The original “Death Race 2000” isn’t just a nearly perfect slice of drive-in junk food, it’s one of my favorite movies ever. Working off a recipe that balances black comedy, action and sleaze in precise proportions, director Paul Bartel and writers Robert Thom and Charles Griffith created one of the best and most entertaining products to ever come out of Roger Corman’s schlock market. It would take more than another movie to combine road racing with wholesale slaughter to clear the bar set by “Death Race 2000,” and “Death Race 2050” certainly tries.
Functioning as a remake of the original, “Death Race 2050” offers up the same basic premise. In the near future, a totalitarian government uses a cross-country race to keep the masses entertained and thin out their numbers. Drivers with personas closer to professional wrestlers drive outlandish cars and gain bonus points for splattering pedestrians along the way. Fan-favorite driver Frankenstein races for the glory of victory, while his chief rival Jed Perfectus wants to prove his genetic superiority. Meanwhile, a group of insurgents works to sabotage the race and strike back at the clownish Chairman (played by the game-as-always Malcolm McDowell).
A big part of what makes “Death Race 2000” work even 40-plus years after it was made is that its criticisms are timeless. It’s a broad satire of media, celebrity culture, and our preoccupation with violence – all things that are just as relevant in 2017 as they were in 1975. “Death Race 2050,” on the other hand, very much wants to comment on the world of the early 21st century. Among the drivers participating are Tammy the Terrorist, a religious fundamentalist Southern belle who kills for her own strange brand of celebrity-worship, and Minerva Jefferson, a pop/porn star who’s racing to promote her new album.
“Death Race 2050” also cranks up the viscera compared to the original movie, which was decidedly more cartoonish in its depiction of violence. This movie makes it its mission to splatter as much blood onto the screen as it can, but the cheap effects look like the production showed up late to Greg Nicotero’s garage sale. I know I recognized the same intestines in more than one scene, and that is a form of déjà vu I never expected to experience while watching a movie.
It’s too bad that “Death Race 2050” is so preoccupied with exaggerating the already-broad strokes that the original movie was painted with, because there should have been more attention paid to working on the script. Frankenstein and his co-pilot have lots of conversations but his motivations remain murky right up until the end.
And the end of the movie flips the ending of the original in the opposite direction in a way that makes the whole movie leading up to it feel a lot less fun. The original wants you to reject watching violence that has no greater purpose, but “Death Race 2050” wants you to get up off the couch and commit violence with no greater purpose yourself instead of just watching it.
It’s probably not fair to judge “Death Race 2050” against “Death Race 2000,” especially for someone as admittedly biased as I am. But the remake doesn’t do very much to make a case for itself as its own movie, borrowing the original’s basic plot structure and even more than a few key moments with the new characters swapped in.
There are a few moments of fun to be had with “Death Race 2050,” especially if you haven’t seen the original. Compared to the original, however, “Death Race 2050” is like taking a perfectly functioning vintage car and airbrushing a scene from “Idiocracy” on the side.