It's a testament to Roger Corman's reputation amongst cult cinema fans that people often think of films he only produced as "Roger Corman films." Corman certainly directed his fair share of films, but he was far more prolific behind the scenes, serving as a producer with a keen eye for finding fresh talent and giving those people their big break. In today's world, where auteur theory rules all, it's rare to find a producer who's known to the casual film viewer -- but Roger transcended that. The films his New World Pictures released from its inception in 1970 until Corman sold it in 1983 are known as much for being Corman movies as they are the products of their individual directors. One of the most famous examples is 1975's cult classic, Death Race 2000 -- a title inextricably linked to Corman, though The King of the B-Movies only produced it.
Paul Bartel was the guy who actually got the director's credit for Death Race 2000 -- a beloved film with camp appeal to spare. Corman clearly made the right choice, though -- Bartel takes what could have been a silly story about a cross country car race where the object isn't to just win, but to score points for running down innocent people in the street and makes it ... well, okay, it's basically still a silly story about a race with pedestrians getting run over at regular intervals. It's fun, though -- and when it comes to films from Corman, that's the key.
In the year 2000, the Transcontinental Road Race is the biggest sporting event in America. Basically, five racers and their navigators make a mad dash to drive across the country while scoring points for hitting innocent bystanders. If that isn't enough plot for you, there's a subplot involving a rebel group's plan to put an end to the race once and for all and stage a political coup. Next time your friends try the old "those crappy movies you watch have no meaning," make them watch Death Race 2000 and then smugly tell them how wrong they are.
The real selling point of Bartel's film is the quirky cast of racers. David Carradine, fresh off of his role as Caine in Kung Fu tackles the lead role. Carradine is the most famous Death Race driver, Frankenstein. He gets his moniker because he's been injured and put back together so many times that he's a patchwork creation. His costume is a cross between superhero and gimp, so it's hard to take Carradine seriously, but he fits right in alongside the rest of the film's gallery of drivers. Frankenstein's biggest rival is Machine Gun Joe (Sylvester Stallone), a short-tempered Mafioso with a ride sporting not only twin front-mounted machine guns, but a giant sword too. Death Race isn't solely a man's sport -- it features two female drivers, too. Calamity Jane (Mary Woronov) is the hyper-sexualized cow girl, while Mathilda the Hun (Roberta Collins) is aiming to bring the Nazis back into vogue. Nero the Hero (Martin Kove) rounds out the cast of drivers.
Eventually, the race and the rebel plotlines intersect (thanks to Frankenstein's new navigator, the rebel leaders' granddaughter -- played by Simone Griffeth) and the whole movie shifts up into high gear.
While Death Race isn't usually pegged as terribly thought provoking, the idea of a new America run by a President who took over in the World Crash of 1979 and gives his people violent entertainment to placate them holds more meaning than its title gives away. Bartel does a commendable job of balancing the social commentary with the outrageous (for its time) violence and exploitation elements. He never loses sight of the fact that this is really about the about a death, violence, and nudity -- the other stuff is just a bonus, not the reason for the film's existence.
Death Race 2000 is one of the first titles released in Shout Factory's new Roger Corman's Cult Classics collection. If this is what future installments in the series will be like, then Corman fans are in for a real treat. Shout Factory has filled this disc with a treasure trove of goodies that should make cult film fanatics extremely happy. The Special Edition DVD and Blu-ray feature multiple commentary tracks, a new transfer of the film, countless featurettes and interviews, and a collectible 12-page booklet to boot. I think it's safe to say this is the definitive version of Death Race 2000. Choosing a single favorite from this list of supplements is a daunting task, but I think the commentary track featuring Corman and Mary Woronov is the winner for me. It's always great to hear Corman discuss his projects and the film business in general -- and this track is certainly filled with interesting observations from a man who knows the business of low-budget filmmaking. Keep your eyes peeled here and on our sister site Horror Squad for info on future Shout Factory releases.
After all that, why are you still here? Grab a copy of this movie immediately (pre-order it for the June 22nd release!) -- just be on lookout for guys in weird black leather gimp outfits driving erratically when you try to cross the street.