It’s strange that I’ve never actually seen this one before. I’ve only seen the Jason Statham remake/maybe sequel I don’t remember which, from a few years back. I thought it was decent but obviously it stripped away one of the primary elements the original is known for – the scoring system for murdering innocent pedestrians. I’d always been familiar with the concept due to homages such as the Carmageddon series of PC games, but had never actually watched the movie that birthed it.
Death Race 2000 of course takes place in the distant future of the year 2000 where North America has now become “the United Provinces of America” and is completely overseen by one man, Mr. President. Every year they hold a national event where a group of racers drive across the country over the course of three days. Of course they don’t just get points for winning. The major point system involves running over people throughout the course of the race, with extra points being given for toddlers and elderly people. It’s a pretty fucked up premise but contained within a very silly movie so it makes it pretty hard to be upset about any of it.
The most popular racer is Frankenstein (David Carradine) a skinny dude in a tight black outfit who is supposed to have been completely disfigured in past races, needing the uniform to essentially hold him together. His character honestly isn’t terribly interesting, though it’s fun finding out his true intentions and where his motives really lie. The character that is the most fun to watch is Machine Gun Joe Viterbo played by Sylvester Stallone, one of the few times (maybe the only time actually) where he plays the villain. This guy is awesome. He hates how much attention Frankenstein gets instead of him and spends most of the movie freaking out about it and then running people over. One of my favourite parts of the movie has him getting pissed about a “Welcome Frankenstein” banner he catches two people hanging and taking one of them down. We’ve seen Stallone go way over the top before but not as a bad guy, which is a genuine blast to watch.
You do get quite a few glimpses into how fucked up this version of society is. I mean obviously it’s already pretty intense to have thousands/millions of peoples cheering on an event that encourages the slaughter of children, as well as hearing the announcers speak in the same way they would about any other modern sporting event, only instead of mourning a missed goal they are mourning a missed opportunity to mow down a bunch of old people in the street. We also see that each year during the race, nurses will euthanize patients in the geriatric hospital by simply leaving a group of them outside to be run over. What’s nice though is that the movie at least trusts us to watch all this and conclude ourselves “Oh man that’s fucked up. Glad we don’t have a death race”. There isn’t that moment where a character within the movie has to make a grand speech about how twisted all of this just in case the audience hadn’t pieced it together for themselves. I can’t remember for sure if such a speech was made in the remake, and I haven’t seen the straight to DVD prequels they did, but I have to believe most modern movies would not be able to resist putting that big speech in their script.
As I said though, as dark and grim as all of this makes the material sound, the movie itself is quite silly and almost impossible to take seriously. A lot of this does come down to the clearly small budget. The cars themselves look pretty good, though in some of the close-up shots of Machine Gun Joe’s car, which has a large blade jutting out of the front of it, I swear I could see the brush strokes from the paint job. There’s also some very obvious dummy shots when people are getting run over but that and the excessive amount of gore and gook that comes flying out all just add to the charm of the whole thing.
The movie moves along at a fast pace with most of it taking place out on the road during the actual race, only occasionally slowing things down when the racers to take a break in order to get some character moments and exposition in there. There are some fight scenes as well, though I don’t buy for a second that David Carradine would be able to stand toe to toe with Stallone, let alone defeat him. The story being told is basic but interesting with a few twists that I legitimately didn’t see coming, all capped off with a satisfying ending. You get plenty of splatter and plenty of explosions, all presented in a glorious over the top fashion.
Death Race 2000 is a quick and fun 80 minutes where they present a grim future in a fun way, not stopping every few minutes to explain to us how awful such a world outcome would be. The years haven’t been overly kind to it as many of the effects and props definitely look very dated, but it’s charming and gritty and I would say this one is recommended.