You know those "extra nasty" jokes that you reserve for only your closest (and funniest) friends? The ones that go way past good taste and end up somewhere between the gutter and and a George Carlin monologue. Now imagine that sort of broad, winking, "we all know this is unseemly but it sure is funny" approach, only it's been stretched out to feature length. On the surface, (director) Paul Bartel and (producer) Roger Corman have presented a garish and obvious piece of colorful wish fulfillment in Death Race 2000: a high-speed race in which the drivers collect points based on which pedestrians they destroy. Sounds a little funny but one-note, at best, and something like "stupidly tasteless" at worst.
But in order to make a point, you sometimes have to yell and/or act like a fool, and Bartel and Corman were clearly willing to do that with Death Race 2000. It's the futuristic tale of a rabid society that goes nuts for the latest piece of "reality television" (sound familiar?), only this program involves cars, killings, and brutal bastards who inflict pain for the sheer pleasure of it. And American TV watchers eat it up with a spoon. Whereas the recent remake (Death Race) was content to mine this concept for only the most basic of satirical angles, Bartel's original film knows it has a slick, clever point -- and so the filmmakers have no problem underlining every joke and leering at both the kills and and the elated cheers that follow.
It's hardly the most brilliant or insightful piece of social commentary (yeah yeah, we're just like the Coliseum-goers who loved watching bloody murder), but Bartel and Corman coat their few good points in several layers of broad B-movie lunacy. The cast, for example, is a bona-fide hoot, laden as it is with genre favorites like David Carrradine, Sylvester Stallone, Martin Kove, and Mary Woronov, but even the no-name performers add their own brand of post-apocalyptic road rage rough stuff. (Keep your eyes peeled for cameos by directors John Landis and Lewis Teague, plus I swear I saw "Gopher" from The Love Boat in there!) Let's just say that Carradine plays a guy called "Frankenstein," while Stallone's character is known as "Machine Gun Joe." And these are the normal racers.
Beyond all the paper-thin social commentary and the obvious swipes at mass media consumption, Death Race 2000 also works in that most essential of ways: it's good fun in very bad taste. The tone could be best described as "The Cannonball Run meets The Road Warrior," although DR2k has considerably more in common with the former than the latter. It's sloppy and clearly pretty cheap, but there are also some rather impressive car designs and chase/crash orchestrations, which is 75% of what the Death Race 2000 audience is looking for in the first place.The fact that there's actually half a brain beneath this goofy piece of over-the-top mayhem is the reason the flick is still remembered (and remade) these days.
And as new caretakers of the Corman library, the fine folks at Shout! Factory have done very well by this crazy cult classic. Yep, you're reading this right: 1975's Death Race 2000 is now available in that swanky new blu-ray format. The video transfer is a real treat for fans, especially if you know this flick well. It's not flawless, obviously, considering we're discussing a mid-'70s drive-in-type movie -- but I've never seen this movie look so fresh. The extras drawer is pretty stacked, too: two audio commentaries (one with Corman and Mary Woronov, the other with assistant director Lewis Teague and editor Tina Hirsch) and no less than seven featurettes that cover all you'd need (or want) to know about Death Race 2000: the score, the cast, the writing process, the crazy costumes, the cheap-but-effective production design, the cult following, etc. All together the featurettes run well over an hour, plus there are lots of little trailers and TV spots and what-not for the movie nuts to sift through. Oh, and a booklet.
This is only Shout! Factory's third release from their Corman catalog (after Rock 'n' Roll High School and Suburbia), but their exceedingly high quality makes me very excited for their upcoming releases. Just a few titles like Galaxy of Terror, Forbidden World, Humanoids from the Deep, and the original Piranha. I don't even know which one I'll watch first!