Death Race 2000 (1975)
A product of it’s time, Death Race 2000 is something you cannot replicate today.
In the heady time of the year 2000, America has become ruled by a dictatorship, spurred on by a financial crash in 1979, and has developed the Transcontinental Road Race, a motorised blood sport inspired by gladitorial combat, to thin the population and thrill the masses. In the centre of this, Frankenstein, a figurehead of the sport and ace driver who has the personal blessing of Mr President, finds himself under attack during the race from a resistance movement.
Compared to the remake of 2008, Death Race 2000 is a classic example of 1970s exploitation movies and the “video nasty” genre of the time. Predating the blockbuster era and Star Wars by three years, films like Death Race were the seedy underbelly of Hollywood’s glittering facade of dramas and thrillers. While 2008’s film was all about supermax prisoners killing each other in hi-tech road battles on a contained island complex, the original film was far more unnerving: drivers paid by a corrupt American government to murder innocent people across the country.
While the 1975 film has definitely dated, the controversy is no less real. In fact, with the film opening with the American national anthem, with regular people turned into cults worshipping a televised dictatorial blood letting, one sees similarities from today’s Purge movies to The Hunger Games.
There’s hints at a massive rich/poor divide, Governments restricting free speech and individual liberties, even televising and awarding families who find themselves bereft of loved ones due to dying on the race track.
Of course, these sorts of movies are rife with black comedy, sex and gore, and Death Race is no different. While the subject matter and themes are unsettling, everything is executed with a zany, madcap lunacy that would fit a Monty Python show. From our competitors driving brightly coloured and ridiculous cars with floppy spikes attached, to the larger-than-life young commentator fueled by bloodlust and the happy, quaint woman interviewing everyone between races.
While the late David Carradine (Bill, from Tarantino’s Kill Bill) plays the mysterious Frankenstein, most people today would notice a young Sylvester Stallone (predating breakout role Rocky by just one year) as Machine Gun Joe Viterbo. Now that’s a name.
The film is outrageously silly and has an intense 70s, low-budget feel that will deter a lot of today’s audiences. But in a lot of ways Death Race 2000 still has some bite as a satirical black comedy, and though it doesn’t have the looks and budget of the 2008 Statham movie, it is very self-aware, entertaining and has subtext not wholly unimaginable in this day and age…
Death Race 2050 (2017)
From the producer of all previous Death Race movies comes a remake of the original 1975 movie, Death Race 2000.
The United States of America is now the United Corporations of America, and is governed by The Chairman. While disease has been eradicated (including cancer) the population has become fat and lazy and intent on breeding like rabbits. To solve the over-population problem while also entertaining the VR-saddled citizens, The Death Race is born, with drivers out to kill innocent pedestrians for points.
Probably one of the few things this remake of the 1975 film really has going for it, is the inclusion of virtual reality television, allowing the masses to ride alongside their favourite drivers. This not only adds the controversy of citizens joining the action and relishing in the murder of their own, but also allows the film to show the citizens in their deprived and listless states. All of the previous films have failed to show the downtrodden and paradoxically accepting public in this dystopian world (excluding rebellions and cults) until now.
Death Race 2050 had a difficult release. Most current audiences have never seen Death Race 2000 or even know about the reverence that people hold for it. So when this film arrived and relished in a blatantly cheesy, stupid and deliberately low-budget 1970s style, nobody got the joke.
But I get the joke, and I enjoyed it for the most part. Especially Malcolm McDowell hamming it up as the corrupt Chairman and dictator of Corporations of America. He is loving it. Although McDowell has always enjoyed playing these sorts of psychotic British villains.
Death Race 2050 is almost a straight remake of the 1975 film, both in content but also in style. Apart from the VR headsets worn by the drivers’ navigators, there isn’t much in the way of modernisation. This is a point of contention for me… I enjoy when remakes bring something new to the original, and while 2050 brings in new drivers and some new gimmicks, it is basically the same story beats only much, much more insane.
While having a fully AI car driving itself and… pleasuring its navigator at the same time… is a neat new idea, we do get some very flat comedy writing. Manu Bennett – he played Azog in The Hobbit movies – plays Frankenstein (who is a literal cyborg this time) and very quickly disposes of his mask. But unlike Statham’s sympathetic turn, or Carradine’s stoic and merciless killer, this Frankenstein is hard to comprehend. He is aggressive, but has cringeworthy “comedic” moments when his cyborg parts malfunction, he is all-business, yet wants to bring an end to the Death Race.
It feels like there’s potential for better one-liners and gags, but they never surface.
The other racers are more aggravating than entertaining. Gone is Stallone and his navigator’s back-and-forth, now we have Folake Olowofoyeku’s Beyoncé-Lady Gaga diva singing the catchy “Drive, drive, kill, kill!” song. Or Yancy Butler’s resistance leader who was terrifying – whenever she shouted (frequently) I was sure the veins in her neck were going to pop!
If you grew up with the original or respect it like I do, you’ll either love it or be insulted by its attempts at recapturing the 70s styling. Everyone else will just think its insane trash.
Overall, I am conflicted over it… It is a fair punt towards the original’s controversial edge, but I wish it did more to modernise. Why give yourself the trappings of outdated stylings when you don’t have the nostalgic benefits? Just carry the themes and tone, but give it the new layer of paint it needs.