It shouldn’t have worked. Going on premise alone, Death Race 2000 should have been a forgettable, dreary slog, a body-count picture with cars instead of knives. On the supplementary material to the 1975 film’s new Blu-ray release, producer Roger Corman talks about finding an original short story by Ib Melchior, liking its race-and-murder element, but deciding it needed humor to really make the transition to the big screen. He was right, and he deserves credit for the insight, but the lion’s share of the praise goes to director Paul Bartel and screenwriters Robert Thom and Charles B. Griffith for making that insight real. Race is a gory, goofy, live-action Road Runner cartoon, full of brazen sight gags, copious nudity, and flattened pedestrians. As a pleasant bonus, it also manages to hold up as a satire of media and violence that isn’t condescending or tedious.
It doesn’t hurt that Bartel has a cast more than willing to keep up with the lunacy. David Carradine stars as Frankenstein, the winningest racer in the history of the Deathrace. He’s up against Mary Woronov (the cult-movie queen at her snarky best), a never-better Sylvester Stallone, and a whole host of B-movie stalwarts, playing a series of caricatures with just enough depth to make them interesting. As Carradine drives his souped-up killer roadster cross-country, running over citizens and arrogant officials alike, TV personalities chart his course with mindless enthusiasm, and revolutionaries plot to steal his fame and undermine the government. It’s all ridiculous and occasionally surreal, but Bartel never loses sight of the unpleasantness; when these cartoons explode, they don’t get to place any more orders with the Acme company. They just die.
The action setpieces work well, the blood smears look great in high definition, and most of the jokes land. It’s not like the news suddenly stopped caring about sexy, sexy violence in the 35 years since this first hit theaters. What really makes Race such a classic, though, is that Bartel manages to mix ruthless satire, absurdism, and sincerity without ever softening or compromising any of them. Midway through the movie, a devoted Frankenstein fan approaches her idol to offer herself to him as a potential point-earning victim. The scene (and its eventual conclusion) could’ve been overtly comic, but it’s played absolutely straight, and the effect is unnerving, haunting, and bizarrely sweet. Like the picture it lives in, it shouldn’t have worked—but it does.
Key features: In addition to a nice-looking transfer, there are a ton of features for race fans, including multiple commentary tracks, interview segments, and trailers.