I was too young to see Death Race 2000 in the theater, and while the movie was kind of a lurking presence in my life, making appearances in Stephen King's The Stand and in the acknowledgments to Car Wars (one of the designer games I played), I never watched it until the 1990s and didn't learn to enjoy the film until very recently. This is because it is actually rather bad. Produced on a shoestring budget by schlock-movie producer Roger Corman, Death Race features wooden acting, less sophisticated production values than the average junior prom, and a script that probably owes more of its inspiration to the studio coke-wrangler than to the writers. (The movie's slapped-together dystopian future, featuring a dictator with a summer palace in Beijing, an economic collapse, and fake French terrorists, makes no sense unless one realizes it was probably written between lines of blow.) One needs a certain level of patience and experience before one can appreciate bad movies as camp.
The central plot device, a coast-to-coast road race in which contestants win points for running over pedestrians, makes little sense except as a fantasy, but like George Romero's contemporaneous zombie movies it makes for lots of action and several opportunities for humor. I am thinking in particular of the nursing-home that used the Deathrace to dispose of inmates ("Euthanasia Day"), the color commentators' observation that it was tragic that one victim was only 38 because he would have been worth more points at 40, and the color commentators' own over-the-top expressions and commentary. These commentators were played by disc-jockey Don Steele and talented career actress Joyce Jameson; theirs was the least wooden acting in the film, but several others had opportunities to prove their acting chops, including Sylvester Stallone, who delivered his goofy lines with a certain thuggish enthusiasm. (E.g. “You know, Myra, some people might think you’re cute, but me, I think you’re a very large baked potato.” No, I don't know what it means either, but apparently Stallone added it himself.) Recognizing that the movie's script didn't exactly give the actors much room for, you know, acting, the director and production designers instead differentiated between the racers by giving each one a campy, stereotyped theme: one racer (Stallone) had a hoodlum's car with a giant switchblade attached, one (David Carradine) drove a lizard car, went by the sobriquet “Frankenstein,” and wore a leather fetish suit and gimp mask, one car had a bull's horns and cowgirl driver (“Calamity Jane”), and one had a Nazi theme. To add an additional element of conflict, the writers threw in an underground resistance movement determined to sabotage the race, whose leader was the elderly “Thomasina Paine.” How cool is that?
As one reviewer concluded, “You’re not here to hear discourse on the decline of America, you’re here to see these ridiculous cars kill a bunch of people, have a few laughs, and see some women take their clothes off .” And David Carradine, who manages to disrobe gracefully even when marinated in whiskey. As he usually was.