Roger Corman’s brutal Death Race 2000, released in 1975, is a cult favourite among fans of cars smashing into people. In 2008, the film was remade as a slick but vacuous action thriller with Jason Statham, which received two direct-to-DVD sequels of its own. And now in 2017, the king of exploitation cinema has returned to his 1975 classic and remade it himself, alongside director G. J. Echternkamp. But can this outscore the original?
The premise is basically the same – in a post-apocalyptic America, the most popular sport is the annual Death Race, in which five drivers zoom across America, earning points for killing civilians along the way, here explained as necessary due to overpopulation. The reigning champion is Frankenstein, with Arrow’s Manu Bennett filling the full-body leathers once worn by David Carradine; he’s paired up with co-driver Annie (Miller) who has secret ties to the resistance planning to end the Death Race once and for all.
You won’t be surprised to learn that, being a low-budget affair, this isn’t the slickest looking car movie you’ll have seen, but it’s nevertheless entertainingly brutal, with the racing scenes coming fast and heavy and the gore reminding us what we love about the cheap and nasty exploitation movies of the ‘70s. The cars themselves have been modernised to be more threatening and a bit less gaudy – they’re to the 1975 film’s cars what Christopher Nolan’s Batmobile was to Tim Burton’s.
Script-wise, while some of the character beats between Frankenstein and Annie, particularly in the final act, feel forced, it’s the humour that’s the real appeal. Here there’s a difference in tone between the 1975 and 2000 films – whereas the original went full-on Wacky Races, Death Race 2050 is more satirical, as ridiculous and overblown as that satire is. It’s got a broad range of targets, from radical Christianity to AI technology to reality TV. It also takes self-aware shots at the masculinity of these kinds of films, with overly muscular racer Jed Perfectus having a breakdown over his own self-image and Annie calling Frankenstein out on his “vintage macho bullshit”.
But the most striking satirical target is not any of the racers but the film’s take on America itself, now a post-apocalyptic wasteland with Baltimore having become ‘Upper Shitville’ and West Virginia now ‘Biscuit Planet, Inc’. And – be warned, this is where it may feel a little close to the bone right now – it’s led by Malcolm McDowell’s silly-haired and egotistic Chairman of the United Corporations of America.
That’s right, Death Race 2050 is the anti-Trump satire we all need. Sure, the budget shows, but what shows even more is this film’s angry, anarchistic spirit. It's The Hunger Games meets Fury Road meets Wacky Races and it's way more fun than it has any right to be.
Extras: Featurettes / Deleted Scenes
DEATH RACE 2050 / CERT: 15 / DIRECTOR: G. J. ECHTERNKAMP / SCREENPLAY: G. J. ECHTERNKAMP, MATT YAMASHITA / STARRING: MANU BENNETT, MARCI MILLER, MALCOLM MCDOWELL / RELEASE DATE: MARCH 20TH