“Death Race 2000” (1975) opens with artwork of a racecar that could be from an eighth – well, let’s say sixth-grade class project. With color-pencil lines too apparent, this illustration reflects both the constraints and zeal to follow in the story of a cross-county race that tallies points for – Jesus Chrystler! – run-down pedestrians. “Death Race 2000” is as Corman as his B-grade action pics come, with cars flying through the frame, blood spilling behind them, and overnight pit-stops for some sex (“navigators” in each car keep their drivers juiced up). Intercut TV commentary, with newscasters playing like caricatures of the 1970s, and an overall design not far from Woody Allen’s “Sleeper” (1973) really date this thing, but “Death Race” still works as a series of skits on how to make road pizza.
Journeyman actor David Carradine stars as Frankenstein, the reconstructed defending champion decked out in S&M leather and a mini Darth Vadar helmet. He faces Machine Gun Joe (Sylvester Stallone), who’s ready for the title even though no one takes him too seriously. (At one point the pre-“Rocky” Sly, already in his mature slack-jawed form, gets mocked for drooling.) The futuristic plot also involves something concerning a grass-roots rebellion that may include the invading French armed forces, which all seems too much for this high-speed slaughter-a-thon and even breaks down its ridiculous effect. But just as you eye the DVD remote, you’ll find an auto death by castration (yes, such a thing becomes plausible), or a posse of elderly folks happily gathered on the pavement for “Euthanasia Day.”
The racers die off one-by-one, in the fashion of a slasher flick. As the cars zip around (undercranked to create the illusion of speed, since Corman used redesigned Volkswagens – one of many facts from his commentary track with star Mary Woronov), the stunts and editing unfortunately highlight the film’s limitations, especially when it has you recalling “Mad Max” (1979), filmed a few years later. The latter film’s brilliant chase scenes point to all the seams in “Death Race’s” stunt work and Paul Bartel’s direction. However, in “Death Race” you will find a nice little scene involving attacking bikers that was a direct inspiration for “Mad Max” writer/director George Miller. Film scholars discuss how Miller’s chase scenes recall the classic American Western film: does this mean that “Death Race 2000” further extends a great cinematic tradition? Let’s see how it runs after a projected 2006 remake, “Death Race 3000.” (No, seriously.)
This title is part of a new “Roger Corman” edition by Buena Vista/Disney that includes titles he produced, not directed, from the women-in-prison flick, “Big Doll House” (1971), to the after-school-flavored “I Never Promised You a Rose Garden” (1977).