Directed By: Paul Bartel
Starring: David Carradine, Simone Griffeth, Sylvester Stallone
Tag line: "A Cross-Country Road Wreck!"
Trivia: The main role was originally offered to Peter Fonda, who ultimately turned it down
One of the things I like most about watching producer Roger Corman’s early films is seeing some of Hollywood’s biggest stars at the beginning of their careers. Three-time Academy Award winner Jack Nicholson was around 23 when he appeared in Corman’s 1960 production of Little Shop of Horrors, while a young Robert De Niro played one of Ma Barker’s boys in the 1970 crime film, Bloody Mama. In Death Race 2000, it was Sylvester Stallone’s turn to shine, and even though this wasn’t his first big-screen appearance (he had already been in a number of other movies, including The Lords of Flatbush), he was, at the time, a year away from his breakout role in Rocky. In Death Race 2000, he plays a slightly different kind of character, that of Machine Gun Joe Viterbo, a hyper-sensitive race car driver and one of several entertaining personalities in this film.
It’s the year 2000, and the entire world has tuned in to watch the Transcontinental Road Race, an annual sporting event in which five professional drivers speed across the United States, trying to beat each other to the finish line. But there’s more to winning than being the fastest; you also have to be ready to kill, gathering up the points awarded for each pedestrian you run down during the race. The odd-on favorite to win the Transcontinental is Mr. Frankenstein (David Carradine), a former champion and personal friend of the world’s leader, “Mr. President” (Sandy McCallum). His chief competition is Machine-Gun Joe Viterbo (Stallone), who, as announcer Junior Bruce (Don Steele) puts it, is “loved by thousands, hated by millions”. But, in this particular race, Frankenstein has more to worry about than his fellow competitors. His new navigator, Annie (Simone Griffith), is actually a member of the resistance, an underground movement determined to stop the race before any more innocent people are killed. Their plan is to kidnap Frankenstein and hold him hostage until the race is cancelled, yet as Annie soon discovers, Frankenstein has a few tricks of his own hidden up his sleeve.
Death Race 2000 is an action-packed dark comedy featuring an assortment of outrageous characters, starting with the five drivers participating in the race, each of whom has their own gimmick. Aside from Frankenstein (donning a black mask) and Machine Gun Joe (who occasionally fires his patented machine gun into a crowd of spectators), there’s Calamity Jane (Mary Woronov), driving around in a car with bull’s horns mounted on the front, and the highly Teutonic Matilda the Hun (Roberta Collins), whose fans wave flags emblazoned with swastikas. Rounding out the quintet is Nero the Hero (Martin Kove), the first driver to fall victim to the resistance, which blows his car sky-high, killing both he and his navigator, Cleopatra (Leslie McRay). None of the drivers like each other very much, which leads to plenty of fireworks whenever they gather at the various rest stops along the route (in an early scene, Matilda and Calamity Jane, both topless, nearly come to blows while receiving full-body massages).
Along with its bevy of over-the-top personalities, Death Race 2000 features lots of violence, most of which is a result of the race’s points system. As mentioned above, the drivers are awarded points for every pedestrian they run down: 10 points for women, 30 for teenagers, 70 for toddlers, and a whopping 100 points for the elderly. Machine Gun Joe is the first to score, slamming into a construction worker and slicing the poor guy’s groin with the huge dagger mounted on the front of his car. Even Frankenstein gets in on the action when a group of nurses push several wheelchair-bound elderly patients into the middle of the road, hoping the popular driver will plow into them for a big score. In a humorous twist, Frankenstein swerves his car off to the side, taking out the nurses instead!
One of Roger Corman’s most popular movies, Death Race 2000 is a hilariously violent film that’s a whole lot of fun to watch.