There are people that say there’s no such thing as a perfect movie. Those people have never seen Death Race 2000, a film that’s packed with pop culture references, ultraviolence, black humor, political commentary and great character moments.
After the “World Crash of ’79”, the United States government declares martial law. To keep the people happy, the Transcontinental Road Race is created. It’s a race across the country — ala Cannonball Run — except that drivers score points for killing people.
This is the twentieth race and each driver has their own character and themed car, including the mysterious champion Frankenstein (David Carradine, Kill Bill) who has been torn apart and rebuilt so many times, no one is sure what parts of him are real any longer; Machine Gun Joe (Sylvester Stallone, Rocky), a Chicago gangster who calls people mashed potato and will even drive over his own pit crew for points; Calamity Jane (Mary Woronov, Night of the Comet), a tough cowgirl; Nero the Hero (Martin Kove, Kreese from the Karate Kid!) and Matilda the Hun (Roberta Collins, Eaten Alive, Caged Heat), a Nazi. They each have a navigator who is also generally their sexual partner.
Covering the race is a parody of network news coverage — that would become even more true in today’s Fox News and CNN climate — which includes loudmouth Junior Bruce (Don Steele, Rockin’ Ricky Rialto from Gremlins), Harold, who is pretty much Howard Cosell and Grace Pander, the gossip columnist who refers to everyone as her close personal friend.
Meanwhile, Thomasina Paine, the great great great great and maybe even great-granddaughter of American Revolutionary Thomas Paine is sabotaging the race to rebel against the President. These revolutionaries have even placed Annie, Thomasina’s granddaughter, into the race as Frankenstein’s new navigator. That said — the government keeps covering up all of the deaths of the racers and blame it all on the French — who have already destroyed the country’s phone system — one of director Paul Bartel’s (Eating Raoul) favorite jokes. In fact, the film was packed with even more silliness before Roger Corman chopped out most of the strangeness that Bartel loved so much.
Everyone but Machine Gun Joe and Frankenstein are left in the race. Before the final day of the race, Annie learns that Frankenstein isn’t even the original man — he was a ward of the state who was raised from birth to compete in the Death Race. When he’s used up, another will take his place. And he’s closer to the spirit of the rebels than Annie would ever think — he plans on using his fake right hand to blow up the President. Of course, that was the plan. But Annie saves Frankenstein using this “hand” grenade in the final battle
Frankenstein is injured, so Annie takes his place and tries to stab the President. But her own grandmother shoots her, as she wants revenge thinking that the champion Death Racer had killed her granddaughter. And this all takes place after the President declares war on the French and appoints Frankenstein to lead his armies!
The real Frankenstein recovers and runs over the President to the roar of the crowd. He becomes President, marries Annie and runs over Junior Bruce as he puts an end to the Death Race.
This film may have been remade (and there are several sequels to that franchise) and Corman finally put out Death Race 2050, his own sequel to the film, in 2017. But do we need anything else when the original is so epic? It’s so much fun, punctuated by moments of sheer lunacy. Viva la Death Race 2000!