There are certain films that make such a splash that they inspire countless imitators and knock offs. After Star Wars there were a lot of space westerns like Battle Beyond the Stars, and after Pulp Fiction there was a wave of movies which tried to tell stories about petty criminals in a pseudo-arthouse style. Death Race 2000 is not one of those trend setting movies. In fact, it has gone so deep under the wire that it barely even served as an inspiration for it’s remake. But this seems crazy to me, because Death Race 2000 is so good that it should have been a template for trashy B-movies for decades to come.
Take for example the Hunger Games, which shares a lot of DNA with Death Race 2000. Both take place in dystopian futures where America’s economy is stagnant, the President is a callous monster, the main entertainment is public violence, and the media is laughably impotent at exposing any of those problems. But the Hunger Games is relentlessly bleak and at a certain point its ever present dourness becomes insufferable. Death Race 2000 takes those same fears but presents them in a cartoony way - for example, the racer's scores are calculated based on how hard the target was to hit with their car, which really makes it hard to take the mayhem happening on screen too seriously. Both of them feature small children being murdered, but watching a child shuffle off this mortal coil because of a bright green dragon-mobile is a lot less of a bummer than watching a child getting gutted by another child.
Or take for example the Twilight series. Among the drivers in Death Race 2000 are the holy trinity of a Frankenstein, a Nazi and Sylvester Stallone. That’s a much better trio than a werewolf, a vampire and a starry eyed teen. Sure, Frankensteins, Nazis and Stallones are as overplayed as werewolves, vampires and teens are, but it’s not about the individual components, it’s about their synergy together. The first pairing has more novelty than the second one, so it’s a shame that it didn’t get repeated ad nauseum in Death Race’s wake.
Or while I’m talking about Stallone, maybe I should bring up the Expendables. Maybe that movie would have been better if it would have been Death Race 2000, not the Expendables. Actually, it would definitely have been better, because I found the Expendables to be more or less unwatchable, whereas I've watched Death Race 2000 repeatedly and it is still charming every time.
I could go on, but you get the point. The film’s combination of dark humor, political commentary, goofy violence, and unnecessary nudity should have set the standard for the B-movie genre. But instead most of what makes this movie so fun has been left by the wayside over the decades. Today a surprisingly high number of popcorn spectacles are clocking in at two and a half hours, compared to Death Race's lean 90 minutes; a lot of them give so much exposition that they crawl in between the action set pieces, while Death Race 2000 starts off at the starting line and ends at the finish line with very little downtime in between; and most importantly, they leave aside all of the goofiness that is Death Race's calling card in an effort to try to awe the audience. Even if it wasn't my personal preference to be amused instead of awed I would still argue against that trend, because the endless shots of unbelievably vast destruction raining down on major cities are all turning into a generic hash in my mind while I still laugh at dick jokes no matter how similar they are to other jokes I've already heard.
It was inevitable that the clock was going to tick past the year 2000, but it's sad to me that we haven't carried Death Race 2000 in our hearts forever. But maybe it's not too late - it took a few decades after he died for Nick Drake's career to take off, and eventually his songs were showing up in Volkswagen commercials. So maybe before too long we'll see a Volkswagen ad where Frankensteins are committing vehicular homicide in dragon cars? A boy can only hope...