In the far flung future of the year 2000 (or at least what could have passed for the year 2000 back in 1975), America has become a fascist empire. The national sport is no longer baseball, but an annual 'Death Race' in which skilled race car drivers gun their customized four wheeled killing machines from one side of the country to the next, earning points for killing as many innocent bystanders as they can along the way. Every year the Death Race draws a huge crowd, it really is the event of the year akin to today's Super Bowl, but this year things promise to be even more intense than usual as the reigning champion, Frankenstein (David Carradine of Kung Fu and Kill Bill) has a new challenge in the form of a rookie driver named Joe Vitrubo (a young Sylvester Stallone of Rocky and Rambo fame).
Of course, there are other competitors to worry about in the race – Matilda The Hun (Roberta Collins of Caged Heat), Calamity Jane (Mary Woronov of Rock N Roll High School and Sugar Cookies), and Nero The Hero (Martin Kove), but the real threat for Frankenstein is going to come from within. His navigator, a woman named Annie Smith (Simone Griffith) has joined an underground resistance group that have some pretty serious plans to put a stop to the inhumanity of the Death Race and to take down Mr. President (Sandy McCallum) in hopes of at least making a small start towards restoring America to its former glory.
Kind of a really twisted version of Cannonball Run, Death Race 2000 is a faced paced action/science fiction movie with plenty of political satire and dark humor. Though the highlights of the film definitely come from the race scenes, the movie does benefit from some cleverly scripted moments and a few decent, if semi-predictable, plot twists that make this more than just a futuristic smash up derby. A couple of sadistic touches, such as making the elderly or children worth more points in the Death Race than your standard run of the mill adult pedestrian, give it an edge that is still effective today. Add to that the fact that the race is an officially sanctioned event as per the United States government and you can see how the subversive politics of it all boil up a bit closer to the surface than you might expect from your standard Roger Corman produced drive-in movie.
As clever as parts of it are, however, the characters and the action are what will keep you coming back to this one. Though the movie was made on a very low budget there are some really great car designs in here and plenty of high-octane stunt driving to keep you on the edge of your seat. The colorful cast of racers make things a lot of fun, almost like a really cruel version of Wacky Racers albeit without a snickering dog anywhere to be seen.
Carradine, fresh off of his stint on Kung Fu manages to nail the role and bring to it just the right combination of seriousness, arrogance, and tough guy posturing. Stallone has been better and in better movies but he's decent enough here, and you can see in a few scenes the potential that would later be unlocked in First Blood, that kind of collected yet menacing demeanor he has exhibited so well in some of his signature roles.
Buena Vista's re-release of Death Race 2000 sports a fine new 1.78.1 anamorphic widescreen transfer that finally presents the film as it should be seen. Yes, there is still some heavy grain in spots (Frankenstein's first bedroom scene is a prime example) and there are some specks here and there that remind you that you're watching a micro-budget b-movie but other than that the movie looks very good. The colors are quite bright without being 'too much' and the black levels stay strong and deep. There's a solid level of both foreground and background detail present in the film and only mild aliasing is noticeable in a few scenes. This is a pretty solid looking picture.
The English language Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono mix is solid. Dialogue is clean and clear and the track is free of any hiss or distortion. At times it sounds like an older low budget movie but that's okay, it's supposed to sound that way. The music comes through very nicely as do the sound effects, though there are a few spots where the race car engines drown the performers out just ever so slightly. Don't bother looking for any alternate language dubs or subtitles as they aren't there but the feature does have a closed captioning option.
The first extra feature is a commentary track with Roger Corman and Mary Woronov. Though there are some spots where a bit of dead air brings things down a little bit, for the most part this is a lively discussion of the movie and its origins. Corman seems proud to note how politically incorrect certain scenes are, the clip in which the senior citizens are run down for example, and sounds a little disheartened when he mentions that the permissive era of movie making in which Death Race 2000 was born seems to be long gone. Woronov and Corman seem to be having a good time together on the track, and it makes for an enjoyable and quite interesting discussion.
Playing The Game - Looking Back At Death Race 2000 is an all too brief featurette that runs just under eleven minutes in length that explores the origins of the film through interviews with producer Roger Corman, performers Mary Woronov and Martin Kove and writer Charles Griffith. Everyone remembers the movie quite fondly and Corman and Griffith do a fine job of explaining how the movie transformed from a more straight sci-fi picture to the dark comedy that it ended up as. A lot of emphasis is given to the satirical elements of the film, highlight by plenty of clips from the movie itself.
The theatrical trailer for Death Race 2000 finishes off the supplements. Sadly, the Leonard Maltin/Roger Corman interview that was on the New Concorde release of the film has been omitted from this Buena Vista disc, as have the trailers for Grand Theft Auto, Eat My Dust, and Big Bad Mama. While it would have been nice to see Carradine and Stallone interviewed on the disc, that didn't happen and there's no use crying over spilt milk – the commentary and the featurette are both quite good.
Buena Vista's new special edition of Death Race 2000 proves that America still loves you, Frankenstein. A much improved transfer and some very cool extras compliment a feature that just seems to get better with age. Highly recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.