Thomas Paine was a political activist, writer and revolutionary. He authored the two most influential pamphlets at the start of the American Revolution and inspired the patriots in 1776 to declare independence from Great Britain. After starting one revolution, he moved to France and became deeply involved in the French Revolution.
In Death Race 2000, Thomasina Paine leads the resistance to the authoritarian Bipartisan Party which controls the economically collapsed US. This party is led by the cult-like “Mr. President” who has merged politics and religion to form a police state in which the masses are kept distracted by the bloody spectacle of the annual Transcontinental Road Race. This is a coast to coast race in which points are scored not just for coming first, but also for the number of people killed along the way.
The film covers the 20th such race and the five contestants include Frankenstein (David Carradine), the only two-time winner, and “Machine Gun” Joe Viterbo (Sylvester Stallone), his rival. Also in the mix, this time around, is Paine’s resistance who are targeting the race for reasons that become clear as the film progresses.
Death Race 2000 is very much of its time, and yet it still manages to strike a chord that is relevant today. The film is gratuitously violent, with much of the violence played for laughs. It is also unashamedly exploitative and, being produced by Roger Corman, is under no illusions as to what sort of film it is.
The film does, however, retain a very dark sense of humour and a satirical streak that suggests that the US is heading in a direction in which violent sports and terrible television can be used to distract the masses into accepting structural inequality and near religious devotion to a leader.
I was going to make a remark about the current US president at this point. Given, however, that this film was released all the way back in 1975, it points to Trump being less of an aberration and more the result of forty-plus years of dysfunctional politics.