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Everything about the newest Death Race 2000 DVD is strange.

Strange Race

Stallone and Carradine, before they were huge
Stallone and Carradine, before they were huge

Start with the movie itself. Sylvester Stallone and David Carradine star as cross-country automobile racers. Not only are they racing to get to L.A. from New York, but they score points along the way by running over pedestrians. The elderly are worth 100 points. Toddlers are worth 70. Teenagers are only worth 40, (although it seems they should be worth more since they’re probably harder to hit). It’s never made clear whether the winner is the one with the most points or the fastest time. Strange.

Even stranger are the subplots. An underground Communist organization wants to ban the race. The race is supported (bread-and-circuses, you see) by The President of the United Provinces of America, which is now something like a fascist dictatorship. One of the commies has been planted as the sexy navigator for the driver Frankenstein (Carradine). Frankenstein himself is a bio-engineered race car driver who is superhumanly fast on a gearshift.

But perhaps the strangest thing about the new DVD of Death Race 2000 is that it’s being released by Buena Vista, distributor of Disney.

Pure Corman

Because this is a Roger Corman flick, there are plenty of scenes of nudity. I almost said “gratuitous” nudity, but that’s not quite true; the nudity is always justified, if just barely.

The most prominent Corman trademark — cheapness — shows itself all throughout the movie. Footage of the roads just outside of Manhattan look strangely like southern California. The film’s only special effect, reused at every opportunity, is an elaborate matte painting of the stadium of the future. This is intercut with people photographed from below, presumably because no good backdrop was available.

DVD Extras

There are three extra features: an interview segment, an audio commentary, and the original trailer. There are some promos for other releases, too, including a promo that promises that all 200-plus Corman films will be available on DVD. Death Race 2000 is the tip of the iceberg, apparently.

The commentary and the interviews are an odd mix of elevating Corman’s films and acknowledging that they are B movies.

On the elevation side, we have the Corman promo calling Roger Corman “the king of the...” and at this point, your brain will have already filled in “B-movies,” but the commentator says instead “independent movies.” “Independent” has a good connotation these days. The adjective isn’t wrong, but it’s carefully chosen to be far away from words like “cheese” and “schlock.”

In the interviews, co-screenwriter Charles Griffith seemed happy to emphasize the political angle to the story, going so far as to call it “prescient.” That’s going a little far, but nevertheless, soon after 2000, our leaders were quick to blame the French for America’s woes, as predicted.

And when Corman goes on-camera to describe the almost-gratuitous scenes of nudity in Death Race, he’s carful to use words like “erotic,” or “sexy.”

So it’s refreshing when Mary Woronov, who got naked for Death Race 2000, recalls that Stallone was shy about undressing and that had to remind him: “I’m doing a tits and ass movie!” And indeed, in much of the audio commentary, Corman, who always sounds like he’s smiling, is happy to admit the corners he cut for budgetary reasons. He even drove some of the stunts himself. He explains, “It wasn’t so much that it was dangerous; it was illegal. “

Conclusion

I’m not necessarily thrilled about the marketing of these Corman DVDs. The fact that Disney’s label is distributing them, combined with Corman’s own avuncular manner are in danger of whitewashing this era. We look back on it as camp and kitsch; the dark side of cheap exploitation films is totally absent.

But if you can keep a sense of perspective, Death Race 2000 is cheezy fun. I was pleasantly surprised at how much plot, subplot, and texture there actually was. I still wouldn’t call it good, but it was surprisingly full of content; it was an attempt at a real film, and more daring and relevant than many cheap-ass films of today.

  • XRIS: So bad it's good.

    Not really but the nudity helps.

    Thank you for your thorough review. I appreciate the effort and look forward to all the extras my current DVD lacks.

    This is one of those movies which was on TV alot when I was quite young and made an impression on the artist I am today.

    The car designs the costumes! Visually this movie has is very entertaining. The acting and the score lack depth.

    Cheers!

    January 22, 2007 reply