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Death Race 2000: Special Edition

You may, if you wish, look for social commentary in Roger Corman's futuristic action-comedy Death Race 2000 (1975) directed by Paul Bartel (Eating Raoul). Given its severe lack of subtlety, you don't have to look far. Arriving between the Watergate era and the Reagan '80s, the film's President (Sandy McCallum) pronounces that "I have made the United Provinces of America the greatest power in the known universe. I have also given you the most popular sporting event in the history of mankind — the Transcontinental Road Race, which uphold the American tradition of no holds barred!" Forget the social satire stuff, though — the real fun of the movie is the sheer giddy, blood-spattered joy of watching cars explode and stunt men slaughtered in comically inventive ways. More than just a race, the President's populist sport is a Darwinesque exercise in gleeful nihilism, with five racers getting points for taking out civilians on their high-speed jaunt from New York to "New Los Angeles." The reigning champ is cape-clad, bemasked Frankenstein (David Carradine) who, according to the race's color commentator (L.A. disc jockey The Real Don Steele) "lost a leg in '98, an arm in '99 — with a half a face and half a chest and all the guts in the world, he's back! God only knows what he looks like under that mask, but he's back." Recently returned from abroad with limb transplants, Frankenstein has a hidden agenda as he battles his four competitors, engaging in as much mortal mayhem as possible in an attempt to rack up points on his way to victory. Meanwhile, Thomasina Paine (Harriet Medin), leader of an underground resistance movement, has declared war on the President's race and her minions set traps to sabotage the drivers — Frankenstein, Nero the Hero (Martin Kove), Calamity Jane (Mary Woronov), Matilda the Hun (Roberta Collins), and Machine Gun Joe Viterbo (Sylvester Stallone), who drives a car tricked out with a tommy gun and a gigantic, front-mounted Bowie knife. Paine's great-granddaughter, Annie (Simone Griffith) is undercover as Frankenstein's navigator but, naturally, finds herself falling for the champ the more she gets to know him. There is so much that's weird and wonderful about Death Race 2000 — Carradine, clad only in a black Speedo, black gloves and leather mask, dancing with a half-naked Griffith (who asks, "Those Swiss mechanics sure did a good job on you — what else did they replace?"); the giddy mowing-down of innocent bystanders who increase in point totals if they're female, elderly, or toddlers; Stallone, wearing a pinstriped helmet, muttering, "Frankenstein! Oh, how I hate him!"; former "Love Boat" star and Iowa Congressman Fred "Gopher" Grandy wearing a swastika armband as Matilda's navigator, Herman the German; and a side-splittingly inept fight scene between Carradine and Stallone set to incongruous jazz-rock music. A fabulously entertaining, typically low-budget effort from the prolific Corman, Death Race 2000 is a perfect film for DVD — rated R for nudity and hilariously unrepentant violence, it's not the sort of film that shows up on television much, but it's a terrific Friday night movie to watch at home with some cold beers and a few good friends. Buena Vista's DVD release, part of the "Roger Corman: Early Films" collection, offers a beautiful, clean, color-rich transfer in anamorphic widescreen (1.78:1). The monaural DD 2.0 audio is equally clean and, for mono sound, quite good. Extras include a fun commentary track by Corman and Woronov, enjoying themselves quite a bit as they discuss the making of the film, which they obviously enjoy watching again; "Playing the Game: Looking Back at Death Race 2000," a featurette with Corman, Woronov, writer Charles Griffith, director Joe Dante and others discussing the making of the film (11 min.); and the original theatrical trailer. Keep-case.
—Dawn Taylor

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