Of the more than 300 films produced by Roger Corman, the king of b movies, none have generated a legacy as significant and well-respected as Death Race 2000.
The film is a unique combination of elements: cinematic camp, political satire and car combat all rolled into one story, with a dash of Wacky Races thrown in for good measure.
More than 40 years have passed since the cult classic raced into theaters and it continues to capture imaginations around the world. With its upcoming sequel, Death Race 2050, just weeks away from release, let's take a look under the hood of the original grindhouse masterpiece and its lasting legacy.
The original 1975 film took place in the far-off year 2000, when the murderous sport known as the Transcontinental Death Race is loved by viewers all over America. In this grand sporting event, professional and psychotic race car drivers alike race across the country, scoring points along the way by running people down.
Competing in this glorification of road rage is Machine Gun Joe (played by a then-unknown Sylvester Stallone) and his rival, the masked Frankenstein (David Carradine), who is the race's most famous driver.
Check out the original trailer below.
Based on The Racer, a short story written by Ib Melchior, Corman originally financed the movie in the hopes of capitalizing on the hype of the 1975 film Rollerball, another movie that featured a dystopian America and a murderous sport.
Death Race 2000, however, would go on to surpass Rollerball in both popularity and cultural impact.
Racing After 2000
Death Race 2000 was remade in 2008, with action hero Jason Statham starring under the direction of Paul W.S. Anderson. That Death Race was a more realistic take on the premise. It was followed by two direct-to-DVD prequels: Death Race 2 and Death Race 3: Inferno.
The fundamental problem with these re-interpretations, however, was that they took themselves too seriously. Gone was the gallows humor and political satire of the original, replaced by a dark and gritty retelling of a campy story. The explosive car battles and all-star casts may have provided escapist fun, but the new Death Race movies lacked everything that made Death Race 2000 special.
In fact, the official remake and its prequels were so joyless that the rip-off Death Racers (from infamous mockbuster-makers The Asylum) felt more like a proper follow-up thanks to its low budget, self-aware tone and inappropriate humor.
That's not to say Death Racers is any good. It's an immature lowbrow movie that starred the Insane Clown Posse and featured an all-female crew called Vaginamyte.
But for fans of the original who have been waiting for Death Race to return to its roots, the wait is finally over.
Corman confirmed that an official sequel to Death Race 2000, titled Death Race 2050, will speed to screens in 2017. The film will follow a new Frankenstein (Manu Bennett) and a new batch of violent racers raging across the roads of the United Corporations of America.
Check out the trailer below.
Murders, Cars And Politics
Part of what fueled the popularity of the original film is its broad but biting political satire, which continues to be relevant more than 40 years after its release. Death Race 2000 tackled materialism, totalitarianism, a morally bankrupt media, and many other concepts.
The world of Death Race 2000 came to be not because of a devastating nuclear war or a Soviet invasion on American soil, but because American society let it happen. After the American government restructures itself into a totalitarian regime as a response to economic pains and civil unrest, a culture of impunity becomes the norm. The government creates the Transcontinental Death Race to distract the masses through violent entertainment; a modern-day version of the ancient Roman Empire's "bread and circuses" attacked by Roman poet Juvenal.
Outside of a resistance movement and Frankenstein's own politics, America was quick to accept this new way of life where running over a baby meant scoring 70 points. In this future world, the annual Death Race has become such an important part of American culture that the movie takes place on the race's 20th anniversary, complete with excited ringside commentators who make light of the mass homicide occurring on the roads. One of these media men even goes as far as saying that the Death Race is an American tradition and abolishing it is tantamount to treason.
Most of the time, movies with a similar story choose to depict their dystopian worlds as seriously as possible, while Death Race 2000 laughed at its nightmarish version of America.
By addressing social fears through means of weaponized cars driven by maniacs with the colorful personalities of professional wrestlers, Death Race 2000 brought political concerns to moviegoers in a weird, yet highly entertaining manner.
A Legacy's Long Road
The spirit of Death Race 2000 can be seen in many films that have followed over the years such as The Running Man (1987), Battle Royale (2000), Gamer (2009) and more recently, The Hunger Games series. All of which feature twisted versions of televised combat sports.
While Schwarzenegger's time in a violent game show shared Death Race 2000's nihilistic sense of humor, most imitators took themselves too seriously and ended up being ridiculed for it. Corman's cult classic never claimed to be anything more than schlock, which has been a big part of its appeal.
Death Race 2000 has also inspired several video games. Combat-themed racing games like Twisted Metal and the infamous Carmaggedon owe their existence to Corman's violent satire.
Death Race And Beyond
With the current political climate veering towards the extreme in many parts of the world, Death Race 2000 feels more relevant than ever. It's a brilliant cautionary tale that tackles totalitarian ideology with black humor in a future that no longer seems so far away.
Corman is bringing his cult classic back for a second lap at exactly the right time.