Dir. by Paul Bartel - 1 hr. 20 min.
by Clayton Hollifield
First things first - "Death Race 2000" is not a good movie. Rather, it's one of those films whose level of entertainment is inverse to it's legit cinema quality. Do not be fooled by the rating I give this film at the end of the article, if you have a soft spot for cheesy, low-budget 1970s sci-fi movies, this is going to be a treat. But if that sort of pleasure isn't written into your DNA, you should stay far, far away.
The story is built around the Transcontinental Road Race, a cross-country car race (the cars kind of look like the really weird Hot Wheels that you'd see in the toy section) where the racers gain points for mowing down people. Frankenstein (David Carradine) is the star racer, much to rival racer Machine Gun Joe Viterbo's (Sylvester Stallone) chagrin. This race is the biggest event in the country of the United Provinces (the government and economy of the good ol' U.S.A. has fallen apart, leading to this version of the year 2000). There is a group of rebels, led by Thomasina Paine (Harriet Medin), who is suppposed to be a literal descendent of Thomas Paine. The rebels intend to stop Frankenstein, replace him with a double, who will kill the President after winning the race.
The special effects and animation on this film are absolutely cut-rate. Witness the cheesy semi-animated opening, the matte work at the race track, or the illustrations at the conclusion of the film. As I mentioned before, the awfulness of these things just increase how appealing they are. One thing they don't skimp on is explosions; when each racer in turn dies, they do so in a spectacular explosion. Visually speaking, the rest of the film is rounded out by cool custom cars driving really fast, punctuated with pit stops full of full-on nudity, and by awesome 1970s fashions and hair.
David Carradine is kind of wooden in the lead, but it suits the character. He wears a gimp mask for a lot of the film, one that has a built-in prosthesis that makes him look like the name of his character. This also has a very early Sylvester Stallone role (pre-"Rocky"), and he's pretty fun, even if his character is not much more than a caricature. But then again, everyone in this movie is a caricature, from the racers to the sports announcers, to the fans. That's the whole point. The plot only works if everyone enthusiastically embraces the ultra-violent race as the best entertainment that this society has to offer. Anything less than the best would be a felony.
The whole movie is unabashedly cheesy, which makes it easy to get in the spirit of things. The cars are kind of cool (and I did like that each team was themed), and Myra's (Louisa Maritz) white fur-covered helmet might be the most awesome piece of safety equipment in the history of safety equipment. When you dip into Roger Corman-land, you know exactly what's coming. And "Death Race 2000" is so perfectly that, I can't really hold it's flaws against it. It's not a good movie at all, but it's fun, mindless, and short. That's not the worst thing I could say about a movie.
2 / 5 - Streaming