Shout! Factory // 1975 // 78 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Patrick Bromley // June 22nd, 2010
In the year 2000, hit-and-run driving is no longer a felony. It's the national sport!
Shout! Factory continues rolling out HD releases of the Roger Corman catalogue with the new Blu-ray edition of the cult classic Death Race 2000, one of my favorite movies of all time.
It's the incredibly distant future -- the year 2000 -- and America is obsessed with the violent Transcontinental Road Race, a bloody sport in which racers are awarded points for killing civilians and each other. The best driver in the race is fan favorite Frankenstein (David Carradine, Kill Bill), who resents his place in the totalitarian government's system and quietly has his own plans to overthrow it. The other racers include "Machine Gun" Joe Viterbo (Sylvester Stallone, Rambo), a self-made gangster filled with rage over always coming in second behind Frankenstein; "Calamity" Jane Kelly (Mary Waronov, Rock 'n' Roll High School), the fey Nero the Hero (Martin Kove, The Karate Kid) and Matilda the Hun (Roberta Collins, Hardbodies). All are vying to win the 20th Transcontinental Race, and will have to do anything and kill anyone to make that happen.
There are movies that set out to be cult movies and there are movies that have no choice but to be cult movies. Those that set out to be usually come across as self-conscious and intentionally offbeat for the sake of being offbeat. Those that are destined to be cult movies may not have elements or an execution that are going to appeal to everyone. They're exploitation movies that are well done enough to develop a legitimate following and, unlike the majority of immediate, disposable grindhouse fodder, stand the test of time. Paul Bartel's classic Death Race 2000 is exactly that kind of movie.
Death Race 2000 is a near-perfect B-movie, offering everything one could want from a Roger Corman exploitation film. It's one of the best in the legendary producer's massive catalogue: funny and darkly satirical, willing to take nihilism to its logical conclusion (years before Snake Plissken, no less) while remaining quick and deceptively colorful. It takes some shots at our love with violence, while at the same time satiating our bloodlust with funny, messy gore. It offers plenty of female skin and creates its own kind of offbeat sexuality, even managing to make Mary Waronov sexy. The performances from everyone, from the deadpan cool of David Carradine to the over-the-top cartoonishness of Sylvester Stallone, Waranov and Martin Kove, are just right for the tone Bartel is going for -- you really get the sense that everyone knows exactly what kind of movie they're in. And, even though we're already a full decade past the year that the film takes place, it still feels "futuristic" thanks to the out-there costumes and production design. It's vision of what's to come is hilariously misguided and inaccurate, but Death Race 2000 is totally aware of that fact. Realism is the last thing on the movie's mind.
Though Paul W.S. Anderson's 2008 remake Death Race has its share of defenders, I would still argue that Anderson missed the point of Paul Bartel's original film. What makes Death Race 2000 work is its unusual combination of humor, bloody violence, and kinky sexuality (it is, in many ways, the precursor to Lloyd Kaufman and Troma, who have been trying to achieve the same kind of alchemy for decades with varying degrees of success). Death Race ditches the satire in favor of becoming a slicker, more straightforward action movie, and that's all wrong. Director Paul Bartel was very clever in making his film an exaggerated, sick and silly cartoon, and for such a small-budget, niche-driven cult movie, it's an impressive exercise in delicate tone (in that there's nothing particularly delicate about it). It's easy to see where a different director would have tried to tell the same story with a totally different tone, and the result would likely have been a dated, so-bad-it's-not-quite-good cheapie (like so many other Corman films of the '70s) that we wouldn't still be talking about today. Instead, Death Race 2000 is, in its way, kind of timeless.
Death Race 2000 arrives on Blu-ray looking better than it ever has before. The 1.78:1-framed, full 1080p HD transfer shows signs of wear and tear, but for a movie that's 35 years old there's not a whole lot to complain about. Despite some scratches and the occasional speck, the movie looks pretty great: the bright, bold colors consistently pop and there are some scenes where the detail is good. There's a good deal of softness throughout, too, but I suspect that's a source issue and not the fault of Shout! Factory's transfer. The title is far from being reference material for true HD snobs, but it's easily the best Death Race 2000 has looked and worth trading up your standard definition DVD copy. The disc's audio doesn't fare quite as well, as Shout! Factory has opted for a faithful Dolby 2.0 track over an actual lossless overhaul, and the result is a track that sounds like the movie probably sounded in 1975 but doesn't take much advantage of your home theater's potential. The track is a bit on the hollow and tinny side and is all mixed in the front channel, but dialogue is still intelligible and the louder action moments are properly cranked up.
Like on their previous Blu-ray release of the Roger Corman-produced Rock 'n' Roll High School, Shout! Factory has combined all the best special features from every previous release of Death Race 2000 and even added some all new content to really make the upgrade worthwhile. Up first is a pair of commentary tracks: the first with Corman and co-star Mary Waronov, carried over from the 2005 Disney release, and a brand-new track featuring editor Tina Hirsch and assistant director Lewis Teague. Both tracks are worth a listen for fans, as they give a good sense of the overall production and what each participant brought to the movie. There's a lot of good information and some humor, and while everyone is quick to laud praise on the movie, I like the movie enough to not mind the hyperbole.
A handful of video featurettes and interviews basically round out the supplemental section. The 11-minute "Playing the Game: Looking Back at Death Race 2000" has been carried over from the Disney release, giving a good but brief overview of the movie, and it's accompanied by several new featurettes that cover specific aspects of the production: "Ready to Wear" is a look at the colorful and eccentric costumes from designer Jane Ruhm; "Designing Dystopia" looks at the movie's cars; "Start Your Engines" is an interview with author IB Melchior, who wrote the original story "The Racer" upon which the screenplay for Death Race 2000 (by Robert Thom and Charles B. Griffith) is based; "Killer Score" is an interview about (what else?) the film's score with composer Paul Chihara. Also included is a new interview with star David Carradine and a short conversation between Corman and critic Leonard Maltin, which has thankfully been restored from the 2001 New Conchorde release (after being omitted from the 2005 version). The movie's theatrical trailer, with optional "Trailers from Hell" commentary by John Landis, is also available, as is a collection of original TV and radio spots.
Here's a bit of fascinating trivia: when Death Race 2000 was released in 1975, Roger Ebert hated it and awarded it zero stars. I strongly suspect, these days, Ebert would better understand the kind of movie it is and would like it a lot better. Of course, it's 2010 and Ebert gave a similarly negative review to Matthew Vaughn's Kick-Ass, so maybe I'm giving him too much credit. The more things change...
I unabashedly love Death Race 2000, and I'm awfully happy to have this excellent Blu-ray package from Shout! Factory added to my collection. The new supplemental features don't necessarily make the disc a must-buy, but when combined with the previously available extras collected in one place and the fact that this is the best the movie has ever looked or sounded and you've got every reason to upgrade to his HD Death Race 2000.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Shout! Factory
* 1.78:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 78 Minutes
Release Year: 1975
MPAA Rating: Rated R