Shout have transferred Death Race 2000's 1.85:1 image from a new interpositive film element via AVC MPEG-4. And for a low-budget quickie from 1975, a film that was designed on-the-back-burner and made for the Drive-in market, it looks very nice indeed. It is never going to win any awards for hi-def glory, you understand, but I think you will be surprised at how detailed and clean and vibrant it can look.
Now, unbelievably, I have only got a lousy VHS copy of the film that I can find, so I cannot compare this to how any DVD edition looks, but, if my memory serves me correctly, Corman's road-rage opus has always tended to look a little ropey and rough around the edges. Well, this transfer doesn't look quite so ropey or rough around the edges at all.
Grain is intact, although there are certain brief shots when it increases massively for a moment - Frankenstein and Annie in their first bedroom scene, for example. There is still some damage in evidence - just minor pops, flecks and scratches - but nothing that will prove distracting once you accept what you're dealing with. In fact, for much of the running time, the image looks very clean and strong. Personally, I think that some noise reduction has taken place, the texture, in places, can appear a touch too smooth, areas a little too bland. But only a touch. This is no overt DNR victim and faces are not smeared with wax. Detail isn't too shabby, once you have lowered your expectations of what this film could actually hope to supply. Close-ups obviously fare best. Some degree of skin-texture is evident, particularly on David Carradine, once that mask has come off. The costumes, again most notably Carradine's, have some stitching, material texture and finite patterning on show. Vehicles exhibit some surface detail, as do the sets, but this is an image of broad brush-strokes - big, wide and unconcerned with intricacy. Landscape shote, of which there are plenty, fare less well, with some soft and out-of-focus portions. But this is only to be expected.
Colours have moments of lustre, but for the most part, they are slightly washed-out and pale. However, primaries can seem quite lifted and perhaps over-egged at times. Reds can burn out of the screen on occasion and come over a bit too orange, and the greens of the trees, of the foliage and of that little monorail train can fizz and bloom. Skin-tones are pink and all rather uniformly pallid. The fireballs of explosions and the gore from the kills are nice and bright, though. Quite appropriately cartoonic, in fact. The black of Frankenstein's cape and suit looks fine, especially with the little golden zippers and the livid scar tissue for contrast. The green of Annie Smith's co-driver's cat-suit, however, seems dull and faded. Contrast, overall, is a touch too high. Some highlights gleam and the overall cast seems too light. Blacks have a degree of noise within them, and they could certainly be stronger, but shadows seemed okay to me, with reasonably fine delineation.
Finally, you get a smattering of edge enhancement and even some aliasing, but this is minimal and it didn't bother me one iota.
Death Race 2000 was never going to look amazing on Blu-ray, but I have no doubt that this is the best it has ever looked on home video - and the few niggles that crop up do not detract from the fun in the least.
There is no lossless audio track here, folks. Just a bog-standard DD 2.0 track that definitely won't amaze you.
Sounding a little harsh and strained at times, this is still one of those low-budget mixes that didn't intend to pack a lot of detail but certainly wanted to you enjoy some bombast. With this in mind, you can settle back to hear some throaty engines gunning along, the sound of some torn-up bodies getting flung into the air, some slicing and squishing and the roar of Sly's Thompson sub-machine-gun - which does actually carry a fair bit of clout - and all set to the ebullient and often tongue-in-cheek score from Paul Chihara. There are plenty of explosions, but although they sound, well, fine enough ... they aren't particularly exciting either. They may be loud, for example, but they don't carry much weight.
There isn't much in the way of depth or fine detail, either. Dialogue is clear enough, but it does sound a touch too raucous and shrill, at times, to be considered anywhere near natural. Crowd scenes sound hemmed-in. Shouting can come across without clarity and definitely sounds indistinct, although there was never a time when I couldn't understand what was being said. The action scenes, with their frequent metal impacts, screaming engines and spinning tyres can collide into a cacophonous mush, and with the wild score bubbling about over the top, you really will just have to sit back and accept the limitations of this little old mix with good grace.
The age of the track is evident with some low background hum and some odd little glitches during scene changes that may have been too deeply entrenched to have been papered-over. Again, this is nothing that should put you off. Death Race 2000, by virtue of its maverick production style and quick mix design work is going to sound a touch rough here and there. It could have sounded a whole lot worse than this, in my opinion, and this remains fun to hear ... if only for the varied speech patterns of the three media honchos - rampant Junior Bruce, pouting, pampering Grace Pander and gravel-monotone Harold.
Spectacularly un-spectacular, the DD track for Corman's cult release does what it can with very limited source material.
Shout Factory allow Death Race 2000 to leave the assembly line with some great extras. Not only do we get a couple of terrific commentaries, but there are numerous featurettes (all lasting around 11 minutes or so) that go behind the production and explore the fashions, the cars, the music and the cast. The cult status of the film positively shines through with fond memories from all who were involved with it, and this roster of supplemental material provides a wealth of enthusiastic and entertaining anecdote and trivia. The point conclusively made is that no-one took the project seriously, despite the concept having been based on a very serious and “important” metaphorical story.
Roger Corman is joined by Mary Woronov for what proves to be a thoroughly engaging yak-track. Neither has seen the film for a while and they may get the order of the scenes they are expecting to see a little jumbled up, but this is a trivia-packed and warmly humorous discussion about how this little drive-in flick was made and how it went on to become a cult item. Woronov wasn't able to drive at the time, but Sly and Carradine and Corman did a lot of the stunts themselves when the stunt-drivers baulked at certain, ahem, illegalities. They both have nothing but praise for Bartel, and anecdotes abound about the fellow cast, from Sly's insistence on wearing a towel during the nude “pampering” scene to the copious adlibbing that was done. Frustratingly for those who want to know more about the transfer of the film, Corman begins to talk about a change in colour timing that we witness, but is swiftly side-tracked before he gives us any details. This track, though, is priceless for fans. Corman is a great raconteur, especially with that deceptively soft voice and laid-back style. Well worth your time, folks.
We are then indulged with a second commentary, boasting the reminiscences and opinions of Assistant Director Lewis Teague and Editor Tina Hirsch, which, it has to be said, can be a little sketchy at times. Hirsch is even prompted by someone in the background regarding the name of the film that Corman spotted Sly in (The Lords Of Flatbush) before offering him the part of Machine-Gun Joe. It is also apparent that the pair are watching a copy of the film with the lip-synch out, or through dodgy equipment. Hirsch comments on this and the frequent moments that we can hear in-between their conversation are often glaringly out of line. This track is nowhere near as good as the one from Corman and Woronov, but it is still great to hear for a slightly different take on the virtual guerilla shoot.
Playing The Game: Looking Back At Death Race 2000 is a great little piece that charts the production, the shoot and the impact of the film with enthusiastic and easy-going input from Corman, Woronov, Kove, the film's screenwriter Charles B. Griffith and Corman-protégé Joe Dante. Each has their say, although Kove probably says more about the film than he ever actually said in the film.
There is a brief section called Leonard Maltin Interviews Roger Corman which sort of rehashes what we have already heard, but is so good-natured and sort of goofy that you just don't mind.
Then there is a smart and respectful featurette called Start Your Engines, in which the original story author, Ib Melchior, gives us his approach to the material and how it all came about. He tells of a harrowing incident that he witnessed at the race track that tragically, but perfectly encapsulated the theme of our fascination with violence, and there is a nice, but frustratingly brief overview of his career. Melchior had worked in espionage during the Second World War before migrating to writing short stories and then making movies. One of his greats is the screenplay for Robinson Crusoe On Mars, a terrific SF adventure whose outstanding Criterion DVD I reviewed some time ago).
A three-minute outtake from a 2008 interview with David Carradine, in which the laid-back star makes reference to Death Race 2000 and his cult status, is included. Light-hearted and engaging, the snippet just makes you wish you could watch the full session with the late actor.
Ready To Wear is an interview with the costume designer for the film, Jane Ruhm. A devotee of the Paul Bartel, Andy Warhol scene during the late sixties and early seventies, Ruhm was hungry for experience with films and positively leapt at the chance to work for Corman on Death Race. She gives a fair bit of detail about the concepts for the characters and the materials used, as well as what it was like to work, on-the-hoof, with all these crazy people. Still very excitable even today, Ruhm has one of those personalities that is apt to get on your nerves after a bit, but I found her very entertaining.
Designing Dystopia looks at the cars and the rather spartan sets and the overall concept of how this future world would look. We hear from Art Director B.B. Neel about the disused roadways the crew were allowed to utilise and the big, upside-down building that became Mister President's retreat. And, naturally, we get to see and hear a lot about the cars and they were put together and then put through their paces.
Killer Score: Interview with Composer Paul Chihara looks at how the first-time composer came on-board and how he tackled such a zany and way-out concept as the futuristic Transcontinental Death Race - well, he delivered a zany and way-out score, that's how he did it. A likeable chap, he remembers his experiences of 35 years ago with good cheer and a sense of humour. There is a curious patch of fizzing noise in the shadows behind his head during his interview which is a tad distracting, I should point out.
The set also includes a Poster and Stills Gallery, TV and Radio Spots, New World Trailers for things like Forbidden World and Galaxy Of Terror (both of which I will be eviewing soon) as well Deathsport and Up From The Depths. Especially cool is the film's theatrical trailer with a commentary from John Landis, which is worth a giggle. Plus, the packaging comes with a reversible sleeve with alternate poster art, and a 12-page booklet. It is a fabulous collection.
The retrospective angle for the film, so far down the line from its release but still so vibrant in the minds of those involved with them, works a treat. It is hard to imagine how newcomers to Death Race 2000 could appreciate the adoration of such people to what was just a little political satire that, at the time, went largely unnoticed, let alone how they would react to seeing the film itself. About the only thing that is missing is any input from Stallone - which is, naturally, something of a shame. The actor has a great sense of humour and I'm sure he would have been able to add of fun to the overall package.
Shout Factory do Corman's cult classic proud. They've packed some great extras on here, lavished the release with cool double-sided artwork and a nice little booklet. And the transfer is decent enough for a small flick that only cost buttons to produce and came from people who never, for a second, expected it live several new video formats, let alone garner a devoted following. However, you won't be so impressed with the audio quality.
I've got to say that I love the movie. The comedy works, the action is fast and fun, the characters accordingly wild and zany and the actors actually get the joke and really rise to the occasion. The subversive message is a delight and the concept of a dystopian future that is compelled to thrive on road rage as a mass-catharsis is one that could well live right alongside Rollerball. Maybe the Death Race would appear on another channel to compete for ratings. In fact, in the same way that Alien and Outland can be seen as existing in the same blue-collar, Company ruled universe, Death Race 2000 and Rollerball can easily be seen as hailing from the same sham of a dark future culture.
Roger Corman is an iconic filmmaker. His visions may have been excessive and outlandish, but his inspired methods have produced some wonderfully demented genre classics. With this current crop of releases finding their to Blu-ray - Piranha, Galaxy Of Terror, Forbidden World, Battle Beyond The Stars - the future actually looks quite bright for fans of simple, unpretentious but pleasingly ambitious genre indulgence. Of course, we eagerly await his grandly Gothic Poe adaptations but, for now, his grungy SF smorgasbord of sex and carnage more than fit the bill.
Death Race 2000 may not have lifted the Kung Fu shadow from David Carradine quite as much as he'd hoped, but it should certainly be praised for giving another superstar-in-the-making a chance to grace the screens before hitting the Big Time. Exceptionally witty and tremendous good fun, this is ripe for reappraisal. Schlocky exploitation at its best - and it's even got a little subversive message tucked away beneath the hood, as well.
Death Race 2000 is a clear winner.
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