Cult Film Review: Death Race 2000

Not only does this 1978 dystopian classic give us the rather odd – and faintly prescient – image of David Carradine decked head-to-toe in a bondage outfit, we also have the one and only Sly Stallone chewing up the scenery as if some camp version of the Ant Hill Mob – or perhaps the unwilling symbiosis of Lady Penelope and Parker from Thunderbirds.

As you’ve probably guessed, Death Race 2000 is another monument in a veritable boulevard of awesome but crazy cult movies. It’s another one of those trips where law and order has dissolved to the point where it seems the ONLY solution is to instigate macabre and fatal game shows to appease the public. Stephen King – when writing as Richard Bachman – explored this concept with his two pulp novels, The Running Man and The Long Walk.

Sure it makes for an easy and exciting plot point but it’s totally insane. Can you imagine Obama’s response to unemployment and rising oil prices being a fight to the death in a cage between man and beast? Or a game called ‘Snap Happy’, where desperate citizens have to grab food from the mouths of ravenous alligators? Actually, I can see the attraction now. But has that always been the assumed potential of the US government? When the stakes are high, don’t invade another country but instead wheel out Bob Saget with a chainsaw and full of meth to chase contestants around a glitzy TV studio, naked, blood dripping from hi…wait, where was I? Oh yeah…

It’s the ultra-violent dystopian version of the old ‘bread-and-circuses’ concept. And hey, it always works. What’s not to love – from a safe distance – about a three-day free-for-all in which squashed citizens equal $$$ BIG CASH PRIZES $$$? From the modified cars to each driver’s very distinct character – Carradine’s Frankenstein is as gloriously OTT as you’d expect – it’s more cartoon than reality, but then reality is more animated than a cartoon so… swings and roundabouts. If you ever wondered where the likes of Carmageddon, Twisted Metal, Mario Kart and Street Racer all derived their varying degrees of madcap road violence, then let this be one of your starting points.

Frankenstein’s new navigator belongs to a resistance movement determined to overthrow the tyrannical Mr. President, who rules a cowering and divided United States with an iron fist. The plot thickens, tyres begin to thin out and the fuel gauge gets low as the film races to an inevitably gory and speedy climax. The set of circumstances we are left with – and the film’s final scene – is ridiculous in the best way possible. But come on, what’s the point of pretending you wanted something else? Blood, thunder, steel and more blood. Yeahhhhhh!

Critical reception at the time was a little less than favorable. Roger Ebert lavished it with a big, fat zero and criticized its excessive violence. As sure as maggots feast on a corpse, revisionists have tended to this film over the years and ensured that it remains in the pantheon of cult classics.

Death Race 2000 arrived in an era that included another sports-as-political propaganda movie, Rollerball. That too along with Death Race suffered the ignominy of a grossly unnecessary remake that lacked the original’s fire, ire and message. Society appeared to have an underlying fear of politics merging with the opiate of sports to create a state-endorsed tool of oppression and fear. With Death Race being released a little over eight months after the resignation of Nixon – in which certain revelations exposed how wily and dangerous government can be – a large number of American citizens feared their age of freedom was headed for the rocks. It was ever thus.

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