A review of Roger Corman’s latest gonzo B movie satire Death Race 2050
Roger Corman’s Death Race 2050 is loud, shrill, spastic, sadistic, stylish, slipshod, stupid and smart in equal measures. And if you thought a movie called Roger Corman’s Death Race 2050 would be anything but these things, then brother/sister, you just don’t get out much.
Instead of recapping in depth about the importance of Corman’s place in film history, just go here and listen to our recent interview with the now 90-year-old cinema slinger. But briefly, yeah, Corman pretty much invented the independent genre film. And high in his cannon, the likes of which include hundreds and hundreds of movies (that we know of) and too many adventures to cite in this small space, sits his 1975 satirical bloodbath Death Race 2000. Produced and nurtured by Corman and directed by his friend and protege, actor/director Paul Bartel (Eating Raoul), the film anticipated a world that had become so culturally base that the greatest form of entertainment was a live quasi-Gumball Rally where mutant cars and their colorful drivers are encouraged to murder pedestrians for maximum points. The movie was fast, freakish and unapologetically over the top and came armed with a razor-sharp sense of social criticism. It was a given that the film would secure a fairly faithful cult following, which led over three decades later to Paul Anderson’s 2008 remake Death Race (and the two sequels that followed), a decent enough slick action flick but a movie that almost completely abandoned the original’s primal satirical scream.
Which brings us to Death Race 2050, a movie made by both Corman and his wife/partner Julie for Universal Pictures, an attempt by the Corman’s to bring the Death Race world back to its gonzo roots. Shot in Peru last year by director G.J. Echternkamp, Death Race 2050 does exactly that, offering a crazed, drooling B-movie trash epic filled with broad comedy, broader performances, outrageous violence and endless — and we mean endless — electro/techno music to propel the entire mad opus along. This is Death Race for the gamer and smart-phone era and there’s nothing wrong with that at all.
In what is a kind of re-birth, re-boot, re-make, re-hash, re-whatever, Death Race 2050 takes place in a Candy Crush-colored version of the country that is controlled by private enterprise and now calls itself The United Corporations of America and is lorded over by a comb-over sporting dictator calling himself The Chairman. As played by the brilliant Malcolm McDowell, The Chairman is a none-too-subtle jab at now President Elect (my God but it still seems surreal to type that!) Donald Trump. The fact that the character was created before the election was in full swing, before Trump actually defied the odds and won, gives Death Race 2050 an extra sting and what was once designed to be ludicrous is now a very potent reality.
The Chairman’s shining accomplishment is the titular blood sport, a cross-country race that features colorful, WWE-styled heroes and villains burning rubber and intentionally mowing down as many human beings as they can, to get more points (extra points for kids!) and do their part to cull the over-population (when people die, a voice screams at the crowd “More space for youuuuu!”). One of these drivers is the fan-favorite Frankenstein (played in the original by David Carradine, in the remakes/sequels by Jason Statham and Luke Goss, respectively, and here by Manu Bennett, who is fantastically grumpy and masculine in the role), a leather clad beast of a man in a spiky car who goes up against his fellow racers like the vain Jed Perfectus (Burt Grinstead, who is uproarious) and scrappy Lesbian rapper Minerva Jefferson (Folake Olowofoyeku) for the brass. Meanwhile, a pair of insufferable fop hosts grin and guffaw and act as cheerleaders to get the gore-crazed audiences distracted and engaged. And many, many, MANY people die.
Death Race 2050 is grating and insane with ample doses of The Hunger Games (which has some of the original Death Race 2000‘s DNA in it too) thrown in to hook younger audiences and it’s often hysterically funny. I love how the victims “fall” to their deaths when hit, just like they did in the original, but this round with CGI blood splatter as opposed to the original’s copious Karo syrup squirts. The notoriously frugal Corman (one feature on the back-end of the Blu-ray has fun getting the cast and crew to comment on the producer’s legendary love of saving dough) has managed to create a vast world by exploiting that same CGI and green screen software and not trying to hide those limitations but celebrating them. Even more than the original, this flick is a garish cartoon and as such, it will likely isolate audiences looking for the humorless thrills of the previous Death Race series or those just looking for a straight action flick. No, this incarnation of Death Race feels like a smutty app from Hell, rather than a conventional genre film.
We suggest that you do NOT watch Death Race 2050 alone but rather get some friends together, pop some corn and revel in the often very witty, sometimes just numbing, lunacy on screen. Because the communal screening experience is what Corman has traded in for 60 years and it’s how his movies work best.
Death Race 2050 is available on Blu-ray/DVD Combo Pack on January 17th.