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A schlocky 'Race' that looks sharp

Deathrace 2000
"Death Race 2000" brings its gratuitous violence -- iall n service of social commentary -- to a new edition on DVD and Blu-ray. ((Shout! Factory))

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By Jen Chaney
Tuesday, June 22, 2010; 12:00 AM

"What we show in 'Death Race 2000' is, to a large extent, the way the world has gone and I think the world will continue to go as long as we are the people we are."

Roger Corman, the master producer of low-budget schlock, may be exagerrating a little when he makes that statement during one of the DVD extras on a new edition of "Death Race 2000," out today on DVD ($19.98) and Blu-ray ($26.97). Here we are in 2010, a full decade beyond the future envisioned in the 1975 cult hit produced by Corman, and so far, no U.S. President has ever sanctioned a cross-continental speedathon that awards point values based on the quantities and ages of the casualties. (Mow down an elderly person? That's an easy 100 points in "Death Race" world.)

Yet something about this less-than-subtle satire of an America obsessed with violence and unquenchable in its thirst for blood still seems relevant, or at least relevant enough to make revisiting "Death Race" -- with all of its blatantly fake blood, comically tricked-out cars, pseudo-social commentary and unnecessary nudity -- an entertaining experience.

The new high-definition transfer of the movie, which stars David Carradine and Sylvester Stallone as the two central overly aggressive drivers, makes the picture look sharper than one might expect given its age and the fact that it was made with the word "cheap" perpetually on the minds of the filmmakers. But don't worry, "Death Race" fans; the excellent visual quality never detracts from the often flagrantly ridiculous dialogue spoken by its actors. (Sample: "Is that a grenade?" asks Simone Griffeth, who plays the race navigator to Carradine's monstrously named driver Frankenstein, as she looks directly in his hand at what is clearly a grenade. "A hand grenade," Carradine affirms.)

Only a couple of the extras are brand new to this release, part of a series of Roger Corman films being reissued on DVD this summer by Shout! Factory, a company that specializes in home entertainment with kitsch value. The featurette "Killer Score with Composer Paul Chihara" spends eleven minutes with the classically trained musician as he candidly recalls how he created the disco-riffic soundtrack to "Death Race 2000." ("We didn't know if we were making a porno movie," he admits at one point.) A new audio commentary from assistant director Lewis Teague and editor Tina Hirsh -- a supplement to a commentary with Corman and actress Mary Woronov that appeared on a previous release and also is included here -- occasionally delivers a juicy tidbit, but is unlikely to earn anyone's undivided attention for its full 78 minutes.

The best special features -- the making-of segment called "Playing the Game: Looking back at 'Death Race 2000'" and the extras devoted to the film's production design and costumes -- are also holdovers from previous releases but are nice for fans to see again, particularly in the Blu-ray format, where "Race" is making its debut. But the rehashed extras that, perhaps, most begs for a second look is an interview with Carradine recorded in 2008, one year before his sudden death at the age of 72. In it he proudly talks about his decision to go from starring in TV's "Kung Fu" to playing the lead accelerator-pumping man in a Corman project.

"I was paid $50,000 and 9.3 percent of the producers' world gross after break-even," he says of his "Death Race" deal. "I have made real close to $1 million."

Everyone involved in this gleefully cheesy movie is undoubtedly still pocketing residuals from "Death Race 2000." Why does it have staying power? Perhaps screenwriter Charles B. Griffith explains it best in that "Playing the Game" documentary. "It's a strange phenomenon," he says. "It's the cheap B-pictures that hold up and the A-pictures that fade away."


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