profitable venture, transposed Saturday mornings to theatres and drive-ins alike with his dystopic demolition extravaganza, Death Race 2000 (1975) . He just never told anyone it wasn’t meant for kids.

Released in April by New World Pictures, made for $300,000 and bringing home $5,000,000, Death Race 2000 was another success for Corman and company. The mid-70’s was a time of vehicular fantasy on the big screen, especially on the B movie circuit. Everything from Race with the Devil (1975) to Smokey and the Bandit (1977) and beyond emphasized fast cars and explosive chases, with the added dimension of beautiful (and strong) women to keep audiences thrilled. Corman, as canny and cunning as ever, knew this would hit with audiences and turned to the New World pit crew to fine tune the engine and lay the rubber on this cult classic.

It’s the year 2000, and America has been on the ropes since the oil crisis of 1975. France is blamed (as it should be) and to mollify the masses The Transcontinental Road Race is born in 1980 as a distraction from the decay of modern society (we would have to wait 30 more years for Keeping Up with the Kardashians to fill that void) . However, first across the finish line is not the route to victory. Points are necessary, which are accumulated by hitting and killing pedestrians along the way. Seniors, children, all are fair game on the way to the winners circle. As this is of course not a big budget production, we have only five drivers (and their navigators) competing for the prize, including David Carradine (Kung Fu) , Sylvester Stallone (Rocky) , Mary Woronov (Rock and Roll High School) and Martin Kove (Karate Kid) . However, the race is constantly thwarted by a group of revolutionaries intent on bringing down the dictatorial government and restoring democracy to the good old U.S. of A. Is our antihero Frankenstein (Carradine) out to claim racing glory or does he have another agenda? Is Machine Gun Joe Viterbo (Stallone) as stupid as he looks? Is anyone else as giddy as me that Gopher from the Love Boat is in this thing?

Sure, there’s a story kicking around, but it’s secondary to the gaudy day-glo eyegasms on display. From the pageantry of the racers’ costumes to the modified and monster-iffic wheels screaming down the highways, DR 2000 plays out like a vintage pinball machine on a nonstop bonus ball. Editor Tina Hirsch (Gremlins - 1984) fine tunes this beauty to go from zero to sixty in no time at all and stay there for 90 exhilarating minutes, stopping to cool the tires for some (adult) down time before putting the pedal to the metal again. A smooth ride indeed.

Paul Bartel (Eating Raoul – 1982) directs with his tongue planted firmly in cheek, and how could he not with such a grim premise? His direction is light and playful, with an emphasis on the garish scenery and exaggerated performances. Any other tone would be morose and sadistic to watch. He keeps the action moving with a Mad Magazine mentality, zipping from panel to panel, overflowing with pointed jabs and skewed asides.

No cast member can be singled out here, as everyone is in on the joke (even Stallone – he’s quite funny) and having a blast playing these drive-thru desperados. It should be noted however that Carradine was not Corman’s first choice for Frankenstein, as he wanted Peter Fonda. It’s a good thing Fonda turned it down, as Carradine was the best at playing his roles with a bemused smirk (I’m sure Bruce Willis took notes) which fits the character perfectly.

By this point Screenwriter Charles B. Griffith had a fortuitous relationship with Corman, writing some of his best films, including A Bucket of Blood (1959) and Little Shop of Horrors (1960). The great thing about the script is its cheerful tone. Even when limbs are flying and matadors are being gored (you’ll see), you can’t help but smile and laugh, as Griffith writes with a child like sense of action and fun (Batman TV series, anyone?) while showing you things that would never be seen on the Saturday morning lineup.

I was lucky enough to witness Death Race 2000 just as I was switching the channel in life from Saturday mornings to Saturday nights, and it couldn’t have been a smoother transition. I still had my apes, dogs, and rabbits along for the ride, but I wore a bigger pair of shoes, had a wider smile, and ate from a different bowl. Wait here. I’ll get the cereal.

Death Race 200 is available on Blu-ray and DVD from Shout! Factory.

Next: Drive-In Dust Offs: THE BURNING
  • Scott Drebit
    About the Author - Scott Drebit

    Scott Drebit lives and works in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. He is happily married (back off ladies) with 2 grown kids. He has had a life-long, torrid, love affair with Horror films. He grew up watching Horror on VHS, and still tries to rewind his Blu-rays. Some of his favourite horror films include Phantasm, Alien, Burnt Offerings, Phantasm, Zombie, Halloween, and Black Christmas. Oh, and Phantasm.