OMFC (Oh, my fricking Corman).
You would think that the pseudo-remake and pale imitation Death Race series started in 2008 would have inspired Roger Corman to produce a sequel to his director Paul Bartel’s opus of satirical dystopia that is Death Race 2000 (1975). It may have taken, however, co-conspirator of post-apocalyptic road movies, George Miller, resurrecting his titular wasteland hero with Mad Max: Fury Road (2015), along with the volatile politics of our time, perhaps a hint of Idiocracy (2006) and certainly the dystopic fiction and film cycle we currently live in to inspire Corman, the greatest independent director slash producer of all time, to bring out his big guns—big guns attached to funny cars for Roger Corman’s Death Race 2050 (2017).
Death Race 2050 was written by G.J. Echternkamp and Matt Yamashita and directed by Echternkamp, whose acting credits mightily outweigh his directing ones, though that doesn’t seem to have stopped him from putting together a very competent if not new, cult version of this film. Credit though should also go to the original Corman old-school screenwriters Robert Thom and Charles B. Griffith, the latter of the two being responsible for writing Not of This Earth (1957, 1988), Bucket of Blood (1959, 1995), Little Shop of Horrors (1960, 1986) and many more. Incidentally, both movies are based on the short story “The Racer” written by Ib Melchior.
If that last paragraph wasn’t a blatant enough hint, then know this. It looks like these new guys revamped the script from the old guys. That, however, might be the strongest negative criticism I’ve got for this remake, or sequel, or soft reboot, whatever you want to call it and whatever all the sites are calling it. Essentially, if there were no Death Race 2000, Death Race 2050 would take that seat in today’s cult fandom, even though a marked difference remains in the budget and look of each film.
It’s almost like two alternate timelines merged and we got two flicks with the same satirical sci-fi tone. Granted, this latter version reflects the equivalent special effects of our times, greenscreen and CGI, but it’s gratefully not a 100% solution for all their effects. In fact, Echternkamp utilizes these effects in a way I wish would become standardized in low budget films. He uses them with a big movie eye, as if he were making the next superhero film. But if you’re expecting a film with effects as realistic as those, you’re not going to find it here. Echternkamp balances out those effects, though, with a fast-moving pace, modern re-characterizations, and new satire related to the world we live in today.
Actor Manu Bennett brings us an angry but equally heroic Frankenstein to John Carradine’s calm, cool and collected version. Marcie Miller’s undercover revolutionist Annie is equal to that of Simone Griffeth. Burt Grinstead plays Jed Perfectus, the equivalent of Sylvester Stallone’s Machine Gun Joe Viterbo and Frankenstein’s racing nemesis, and he’s quite a different character here, but still with the same blowhard machismo, just with an added modern twist which they play on and build up successfully throughout the movie.
No stranger to dystopian narratives, Malcolm McDowell gives a much more dramatic performance, a more powerful screen presence, and a more vital character as Chairman of the United Corporations of America (UCA) to Sandy McCallum’s President in the original, whose character just wasn’t that fleshed out writing-wise in the older version. Probably the most satirical twist is Anessa Ramsey as Tammy the Terrorist, a radical Christian fundamentalist aptly modernized from Roberta Collins’ original Nazi, Matilda the Hun. Mostly gone are Mary Woronov’s frisky Calamity Jane and Martin Kove’s Nero the Hero, though Jed Perfectus utilizes a lot of Nero’s vanity while some of Woronov’s character might be in Dr. Von Creamer (Helen Loris), creator of and navigator for ABE (voiced by D.C. Douglas) the car with artificial intelligence, which also doubles for said doctor as an over-sized and over-priced but scientifically perfected vibrator.
The fifth driver in the modern version is completely original here. Played by Folake Olowofoyeku, Minerva Jackson is a recording artist with a blockbuster sex tape who is trying her hands at racing. While the main plot is driven by Frankenstein and Annie versus McDowell’s chairman, and while Grinstead works hard to steal the show as Perfectus, Ramsey’s Tammy the Terrorist and Olowofoyeku’s Minerva Jackson are in their own little movie when their storylines collide. Ramsey’s character should be a stereotypical racist one-noter, but her 110% enthusiasm takes it over the top in the right way. And Olowofoyeku’s character turns out to be the most dynamic in the whole lineup, and kudos to her for pulling it off like she’s shooting for an award. Really, every time a different driver is on screen it’s their show. That’s good acting and good directing and fun times watching it.
The revolutionists in each film are quite different. Alexis Hamilton is played by Yancy Butler in the current film and Harriet Medin as Thomasina Paine in the older one. Gone is Harold, actor Carl Bensen’s parody of Howard Cosell, which not many would get today. The best or at least most fun roles were recreated in Charlie Farrell’s master of ceremonies role as JB from Don Steele’s original Junior Bruce and Shanna Olson’s Grace Tickler from Joyce Jameson’s original Grace Pander. They really hammed up their roles well. Think about the Star Wars prequels when Ewan McGregor played Alec Guinness playing Obi-Wan, but not quite Academy Award-ish but over the top for sure.
Death Race 2050 is a unique film in its own right, a remake of a film from a short story adaptation, during a similar political cycle, though generations apart, and put together with modern low budget effects. Its satirical theme or message is the most amped up, though, drawing on modern virtual reality, the reality of corporations in American politics, reality shows, celebrity status, pharmaceuticals, joblessness, religion and a leader with a bad hairdo hated by a majority of Americans and people worldwide in general. And in case you’re unaware of a socially conscious Roger Corman, check out The Intruder (1962) and Gas! (1970).