The United States has been replaced by the United Provinces, ruled by the tyrannical “Mr. President,” but what really matters is the Transcontinental Road Race, “the most popular sporting event in human history.”
Every child who ever stared out a school bus window during the past 36 years knows the game. 40 points for teenagers, 70 for toddlers and 100 points for old people. As a fangirl explains, “scoring isn’t really killing, it’s part of the game.”
And so, the race begins. Frankenstein (David Carradine) and Machine Gun Joe (Sylvester Stallone) are ahead of the pack, picking off construction workers and fishermen and even swinging by “Euthanasia Day” at the geriatric clinic.
Death Race 2000‘s macabre hilarity comes from its unique blend of over-the-top absurdity with the consistency of the illusion. This isn’t a Mel Brooks film where the actors wink at the camera every so often. The characters are cartoons, but they’re cartoons that play it straight.
Roger Ebert was appalled by the film’s violence, and by the way audiences laughed at it. Back in 1975, he was surprised to learn that people like “mayhem and blood” and that young children find it entertaining.
I don’t buy the apologetic line that audiences are “really” laughing at the race fans or because they feel superior to lovers of violence. Every exploitation film ever made claims to be “actually anti-violence” – the tactic producer Roger Corman uses to defend the film in the Blu-ray extras. But I, for one, certainly laugh at the gruesome deaths, and I’m confident most everyone else does too.
The film, as B-grade sci-fi is prone to do, lays out its moral very explicitly in the final scene. The pacifist rebels, who have just bombed, kidnapped and terrorized their way to power, pledge to protect freedom by “dealing very harshly with rebels.” The race announcer – now out of a job – asks our new Mr. President why he is canceling the race when his entire reign is based on violence. The only answer he gets is the front of a car.
Despite the ham-handed way it is made, the point is a valuable one. Plenty of other dystopias play on the inescapable human love of evil, but none indict its audience’s complicity so directly. With Lord of the Flies we cry when Piggy dies. With Death Race 2000, we laugh.
I'm a journalist and film enthusiast who lives in the beautiful Ozark Mountains of Northwest Arkansas. I've been writing about movies for 15 years and I hosted a weekly movie review television show on UATV for two years.