Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Whack Job Races

Deathrace 2000 1975 US
Directed by Paul Bartel Optimum DVD Region 2

Death Race 2008 US
Directed by Paul W. S. Anderson Universal DVD Region 2

Caution: Spoilers in the rear view mirror are closer than they appear...

It’s been a good decade or more since I last watched a print of producer Corman’s notorious trash classic Deathrace 2000 and, since I’d never seen the remake, Death Race from a couple of years ago, I thought I’d do a double-bill of the two movies to see if I could make any comparative judgements between the two versions. As you’ll soon see (or know if you’ve seen both), it’s very hard to compare the two.

Deathrace 2000 was a film which had a kind of notoriety when I was a kid growing up in the 70s... I remember the caretaker of the school I went to getting into trouble because he’d screened it for a bunch of 9 and 10 year olds as part of their film club not long after it came out (the movie was rated X in the UK at the time). Unfortunately I was not in attendance at that particular screening and it wasn’t until the home video boom that I finally got my chance to see the movie. Looking at the current DVD release of it sure brought back some memories.

From what I can gather, Corman’s original film seems to have a reputation for being a mean-spirited, nasty film with those who have not actually seen it as it centres on the drivers of a trans-American road race where the players score different point values for any innocent bystanders they run over and kill in the course of the race. It sounds like a gruelling watch but I can assure you that Corman and Bartel’s film is pitched with it’s celluloid tongue wedged firmly in its cinematic cheek. A strong dose of humour runs all the way through the picture and, although certainly violent and with some quite inventive and, dare I say, witty and surprising kills in the movie, it demonstrates a very knowing attitude to the ridiculous, over-the-top concepts portrayed in the film and doesn’t miss an opportunity to laugh at itself and push things way beyond the point where you start to giggle at the ridiculous antics on screen. Even the names of some of the drivers will give you some idea... apart from Machine Gun Joe (a fairly early post-porn role for Sly Stallone) you also have character names like Calamity Jane and Frankenstein (so named because his body has had so many horrific car crash injuries over the years that they have to keep rebuilding him).

What people who haven’t seen this movie don’t realise is that, quite apart from the race-around-and-kill-everyone-in-sight aspect of the film, there is also actually a plot (the year 2000 was in the far future don’t forget and sci-fi stories were getting another breath at the cinema) involving a group of rebels against the government who sanction the Deathrace every year and their attempts to sabotage the games and kill the drivers... there’s also another layer to this involving Frankenstein (played wonderfully by David Carradine) and his navigator (the daughter of rebel leader "Thomasina Payne") with a little twist in the Frankenstein character right at the end that you won’t necessarily see coming... involving his political leanings as symbolised by a hand grenade (quite literally a HAND-grenade but you’ll need to watch the movie to find out more).

All in all, still a refreshing and funny, inventive movie which features large dollops of humour and solid 70s sci-fi storytelling, interspersed with even larger dollops of those homespun Corman values which make up the essential components of the age old Hollywood success equation... nudity + violence = good box office.

Which brings me nicely onto the kinda inappropriate “remake” from a couple of years ago. This movie only half satisfies the above equation in that it ditches the nudity and keeps in the violence... unfortunately it also manages to ditch the sense of humour with it. Now I’ll go up front with my verdict on this one and say that Death Race actually is not a bad movie... it’s a modern exploitation film in much the same way as most modern day action movies might be seen as such and it’s got some entertainment value and it’s really not that badly made... but why did they have to tout it as a remake (so much so that it says something along the lines of “based on the Roger Corman movie Deathrace 2000 in the opening credits)?

Seriously, the only things that this movie has in common with Deathrace 2000 is it has some people driving fast cars in it and two of the character names are the same (Frankenstein and Machine Gun Joe). Unfortunately, because of the movies gestation and subsequent marketing, the audience is pretty much invited to make comparisons between the two movies which is a bad idea because, no matter how entertaining the new Death Race is on a visceral, modern action movie level... it’s just not got the same level of charm and wit as the original movie, even with the great Jason Statham (who is always watchable) playing the “new” Frankenstein.

This new version also does away with the idea of killing innocent bystanders for points... which was always one of the most talked about concepts of the original. Also, rather than racing across America... the races are held on an urban track in prison... since all the drivers in this version are convicts and the only people they’re trying to kill are other driver convicts. The plot is also a lot more personal and less about playing with big ideas than the original. Here, Jason Statham (a driving expert) is framed for killing his lovely wife by a prison warden who runs the race (played nastily by Joan Allen) so she can use him to double as the freshly deceased Frankenstein to maintain ratings of the live broadcasts of the Death Race. Prison yard posturing and Carmageddon ensues.

And from that paragraph you can just tell, can’t you, that they’ve watered down the original and gutted the concept of Deathrace 2000 like a fish!

Not to say the new one isn’t entertaining... it’s a fine entry in the modern trash cinema stakes and it does have it’s inventive moments... like the cars which power up various weapons and defences by driving over big pickup buttons in much the same way as a character in a video game will pick up various health and weapon power-ups. And, to be honest, the vicarious thrills engendered by this kind of movie are pretty much on the same level that the original movie was aiming for... so in some ways you can’t help but like the new Death Race just a little...

It just happens that the original movie revs itself up beyond 24 frames a second and forces the newer version off the side of the road in a heap of twisted, burning chrome...

But if you don’t need to pick one over the other then “doing the deathrace double” is a fine way to spend a Sunday afternoon. Just keep a watch out for that smell of burning rubber coming from your DVD player.


  1. Deathrace 2000, good political and social commentary in a short amount of time, much akin to George A Romero's views on America through his Dead movies.
    Death Race shifted all of the above for a switch your brain off fun ride of action which leaves nothing for you to thing about.


  2. I suspect that in 20 years, DEATH RACE will be shown only in the Marianas Trench theaters, and DEATH RACE 2000 will be discovered by a new audience, laughing all the way.

    Of course, I'm the one who keeps thinking I'll see a "21st Century Fox" logo soon! I've said that for 3 years now... but without holding my breath.

    1. Yeah... I didn't mind the "reboot" but... I thought it kinda missed the point?

      All the best to you.