Although many in the modern world are attempting to break away from fossil fuels, filmmakers often envisage a future where gasoline-fueled automobiles continue to rule the roost. The Earth may die, society may collapse, and man’s inhumanity to man may scale new and giddy heights, but precious resources keep burning, because we’ve got to get around. Paul Bartel’s 1975 film “Death Race 2000” is a great example. Set at the dawn of the current millennium, it takes place in the aftermath of a huge economic and civil crash that plunged America into totalitarianism. The public’s one joy is the annual Transcontinental Road Race.
This is no Le Mans: Drivers kill pedestrians for bonus points as they blaze a trail to the finish line. They also have catchy names, such as Nero the Hero (Martin Kove), Calamity Jane (Mary Woronov), Machine Gun (Sylvester Stallone), and Frankenstein (David Carradine). These colorful characters drive highly modified cars that reflect their personalities. But 2000’s race is doomed to be the last, because a resistance group plans to sabotage it in a bid to ignite a regime change. “Death Race 2000” explores our fetishism of the car as both a symbol of personal freedom and self-destruction. It’s also a futuristic and darkly humorous take on Juvenal’s famous reflection that all a contented public needs are “bread and circuses.” Thankfully, the modern public confines their lust for vehicular carnage to video games.