(1975, dir. Paul Bartel)

Legendary indie-mogul Roger Corman has produced a lot of schlock over the last six decades. His memorable B-movies include Battle Beyond the Stars, Deathstalker, Piranha, Slumber Party Massacre, Carnosaur, Attack of the Giant Leeches, Sharktopus, Caged Heat, and whatever movie he made while I was writing this paragraph.

Chances are very good you’ve seen at least a couple Corman-produced films, probably half-asleep in front of the TV at 2:30 a.m. with a plate of microwaved pizza rolls and a dwindling sense of purpose. Maybe I’m projecting.

But Corman’s also been responsible for bringing the work of world masters to America, distributing films from Truffaut, Fellini, Kurosawa, Bergman, and more. He helped launch the careers of Hollywood icons like Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, James Cameron, and Peter Bogdanovich, just to name a few.

All this, and his greatest contribution to cinema my be Death Race 2000.

I’ve seen so many clips, spoofs, references, and remakes of Death Race 2000 that it felt like I’d seen the movie, but this was my first time watching it through.

Despite a gruesome premise, a shoestring budget, and a cast not quite talented enough for George Romero, this movie is riveting fun. It’s a black comedy, a social satire, and an exploitation masterpiece.

Be warned: Human bodies are squished, severed, and scorched. Clothes are removed at random. David Carradine portrays a love interest. But the flick moves like the devil’s chasing it, and before you have a chance to be disgusted, there’s something else onscreen to worry about.

I’m not one of these people who enjoys “bad” movies just for the sake of irony. Unless a movie is transcendently bad (like The Room or Troll 2),  I’d much rather watch a great movie. And Death Race 2000 is a pretty great movie.

Random notes:

  • I didn’t mention director Paul Bartel, whose only other notable film is the cult film Eating Raoul. His work here is serviceable, if uninspired. From some of Bartel’s comments, it sounds like Corman more or less controlled the project.
  • The script (by Robert Thorn and Charles B. Griffith) is surprisingly sharp, and more overtly satirical than I expected.
  • Somehow I got through this entire write-up without mentioning Sylvester Stallone, who plays the villainous “Machine Gun Joe.” It’s one of Sly’s first roles, and he’s the best actor in the movie.