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SCI-FI SUNDAYS – DEATH RACE 2000 (1975)

Sci-Fi Sundays returns with Dawn Dabell’s review of Death Race 2000 (1975) starring David Carradine, Simone Griffeth and Sylvester Stallone.

Frankenstein (David Carradine) and his navigator Annie (Simone Griffeth

Frankenstein (David Carradine) and his navigator Annie (Simone Griffeth

King of the B-movies Roger Corman has an impressive filmography as both director and producer. His most acclaimed work was in the capacity of director which saw him working with AIP on a series of Edgar Allan Poe adaptations. These films House Of Usher (1960), The Pit And The Pendulum (1961), The Premature Burial (1962), Tales Of Terror (1962), The Raven (1963), The Haunted Palace (1963), The Masque Of Red Death (1964) and The Tomb Of Ligeia (1964) are seen as many as Corman’s high point in a career which has spanned over 60 years. Not content with merely directing, Corman also became infamous for producing films on shoestring budgets, showing an ability for making profits from films with little to no budget.
Death Race 2000 (1975) had a reported budget of $300,000 and went on to garner box-office returns in the millions… not a bad return based on the initial outlay. To date, Corman has produced over 400 films, directed 56 films and even has 36 acting and 9 writing credits to his name… clearly a man who likes to keep himself busy.

The reporters chat to the competitors during a full body massage at the pit-stop

The reporters chat to the competitors during a full body massage at the pit-stop

In the year 2000, a dystopian America society celebrates its 20th annual Transcontinental Road Race. Various competitors line up against each other in a race where extra points are awarded by running over pedestrians – babies and the infirm are especially precious as targets.
A resistance movement led by Thomasina Paine (Harriet Medin) is determined to rebel against Mr President’s regime by disrupting the race and killing the competitors. Frankenstein (David Carradine) is one particular driver the Resistance hopes to capture alive, to hold as a hostage in their continuing schemes against the presidency. Frankenstein’s navigator, Annie (Simone Griffeth), is in fact working for the Resistance towards achieving this end.
Eventually, only Frankenstein and Machine Gun Joe (Sylvester Stallone) remain in the race. But all is not what it seems, and Frankenstein himself proves to have an ulterior motive…

Frankenstein (David Carradine) and Annie Smith (Simone Griffeth) in their shared bedroom suite

Frankenstein (David Carradine) and Annie Smith (Simone Griffeth) in their shared bedroom suite

All the cast members play their roles perfectly, with regular b-movie actor Carradine setting the bar as the film’s hero Frankenstein. Even when wearing his iconic head-to-toe outfit, he still manages to convey his characters emotions to the audience with a flick of his cape or a tilt of his head. He’s powerful and intimidating, yet the audience still roots for him to win the race throughout the movie. Sylvester Stallone is a little too convincing as the dumb competitor – watching him here, it’s hard to believe the following year he would go on to play one of the most iconic roles of his career, Rocky. Having said this, he is still amusing to watch. Simone Griffeth puts in an equally pleasing performance as the love interest, as do the other actors and actresses.

A bloody victim of the race, in Death Race 2000.

A bloody victim of the race, in Death Race 2000.

Although the film is about killing pedestrians (including the elderly, the infirm and children) to score points, it is a fun movie throughout. One of the funniest moments in the film sees some nurses leaving their patients in the middle of the road to be killed by Frankenstein, only for him to change the ball game on them. A seriously laugh out loud moment for the viewers. From the very moment it starts, the audience is given a hint of the tone of the movie ahead. The reporters are all presented as over-the-top and ridiculous, and the characters’ names are all used for comedy value: Matilda the Hun, Nero The Hero, Calamity Jane Kelly, Herman the German, Frankenstein, etc. It seems the makers aren’t taking the film seriously… and neither should we.
Genre maestro Corman – famous for his low budgets, violence and nudity – does not fail to deliver on all counts here. The killings, though amusing, are also brutal and guaranteed to satisfy audiences of all ages (in the US, children were allowed to view the movie if accompanied by an adult). After the violence of the race, the drivers take pit-stops where they stay overnight and are treated to full body massages – here we are treated to some of the leading ladies flaunting their breasts just as the camera happens to focus in on them. At one point, Griffeth takes off her clothing in a scene where, if she were any closer to the camera, she’d be sat right on top of the camera man! But would we really expect (or even want) anything less thangratuitous violence and nudity from Corman’s 70’s B movies? Heck no!

Frankenstein's fan club swooning while watching the race

Frankenstein’s fan club swooning while watching the race

Paul Bartel who is more known for his acting work, was brought on board in the capacity of director. Although to date he had only directed two shorts and the comedy horror film Private Parts (1972), he does a great job at the helm of Death Race 2000. Bartel also has an uncredited role as Frankenstein’s doctor in the film.
Death Race 2000 proved to be a success, and Corman went on to produce Deathsport (1978) – a sequel of sorts – three years later. The film saw David Carradine returning as the lead but this time Claudia Jennings was his female lead. Set in the year 3000, it once again featured racers killing pedestrians, but this time the vehicles of choice were motorcycles. Corman also produced more recent films in the franchise. In 2008, Jason Statham took the lead in Death Race, a film which credits itself in the DVD commentary as a prequel to the film. It even sees Carradine providing the voice of Frankenstein. Following on from this, two direct-to-DVD movies were made: Death Race 2: Frankenstein Lives (2010) and Death Race 3: Inferno (2012).

Theatrical poster for Death Race 2000 (1975)

DVD cover art for Death Race 2000 (1975)

Although the gloss and sheen of the films has improved since the 70s’ Death Race 2000, none really recreate the fun of or the impact of the 1975 original.

MOM Rating: 6.5/10

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