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Death Race 2000 (Shout! Factory) Blu-ray Review

    Ian Jane

  • Death Race 2000 (Shout! Factory) Blu-ray Review

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    Released by: Shout! Factory
    Released on: June 22nd, 2010.
    Director: Paul Bartel
    Cast: David Carradine, Sylvester Stallone, Mary Woronov, Roberta Collins, Martin Kove
    Year: 1975
    Purchase From Amazon

    Death Race 2000 – Movie Review:

    In the far flung future of the year 2000 (or at least what could have passed for the year 2000 back in 1975), America has become a fascist empire. The national sport is no longer baseball, but an annual ‘Death Race’ in which skilled race car drivers gun their customized four wheeled killing machines from one side of the country to the next, earning points for killing as many innocent bystanders as they can along the way. Bonus points are earned for taking out senior citizens and children under the age of twelve. Every year the Death Race draws a huge crowd, it really is the event of the year akin to today’s Super Bowl, but this year things promise to be even more intense than usual as the reigning champion, Frankenstein (David Carradine of Kung Fu and Kill Bill) has a new challenge in the form of an equally skilled driver named ‘Machine Gun’ Joe Viterbo (a young Sylvester Stallone of Rocky and Rambo fame).

    Of course, there are other competitors to worry about in the race – Matilda The Hun (Roberta Collins of Caged Heat), Calamity Jane (Mary Woronov of Rock N Roll High School and Sugar Cookies), and Nero The Hero (Martin Kove), but the real threat for Frankenstein is going to come from within. His navigator, a woman named Annie Smith (Simone Griffith) has joined an underground resistance group that have some pretty serious plans to put a stop to the inhumanity of the Death Race. Their plans don’t stop there, however, they also plan to take down Mr. President (Sandy McCallum) in hopes of at least making a small start towards restoring America to its former glory.

    Kind of a really twisted version of Cannonball Run, Death Race 2000 is a faced paced action/science fiction movie with plenty of political satire and dark humor. Though the highlights of the film definitely come from the race scenes, the movie does benefit from some cleverly scripted moments and a few decent, if semi-predictable, plot twists that make this more than just a futuristic smash up derby. A couple of sadistic touches, such as making the elderly or children worth more points in the Death Race than your standard run of the mill adult pedestrian, give it an edge that is still effective today. Add to that the fact that the race is an officially sanctioned event as per the United States government and you can see how the subversive politics of it all boil up a bit closer to the surface than you might expect from your standard Roger Corman produced drive-in movie.

    As clever as parts of it are, however, the characters and the action are what will keep you coming back to this one. Though the movie was made on a very low budget there are some really great car designs in here and plenty of high-octane stunt driving to keep you on the edge of your seat. The colorful cast of racers makes things a lot of fun, almost like a really cruel version of Wacky Racers albeit without a snickering dog anywhere to be seen.

    Carradine, fresh off of his stint on Kung Fu manages to nail the role and bring to it just the right combination of seriousness, arrogance, and tough guy posturing. Stallone has been better and in better movies but he’s decent enough here, and you can see in a few scenes the potential that would later be unlocked in First Blood (his scene with the machine gun has Rambo written all over it!), that kind of collected yet menacing demeanor he has exhibited so well in some of his signature roles. Supporting efforts from Woronov and Griffith are enjoyable, they even provide some welcome nudity, while Martin Kove is fun in his slightly effeminate turn. Look for ‘The Real Don Steele’ playing one of the race commentators in the film, in a role that’s really not very far removed from the one he played in Rock N Roll High School a few years later.

    Death Race 2000 – Blu-ray Review:

    The high definition presentation of Death Race 2000 sports an excellent new AVC encoded 1080p 1.85.1 anamorphic widescreen transfer that presents the film in its best home video presentation yet and which makes a significant improvement over the standard definition DVD release. Obviously the first thing that you’re likely to notice is the improved detail, which is obvious and abundant from the beginning of the film right through to the end, but the improved color reproduction and noticeably stronger black levels are also a plus. Grain is present, as it should be, but the higher throughput on the Blu-ray release makes ‘fit’ better with the visuals than it ever has before. Some mild print damage is evident and some of the effects work is maybe a little more obviously just that than it was on the DVD, but really, there’s very little to complain about here in terms of the visuals.

    While the English language Dolby Digital Mono mix is solid, it’s lamentable that no lossless track was provided. That said, dialogue is clean and clear and the track is free of any hiss or distortion. At times it sounds like an older low budget movie but that's okay, it's supposed to sound that way. The music comes through very nicely as do the sound effects, you’ll really notice this when the engines rev up before the race actually starts or any time something explodes. No alternate language tracks or subtitles are provided.

    Shout! Factory has carried over the commentary track from the last DVD with Roger Corman and Mary Woronov. Though there are some spots where a bit of dead air brings things down a little bit, for the most part this is a lively discussion of the movie and its origins. Corman seems proud to note how politically incorrect certain scenes are, the clip in which the senior citizens are run down for example, and sounds a little disheartened when he mentions that the permissive era of movie making in which Death Race 2000 was born seems to be long gone. Woronov and Corman seem to be having a good time together on the track, and it makes for an enjoyable and quite interesting discussion.

    Exclusive to this new release is a second commentary featuring Assistant Director Lewis Teague and Editor Tina Hirsh. Hirsh jumps in right away and talks about how Bartel spent money on the opening credits without Corman’s permission before talking about cutting the opening scene in her mind in the shower before actually physically cutting the movie. She talks about the different people who appeared in the film, from obvious stars like Carradine and Stallone, to lesser known character actors like Martin Kove and Simone Griffith, who she considers to be a very good actress. Teague chimes in throughout, offering his input on certain parts of the film and sharing a few anecdotes but Hirsh generally has more to say. There are moments where the pair clam up a bit and moments where they simply tell us what we’re already seeing on the screen, but the input into Hirsh’s editing process here are quite interesting. The pair look back quite fondly on the film, even if they’re very aware of how difficult the shoot was in some ways and both acknowledge their work on the film as a gateway into the film industry.

    Playing The Game - Looking Back At Death Race 2000 (10:45) is an all too brief featurette that runs just under eleven minutes in length that explores the origins of the film through interviews with producer Roger Corman, performers Mary Woronov and Martin Kove and writer Charles Griffith. Everyone remembers the movie quite fondly and Corman and Griffith do a fine job of explaining how the movie transformed from a more straight sci-fi picture to the dark comedy that it ended up as. A lot of emphasis is given to the satirical elements of the film, highlight by plenty of clips from the movie itself. Shout! Factory has also carried over the older Leonard Maltin Interviews Roger Corman About Death Race 2000 (5:54) bit from the original release (Buena Vista omitted that one from their reissue).

    The two commentaries and carried over featurettes might be enough for some movies, but Shout! Factory knows that Death Race 2000 deserves more and so they’ve created a few new featurettes to compliment the newly recorded commentary track. The first of these is Designing Dystopia! A Detailed Look The Film’s Art Direction And Car Designs (12:22) which is, as the title explains, a look at the design work that the film uses so well. Art Director B. B. Neel talks about working as art director, prop master and wearing a few other hats before talking about how the matte paintings were used, how some props were literally stolen off of a freeway, and about how and why they used the locations that they did in the film. Ready To Wear: An Interview With Costume Designer Jane Ruhm (14:39) gives Buhm a well deserved chance to discuss her work on the film and to discuss how her work on the movie represents the lack of a big budget and her own creativity. She admits that she didn’t really ‘know fabric’ all that well when she worked on the film but that didn’t stop her from experimenting with different ideas. She also talks about working on a few other pictures and how she wound up doing the titles on Death Race and other movies. David On Death Race (3:47) is an interview with the late David Carradine. This was actually shot while Red Shirt Productions, the company that Shout! has contracted for the extras on this disc, shot the supplements for Sundown: The Vampire In Retreat. Evidently Carradine talked about a few of his other films at that time, Death Race 2000 being one of them. Essentially an outtake from those sessions, Carradine never the less opens up about his career in cult films and about his work on this picture in particular, which he notes is the most famous of the cult movies he worked on. He talks about shooting the movie in three weeks and all around Los Angeles, talks about what he was paid to work on the film, and how the film made him a whole lot of money over the years. Start Your Engines (11:46) is an interesting interview with author Ib Melchior who wrote the short story on which the film was based. He notes that Corman’s production turned his story upside down but feels that it works better this before. He goes on to talk about the differences between his script and the film, and where his inspiration came from while writing the story after originally starting his career writing war stories before going on to write screenplays, including The Angry Red Planet. The last new featurette on the disc is Killer Score: An Interview With Composer Paul Chihara (11:33) who notes that this was the first film he ever worked on. He gives us some background information on his classical training and how he worked in the ‘avant garde’ in New York with Yoko Ono and how he wound up eventually hooking up with Corman’s crew.

    Rounding out the extras are the trailer for the feature, available on its own or in a ‘Trailers From Hell’ version that features commentary from John Landis, a quartet of radio spots and a TV spot, and a nice and extensive poster gallery. There are also trailers included for Galaxy Of Terror, Forbidden World, Death Sport and Up From The Depths, just to whet your appetite for those upcoming releases.

    Inside the case, which features bad ass reversible cover art with the Japanese poster on the flip side, is a nice full color insert booklet featuring essays on adapting the original shot story for the big screen and on actresses Simone Griffith and Roberta Collins.

    Death Race 2000 - The Final Word:

    While an HD audio offering would have been ideal and definitely helped flesh out the film’s sound a fair bit, the improved quality of the HD transfer makes this Blu-ray release well worth the few extra dollars that it costs above the standard definition offering, even if it’s more than a decade since the Blu-ray was released and we would all probably love a UHD release. The film itself remains relentlessly entertaining and the ridiculously great selection of extra features provided will keep fans busy for hours.

    Click on the images below, or right click and open in a new window, for full sized Death Race 2000 Blu-ray screen caps!

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