There’s nothing quite like the campy joy of Death Race 2000. The ridiculous cars, the gory kills, the politically incorrect point system of slaughter, and the hilarious production values of conference rooms dressed up as hotel rooms all made for one heck of a fun B-movie. It was remade in 2008 with Paul W. S. Anderson directing a picture that was more gritty than goofy. Two direct-to-video sequels followed that nobody took much note of. But now Death Race has finally been given the reboot/remake/sequel/whatever it deserves, proudly tacking Roger Corman’s name to the picture, despite him only producing once more. Death Race 2050 remains true to the original’s giddy tone, satirical savagery, cheap aesthetic, and over-the-top cheese factor. Too true, in fact, that this new picture comes off as more of a faithful retread than its own unique film.
The setting is as familiar as Death Race 2000, but with a few interesting changes. America has been changed into the United Corporations of America, the Chairman being an intentional Donald Trump parody with a massive comb-over, played by Malcolm McDowell. The country (or corporation) has experienced 99 percent unemployment, and the populace spends most of their time vegging out on virtual reality and antidepressant Cheez Whiz. The Death Race is staged as both depraved entertainment for the masses and a means of population control (radiation from nukes apparently cured everyone’s cancer, allowing the population to live to well over 100). All of this is played up as a grand event of advertising and commentating, including a virtual-reality-immersion tie-in where viewers can see, hear, and apparently smell everything the driver experiences.
With the exception of the main character, Frankenstein, there’s a more varied and diverse range of new drivers for this race. Jed Perfectus has been genetically engineered to be the ultimate man, with rippling muscles and a furious attitude toward being bested by Frankenstein. Tammy the Terrorist is the leader of religious cult that believes in the power of god and placing explosives in the audience. Minerva Jefferson is a hip-hop artist who seems as preoccupied recording her new song about driving and killing as she does actually driving and killing. The most odd of additions is ABE, a robot car that doubles as a vibrator for his female co-pilot. And, of course, Frankenstein appears as the most determined and heroic of the lot with his leather outfit and not-so-horrifying face of reconstructive surgery.
The plot of the race is practically identical to that of Death Race 2000: there’s a resistance group working to sabotage the race and overthrow the government, with Frankenstein’s co-pilot secretly working for them. Familiar moments are replicated, as when racers receive a massage while being interviewed and clashing with each other. Little things are referenced, as when the female announcer constantly refers to everyone she interviews as her “good friend.” Even some of the classic kills are replicated, as when fan clubs of the certain drivers sacrifice themselves for the racers they love.
Thankfully, there is enough creative juice flowing to at least turn some of the familiar elements on their head. In a more twisted turn on the scene in which Frankenstein speeds towards a row of seniors lined up by the hospital for euthanasia, parents and teachers line up special-needs students to boost the school’s test scores. And, just as in the original, Frankenstein diverts his aim towards the more immoral people who placed them there. I like how the rivalry of Jeb and Frankenstein has more of a drive, with Jeb’s fear of his homosexual nature more than the simplistic bitterness of Stallone’s Machine Gun Joe trying to best Frankenstein. He’s the type of character that would rather have his female co-pilot pretend to be having sex with him in his hotel room next door to irritate Frankenstein rather than commit to the act. I wonder if Stallone would go for such a character arc, as he certainly has the body and attitude to be just as cocky as Jeb.
The energy is always high, with some great running gags throughout. There’s a self-aware nature to the silliness of this all that director G. J. Echternkamp avoids making the satire any more serious than it needs to be. Every kill features plenty of blood and guts, most of them some form of practical effects that may not be entirely believable, but that have a genuine charm. Malcolm McDowell spends most of his screen time in his presidential office, surrounded by suited men shining his shoes and topless women acting as decoration. My favorite bits of the race were the subtitles for placing the locations and how they relate to what they used to be: Shitsville was formerly Baltimore and Washington, D.C., was formerly Dubai.
Whereas the previous Death Race incarnations simply aimed to be cool, Death Race 2050 revives the biting satire of an uncertain future. Yes, it’s incredibly fun with an action-packed race that features everything from electric-baton wielding ninjas to ineffective suicide bombers, but it also makes some clever commentary on societal deconstruction. The racers are all driven by some form of hate that fuels their need to race and gets the blood pumping in the audience (or out of the audience, in some cases).
Jed wants to prove himself as the ideal specimen, desiring that the world favor his genetics for all they’re worth. Tammy uses religion as her guidance for seeking the righteous path and making her enemies more clear as blasphemers. Minerva has a wicked racism that makes her cackle and sing with every murder of a white person, favoring the fame that will result from her win. Even ABE faces an existential crisis of what purpose he has in life, causing him to question his function as he goes on a berserk killing spree. Frankenstein isn’t exactly the voice of reason for having a sliver of a heart; he’s more of an outside observer in how he looks down on the society that celebrates him and the competition.
Corman became inspired to pursue the idea of Death Race 2050 after an Italian journalist drew similarities between The Hunger Games and Death Race 2000. Coupling the public’s obsession with dystopian fantasies and the current political climate, Corman’s style of portraying a broken society that celebrates sensationalism in immorality couldn’t have arrived at a better time. It’s as much a savage satire of an anarchistic future as it is a howling B-movie of goofiness and guts. The same could be said of the 1975 original, especially for its tongue-in-cheek comedy, but there’s just enough original content and new areas worth exploring in 2050. It’s the type of B-movie we need more of in this day and age, dancing in the bloody waters of campy fun while still very much aware of the scary world around it.