Roger Corman comes from the school of movie making that favors quantity over quality, unless you’re talking about budget in which case the cheaper the better. If you felt the need to mentally abuse yourself you could sit down to a Corman produced project every night for a year and still not be able to get through his entire body of work. Of course, that doesn’t matter since you would likely be driven to stick your head in the oven after just a couple weeks. For whatever reason, the man is apparently getting a special DVD collection of his early works released, a sort of B-grade movie lifetime achievement award. What did we do to deserve this?
It’s the year 2000 (bear in mind, the movie was made in 1974) and the world is a very weird place. The President of the United States has become something of a Roman Emperor, sating the blood lust of his nation’s denizens by creating the Trans-Continental Road Race, the street melee equivalent of a gladiator competition. The President’s champion in this national sporting spectacle is a half man, half machine driver called Frankenstein. Clad in black plastic mask and cape, one might accuse the character of ripping off Darth Vader if the movie hadn’t come out two years before Star Wars.
Don’t be fooled by the fact that the film stars Sylvester Stallone and David Carradine. This is B-grade movie making at its worst and “Mystery Science Theater 3000” never had such rare meat to feast upon. Death Race 2000 is the kind of movie a group of teenage boys would set out to make during a particularly boring summer vacation. In a nutshell, it’s about a road race where the drivers score during the day by running people over and score at night by banging their navigators. Cars, carnage and carnality all rolled into one ridiculous story.
The production values rival that of a high-school project, right down to the red spray paint blood, colored pencil hand drawn titles and Casio lap-synthesizer soundtrack. The five drivers race around in glorified carnival cars that smack of something out of Hanna Barbera’s Wacky Races. I kept waiting for Dick Dastardly and Muttley to appear as last minute entries.
The one thing the movie has going for it is a quirky sense of humor. As perversely unsettling as it might be, you can’t help but laugh in disbelief when nurses begin wheeling older patients out into the roadway in front of a clinic for what Frankenstein refers to as “Euthanasia Day” at the geriatrics hospital. There seems to be some kind of political point hidden in there somewhere, perhaps related to the proliferation of violence in society, but it’s hard to pick up on it when faced with the disturbing imagery of David Carradine’s love scenes. Nobody wants to see the man in nothing but a plastic mask and black Speedo.
Death Race 2000 creates an art form out of making bad movies. You’d think a producer would know he’s hit rock bottom when one of his cars is decorated like a bull and the driver takes five passes to run down a guy dressed up like a matador. Instead he presses onward with a feverish obsession, finding even lower ways to force undeliverable lines onto actors dying to get a big screen credit for their resumes. It’s a thirty-six car pile up on the highway of Hollywood and the audience is the one laying under the heap.
I’m surprised Sylvester Stallone didn’t buy up the rights to this project a long time ago so that he could burn the footage. Now it’s in a collector’s edition DVD package, a delivery that makes a mockery of the concept.
Producer Roger Corman and actress Mary Woronov threw together a commentary but their dialogue isn’t much better than the one offered in the film It’s a testament to the movie’s significance that neither Stallone nor Carradine could spare the hour and a half to join the conversation. At one point in the commentary Roger confesses that there are a few shots where he slowed the filming down too much to make the cars look like they’re going faster than they really are. Mary chides him for it, saying the audience will always notice the mistakes the next time they see them. Don’t worry Mary, we’re bored, not blind…we can see the mistakes well enough without Roger pointing them out.
The commentary really goes awry when the two begin talking about the role that method acting played in the performances as though they were part of a discussion for “Inside the Actor’s Studio”. The solemnity and seriousness paid to the project is laughable and sometimes a little deluded. The movie is horrible and no amount of talking can cover it up.
There’s a brief making-of featurette and the original theatrical trailer is included as well but neither is worth watching. As an added kick in the pants the sound is presented in glorious Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono. The disc’s bonus material are just as depressingly painful to watch as the movie itself making the entire package a bizarre opportunity to torture your weekend movie club.