"All right, all right, and yes-sirree! A clean hit! A perfect hit! And no pain for the target. Too bad the guy was only thirty-eight; just two years older, he'd have been worth three times the points."
Take one part 'The Racer,' a novel by Ib Melchior, add one part "essence of Roger Corman," shake or stir, it doesn't matter how you blend the concoction. The end result? 'Death Race 2000,' the 1975 science fiction drama romance sports action comedy directed by Paul Bartel that oozes awesome.
Violence. It's the new national pastime. No, not boxing. It's the Transcontinental Road Race, in its 20th anniversary, with its five contestants in their modified (and themed) vehicles. Fans can root for Calamity Jane (Mary Woronov), Matilda the Hun (Roberta Collins), Nero the Hero (Martin Kove), Machine Gun Joe Viterbo (Sylvester Stallone as the "roughest tough guy of them all"), or the friend of the president, the man who lost a leg in '98, and an arm in '99 (and his jaw in '92, his right eye in '95, his nose and left eye in '97, and his cranium in '98): Frankenstein (David Carradine). As the contestants race across the country, they accrue points not only for speed, but also for vehicular manslaughter, with various point ranges determined based on age and gender. Men, women, infants or the elderly, everyone is fair game. As these five face off against each other, and a terrorist faction bent on abolishing the race, hidden allegiances and politics may put an end to each and every one of them...if they don't kill each other first!
"Blitzkrieg!" The cry Matilda the Hun makes with every kill may be the best single word to describe this phenomenon, a display of organized chaos and anarchy that not only makes a statement on the blood lust and distrust of a generation, but also provides extreme comedy and action for its viewers. This low budget farce (of sorts) may stand as one of the best genre bending films of all time, a statement film if ever there were one.
It's hard to take the film seriously at times, with its goofy electronic soundtrack (inspired by 'A Clockwork Orange'), it's gags (such as Sly throwing a wad of clam sauce at a race official in disgust), it's sensationalized violence, and it's constant plays on words (provided by race commentator Junior (the great Don Steele). But it's impossible to discount its look at politics, inter-gender relations, and the de-sensitization of violence in the American landscape. The mixture is what makes the film work, as its whole is numerous times more efficient and effective than any of its parts could ever be.
Carradine, trying to shake his 'Kung-Fu' image, is fantastic as the mysterious hero, and it only helps that the writing adds layers and layers to the character as the film progresses. It's impossible not to love the idealistic hero, who hides his intentions and beliefs more than his faux-leather outfit hides his true appearance. The real delight, though, has to be Stallone, who was, at the time, still writing 'Rocky' when he signed on to be the second lead in the film. Machine Gun Joe is a hilarious character, so full of machismo, blunt and brash comments, and a predilection towards violence that can only be topped by his desire to once again win the race...and beat (if not kill) Frankenstein at the same time. The woman punching, gun toting, foul mouthed heavy is so deliciously over the top, it only helps that Stallone cheeses it up, knowing full well what kind of film he's in.
The various themes in 'Death Race 2000' may be in your face obvious, but they're all a part of the ride, popping up in increasing intensity as the film progresses. It's amazing watching how violence is sensationalized, with doctors wheeling out geriatrics for the slaughter, women sacrificing themselves to the racers they love (now that's commitment!), and navigators screaming for their racers to aim for the women and babies in crowds, or to make detours to go through boy scout camps for easy points. One would think a film so cruel in its demeanor would be akin to a snuff film, but it's so tongue-in-cheek that it's hard to even consider cold blooded nature to be anything other than one big joke.
With statements on government controlled media, conspiracy, rebellion (both violent and non-violent), and control, 'Death Race 2000' is so amazingly smart, it's impossible to not yell out "Jesus Chrysler!" when viewing this opus for the first time. Often imitated, never duplicated (and horribly remade-ed), Corman's greatest accomplishment has aged wonderfully over the years, and is more valid a statement of the affairs of America now than it was 35 years ago.
The Disc: Vital Stats
Shout! Factory brings 'Death Race 2000' to Blu-ray as the second film in the Roger Corman's Cult Classics line. Housed on a BD25 disc, which I can confirm (through my Region B player) is Region A locked.
"You know Myra, some people might think you're cute. But me, I think you're one very large baked potato."
I've only had the honor of viewing this film once on DVD, and it was on not-too optimal viewing equipment (it certainly wasn't a 50" three dimensional octaphonic t-video set). Let's just say it looked like utter, utter hell. Certainly, I got my hopes up some, considering the Blu-ray release had to improve the clarity of the picture (especially by comparison) at the very least, but knowing the material, I knew not to expect a miracle. I'm glad I didn't get my hopes up.
'Death Race 2000' is presented in 1080p with an AVC MPEG-4 encode at 1.85:1, and it most certainly looks its age. Colors don't retain their integrity all that well, and can appear washed out quite often. Reds are fuzzy, colors bleed quite a bit, there's a hint of ringing here and there, while there remain some shots that are blurry and quite considerably ugly. Dirt is a predominant factor, as it can be light, with tiny blips and larger semi-transparent blobs sprinkled randomly, but in entire sequences it can be utterly filthy (keep an eye on the geriatrics scene for the first example of the extreme dirt and debris). Scenes go from clean to dirty and back and forth far too often, and after a while this becomes a distraction while watching the film. DNR isn't a real issue, but there are some moments that led me to scratch my head and wonder if it were utilized here. Noise pops up some, particularly in the scene involving the airplane. Best of all, there's a single frame at the 46:50 mark that is loaded with blue squares all over, like some weird, brief artifact burst. Whatever it is, it's ugly.
Not all is bad, though. Detail levels get an obvious boost, with some very striking moments, and whites are pretty damn clean (blacks are average, but at least there are no problematic delineation issues). Grain levels don't fluctuate, despite nearly everything else doing so. The film isn't all that three dimensional, but it has a look very fitting of the era. Special effects shots, particularly the composite shots of audiences and "space age" stadiums, stand out horrifically, and it's really quite humorous to see, particularly with said layerings being brought to the forefront in this transfer. 'Death Race 2000' isn't a pretty film. It never will be. Realize this, and you'll be satisfied, if not very pleased, with this disc.
The audio is where things take a detour right off a cliff. There is only one choice (no, there aren't even any subtitles), and it's not a good one, as 'Death Race 2000' has little more than a Dolby Digital 2.0 track that is a massive disappointment. Sure, like the video, I had lowered my expectations back down to reality before reviewing the disc, but even expecting the bare minimum, I found myself upset at how poor this one sounds.
Dialogue is pretty clear, and usually (as in, not always) discernible, as random lines, particularly louder ones, can be difficult to comprehend. It blares horribly when a character yells. There are a few scenes with light feedback or humming noise in the background, sometimes going the length of an entire scene. These may be intentional, or due to lighting on set creating said noises, but some occur in different areas, which is odd (the pit stop in St Louis is particularly bad). There's not much range to speak of, as this entire track seems stuck in neutral, and the rare times it does pop its head up for some high ends, it's incredibly shrill and screechy. Shots mixing the (awesome) soundtrack and engine noise become an indistinguishable blur, and better yet, there are a couple light audio hiccups, possibly due to the way some scenes were cut and transition, but they're hard to miss. Directionality is nice as cars whiz through the room, but that's about it. A terrible track. An awful track. 30 points out of a possible 100.
Two "extras" on this release include the fact that the cover is reversible, with alternate cover art (the spine and back are the same), and that there is a 12 page booklet included, with photographs and a few miniature highlight articles.
Sadly, the menu for this release is pretty damn stupid, and if the menu loops while you have the pop up full of these options open, then the previous screen will come back up and circumvent the list. Pressing back on this option will bring up a broken page of the list, where items don't appear until highlighted with the cursor.
'Death Race 2000' isn't your ordinary film. It's cheap, dirty, to the point, obvious, and amazing. A statement, if ever there were one, on all things American, it's hard to believe that the film would not have been possible if it weren't for Melchior watching a fatal accident at a race track one day. Such is fate, I suppose. This Roger Corman classic may look better than it has in some time, but it's still not a pretty release, and it sounds quite awful. Still, 'Death Race 2000' belongs in the best home video collections. Seek this film out, and enjoy the film for the second time, or marvel at its gutsiness for the first time.