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Featured Blu-ray / DVD Review: Death Race 2000

June 20th, 2010

Death Race 2000 - Buy from Amazon: DVD or Blu-ray

Not too long ago, the home market distribution rights to most of Roger Corman's collection was bought out by Shout! Factory, who went to work preparing his films for Blu-ray. The first wave included Rock'n'Roll High School. Sadly, I didn't get a copy of that movie to review in either format, but at least the Death Race 2000 DVD made it to me. The film is now 35 years old, which is a long time for any film. Have the years treated the movie well? Has it aged like fine wine? Or is starting to smell?

In the not too distant future (the year 2000) the world has fallen into ruin and a new fascist regime has risen in the United States. The people are pacified with new type of gladiator game: Death Race. The Death Race is a three-day race where five drivers, and their navigators, travel across the country scoring points for speed, and for driving over pedestrians. The races include Calamity Jane, Machine-Gun Joe Viterbo, and the fan favorite, the mysterious Frankenstein.

Not everyone is happy with this race and a resistance movement has formed under the leadership of Thomasina Paine. She wants to end the races through intellectual reasoning, but after 20 years, her followers have convinced her they need to use more violent methods. So this time around, they plan on killing all of the drivers, and using a plant, replace Frankenstein with one of their own and kill the president.

The term Cult Movie probably gets thrown around more than it should, but Death Race 2000 deserves to be called a Cult Classic. It's campy, it's fun, it has plenty of action, lots of violence, and sex. But there's also an undercurrent of social satire that connects with audiences today just as much as it would 35 years ago. (I think a lot of this has to do with the special effects, which were low budget for its day. Cutting edge special effects quickly become dated. Cheap special effects quickly take on an aura of being classic.) The writing is sharp and the political points are made quickly and sharply enough that they are effective, or you could completely ignore them and just enjoy the movie as a dark comedy. Speaking of comedy, Paul Bartel was an under-appreciated comedic director.

Also, I love the fact that this futuristic movie was set ten years ago.

However, as great as the movie is, it isn't the first time it has been released on DVD. Or the second time. So how are the extras on this edition?

The extras on the DVD start with two audio commentary tracks, including one new to this version. The old one has Mary Woronov and Roger Corman reminiscing while the second has the second unit director, Lewis Teague, and the editor Tina Hirsch. They don't have as much to say as the previous pairing do, but we do get some insight into the difficult filming conditions one can expect when working with just $300,000. Even back in 1975, that was not a lot of money. Next up are a series of featurettes, starting with a retrospective of the film that features many of the cast and crew. There is a six-minute interview with Roger Corman done by Leonard Maltin. There is a 12-and-a-half minute look at the production design / vehicle design. There is a 15-minute featurette on the costume designs focusing on Jane Ruhm, who also did the titles for the movie. I'm not a guy that's into costumes, but this is a fascinating featurette. There is a four-minute excerpt from a 2008 David Carradine interview that deals with the movie. Ib Melchior, who wrote the short story, sits down for a 12-minute interview. He talks about how he got into writing, what inspired his story, and how he thinks the movie is better than his story. The final featurette is an eleven-and-a-half minute featurette on the score. The DVD wraps up with promotional galleries with posters, still, trailers, and TV spots.

I don't have the Blu-ray to compare, but I hope it will arrive later this week (along with a few other Roger Corman Blu-rays). The price is a little high compared to the DVD, but it is certainly not shovelware. Until I can look at the film's technical presentation, I can't say for sure which is the better deal.

The Verdict

If you don't have Death Race 2000 on DVD, buy it. Even if you have it on DVD, the DVD and Blu-ray are loaded with new extras. Absolutely worth picking up. Worth the upgrade from the previous DVD, but I'm waiting on the arrival of the Blu-ray to say if it is worth going to High Definition.

On a side note, Death Race 2000 would make an awesome video game. Imagine a MMORPG that is like a cross between GTA and WoW. There would be not just city chaos, but highway racing as well. You would need to be able to upgrade vehicles, buy new ones, have ranged weapons, etc., which is not in the film, but there is definitely a basis for an awesome video game here.

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