Death Race 2000 at 40: Roger Corman's sci-fi satire zooms into cult classic history

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Apr 27, 2015, 3:54 PM EDT

Forty years ago, 1975 brought the arrival of a number of sci-fi, horror and fantasy films that made an impact on their genres -- some good, some not so good, but all interesting and all remembered even to this day. We continue our look back at each of those films on the anniversary of its release and where it stands four decades later with this exploitation classic ...

Title: Death Race 2000

Release date: April 27, 1975

Cast: David Carradine, Sylvester Stallone, Simone Griffeth

Director: Paul Bartel

Plot: After energy shortages have led to the toppling of the U.S. government in favor of a dictatorship, the masses are distracted every year by the annual Trans-Continental Death Race, in which participants earn points by running down innocent civilians. As the 20th edition of the race kicks off with top contenders Frankenstein (Carradine) -- so named because he's allegedly had so many body parts replaced due to accidents -- and the sadistic Machine Gun Joe (Stallone in an early role), a resistance plans to stop the race.

Why it's significant: As was often the case with movies produced by B-movie exploitation king Roger Corman, Death Race 2000 started out as a cash grab and became something else entirely. Corman originally wanted to steal some of the publicity surrounding the impending release of Rollerball -- another dystopian tale about a brutal, bloodthirsty "sport" -- and his initial treatment for Death Race 2000 was a dark affair. But Corman realized it might work better as a black comedy, so he changed it -- and created a cult classic.

Directed by Paul Bartel (who later made another cult gem, Eating Raoul), Death Race 2000 is crudely made and, with the exception of Carradine, too broadly acted for its own good by most of the cast. But its themes and humor, rough as it is, are right on target: Corman, Bartel and screenwriters Robert Thom and Charles Griffith took satiric aim at the use of sports and gratuitous violence as means to distract the populace from the descent of their society into totalitarianism. Death Race 2000 doesn't get too heavy on this; there is plenty of grim hilarity to watching hospital staff line up patients outside to get run down or seeing one of the drivers kill his own crew to earn a few quick points, while a lapdog media breathlessly reports it all from the sidelines.

Death Race 2000 not only holds up as entertaining, fast-moving and weirdly funny schlock, but its basic concept is still in use by movies today -- most notably in the blockbuster franchise The Hunger Games, in which a nationally televised, hyper-violent battle to the death is used as both distraction and instrument of fear by an oppressive, post-apocalyptic dictatorship. The Hunger Games takes itself very seriously -- and not necessarily to its detriment -- but there is something to be said for the gleefully nihilistic and raunchier angle that Death Race 2000 employs. Sometimes it's better to laugh at these nightmare scenarios before they come true.

Other entries in this series: