Based on a short story by sci-fi novelist Ib Melchior, the wildly eccentric script for DEATH RACE 2000 comes from the pens of Robert Thom and Charles Griffith, a long-time Roger Corman collaborator. Produced with the usual economic precision by Corman for his New World Pictures and directed by the late Paul Bartel (whose previous effort was the fabulous PRIVATE PARTS) with his trademark Black Comedy flair, DEATH RACE 2000 remains an unforgettable ride, one of the most enjoyable 1970s drive-in flicks, and still better than most of the post-apocalyptic sci-fi potboilers that the decade had to offer. Released several times on DVD before over the past ten years, Shout! Factory gets it right with this deluxe edition (also being issued on Blu-ray disc for the first time) with extensive bonus content as part of their ongoing “Roger Corman’s Cult Classics” series.
In the future year of 2000, a financially destroyed America is annually diverted by the televised Transcontinental Road Race, a legalized barbaric contest which allows racers to mow down pedestrians for points (infants and the over 75 crowd collecting the highest score). With the race now in its 20th season, the indisputable star of the event is Frankenstein (David Carradine), named so due to all the patchwork and repairs done to his person over the years, which is promptly revealed as untrue media hype. Frankenstein now has a young, beautiful navigator in Annie (Simone Griffeth), who he is overly suspicious of, and he also has concerns over his main nemesis in the race, "Machine Gun" Joe Viterbo (Sylvester Stallone), who along with his ditzy companion Myra (Louisa Moritz) will do anything unethical to sabotage Frankie’s chances of victory. Other competitors in the race include drugstore cowgirl "Calamity" Jane Kelly (Mary Woronov), the effeminate Nero the Hero (Martin Kove) and the Swastika-obsessed Matilda the Hun (Roberta Collins). As Frankenstein has an underhanded reason for winning the race, an underground resistance group (who must have gotten the bulk of their ideas from watching old Warner Brothers cartoons) are actively involved with abolishing the race, even if it means snuffing out its celebrity participants.
Shot fairly quick for well under half a million dollars, DEATH RACE 2000 is a one helluva sci-fi movie, and the adrenaline soars as much as the high-octane action within. Low budget aside, the filmmakers were able to use ingenuity and talent to furnish an unforgettable cult item which, 35 years later, compares favorably to the dizzying CGI-plagued hokum of modern Hollywood. You’ve gotta love the screenplay, and although the writers couldn’t predict how new mediums would revolutionize the 21st century, credit goes to them for envisaging an America obsessed with competitive reality television! Bartel (who makes a brief appearance as Frankenstein’s surgeon) injects the film with plenty of dark satire, and producer Corman compliments that by making sure there are ample doses of blood and nudity, two trademarks of New World Pictures.
Rapid scenes of pedestrians being impaled and annihilated by the competitor’s custom vehicles (equipped with such deadly accessories as machine guns, bayonets, oil dispensers, claws and steer horns) allows for some gloriously graphic moments of comic book violence, and the nonchalant transition to the next scene (usually of one of the talking head commentators) makes them all the better. The wild custom cars are absolutely fab (Frankenstein’s vehicle resembles a lizard, or perhaps Godzilla, complete with a set of sharp white teeth), and the mix of road play and competitive carnage are well choreographed. Some archaic matte paintings (I’ll still take this over in-you-face CGI) and optical effects, along with some bushy mid 1970s hairstyles might date the film a bit, but not as much as some of the other futuristic epics of the period.
As Frankenstein, Carradine (who most of the time sports a head-to-toe black outfit complete with bolted helmet, cape and prosthetic face scar) deadpans it throughout, yet it’s actually what the character called for and it turns out to be one of the best things he’s ever done. A year before he would become a full-fledged movie star, Stallone shines as “Machine Gun” Joe, a misogynistic meatball who thrives on violence. Stallone seems to be improvising a lot of his lines, thus embellishing them, and pretty much steals every scene he’s in. Drolly representing the media in dissimilar personas are Carle Bensen, Joyce Jameson (who had appeared in Corman’s TALES OF TERROR) and most significantly, real-life Los Angeles DJ/TV host Don Steele as the obnoxiously loud Junior Bruce, one of the film’s signature characters. Harriet Medin, a Massachusetts-born actress who became a fixture in 1960s Italian horror films (some directed by Maria Bava and Riccardo Freda) plays Thomasina Paine, the patriotic leader of the resistance group. “Love Boat” star and future Congressman Fred Grandy plays the thankless role of Matilda’s co-pilot, Herman the German.
Previously available on DVD in 1999 through New Concorde and in 2005 through Buena Vista Home Entertainment (as well as a number of budget labels we won’t mention here), Shout! Factory now presents the film transferred in high definition from the inter-positive film element. Carrying an appropriate 1.78:1 aspect ratio with anamorphic enhancement, there is noticeable improvement over the previous DVD releases. Although there is occasional dirt and debris, as well as grain on the master source element, colors are extremely bold, while detail is excellent and black levels deep. The mono English language audio has no noticeable imperfections and is quite clear throughout the presentation. No subtitle options are provided.
Shout! Factory has included an array of fine extras for this disc, some of them which were already available on the previous DEATH RACE 2000 releases, but most of them newly produced. An audio commentary with Corman and Mary Woronov is carried over from the 2005 release, as the two enthusiastically recall the making of the film, and seem to be having a grand time while doing so. Assistant director Lewis Teague (who has a small part in the film as a brave rebel “matador”) and editor Tina Hirsh are present on an all-new second audio track, where the two reflect on making a film on a Corman budget, detailing the constraints and work lessons learned by such an experience. Hirsch’s recollections about the editing process (they actually edited the film on black & white film stock to save $$$) and the assorted sound troubles are most interesting. A featurette entitled “Playing The Game: Looking Back At DEATH RACE 2000” (10:45) was originally produced for the 2005 release, and it includes on-camera interviews Corman, Joe Dante, actors Woronov actor Martin Kove and co-writer Charles Griffith, who passed away in 2007. “Leonard Maltin Interviews Roger Corman about DEATH RACE 2000” (5:54) is another short interview segment that dates back to the 1999 release.
All the other featurettes on the disc are making their premiere on this release. “David on Death Race” (3:47) is an outtake from a 2008 interview with the late actor, who recognizes it as the most famous of his cult films, and reveals that he made a lot of money off of it over the years (he even does his best Corman impersonation!). “Designing Dystopia!” (12:22) is a look at the film’s locations, sets and custom race cars with art director B.B. Neel, car designer James Powers and car constructor Dean Jeffries. All their comments reflect the film’s budget constraints and quick shooting schedule, but they at least seemed to have had a good time while working on the set. “Ready to Wear” (14:39) is an interview with costume designer Jane Ruhm, who relays how she created the wardrobe for the lead characters, and the initial temperamental reaction from Carradine upon accepting his outfit, which turns out to be some anecdote! Ruhm also happened to have designed the film’s opening credits. “Start Your Engine!” (11:46) is an interview with original story creator Ib Melchior (now in his 90s) who discusses his the short story (“The Racer”) in which the film was based on, and how he has come to embrace the movie in spite of how it varies from his initial concept. “Killer Score” (11:33) has composer Paul Chihara telling us how he was a young, classically trained composer who was thrilled to get his this first feature gig, courtesy of Corman, who was looking for some very futuristic sounds for the project. The original trailer is provided, as well as one with an introduction and commentary by director John Landis (he too has an amusing cameo in the film) courtesy of trailersfromhell.com (the trailer was put together by Joe Dante, as were many of the other great New World previews). Also included is a TV spot, three radios spots, and an extensive still gallery (featuring international posters and lobby cards, behind-the-scene stills and original sketches). Trailers for other upcoming Corman titles from Shout! Factory are also included: DEATHSPORT, UP FROM THE DEPTHS, GALAXY OF TERROR and FORBIDDEN WORLD. A 12-page booklet and reversible cover art round out the treats for another winner from the Shout! Factory. (George R. Reis)
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