Sometimes low budget action movies toss in some social commentary to liven things up. In the case of Death Race 2050, the sort-of sequel to Paul Bartel’s 1975 cult film Death Race 2000, which starred David Carradine and Sylvester Stallone, the blood, guts and skin are the eye candy to lure you into a wicked satire portraying a world gone wild. The story transpires in the overpopulated future of the United Corporations of America, where the 1 percent reign supreme and the unemployed 99 percent get off experiencing, through virtual reality, a cross-country bloodsport in which five drivers try to kill pedestrians and each other—in other words, satiate public blood lust and distract them from their misery. And also, in the words of Ebenezer Scrooge, to “decrease the surplus population.”
Manu Bennett stars as the masked Frankenstein, the brutal reigning champion whose biggest threat is Jed Perfectus, a genetically engineered bro. Toss in a murderous cult leader, a feisty rapper and an AI-propelled car as competitors, and Death Race 2050 becomes one weird ride. G.J. Echternkamp’s movie revels in its low-budget gaudiness and Bennett provides some gravitas beneath the black comedy. As outrageous as it is, one wonders how far off we really are from this hypermasculine reality.
Playboy sat down with Bennett and producer Roger Corman, who also made the original, to discuss the rabid road-rage saga that is Death Race 2050.
This movie tackles serious topics like virtual reality, genetic engineering and overpopulation, all wrapped up in black comedy. Given the original movie, I guess you liked this approach best?
ROGER CORMAN: I like that concept very much. It started this way: I bought a short story [in the ‘70s] called The Racers, which is a futuristic racing story in which the drivers of the cars tried to knock each other off the road. I generally write the treatments myself, and I wrote a treatment from that, and I thought there was something lacking. I wanted to add something, and I was playing around with the idea of spectators being involved with sports—psychologically to a large extent, but in some ways involved in the sport itself. Running with the bulls in Pamplona and so forth. I thought the way to bring them in was to have the drivers run over the pedestrians. I thought that was a good original idea but you can’t take it seriously—unless you’re one of the pedestrians. It indicated [back] then that I had to go to a comedy, so it became a black comedy with the racing and the killing of the pedestrians—with a little bit of nudity in it because when I have an R-rated picture I might as well put the various R-rated elements, and a little bit of a statement about the state of the country [and] the state of society in general. But the social commentary, the satire, is secondary really to the action and the comedy.
MANU BENNETT: The modern reinterpretations of the film are just tough guy in a prison escape, car chases… they’re Mad Max, you know. Which is funny because Roger had talked to George Miller about Mad Max years later because George attributed making Mad Max based upon Death Race, and of course it’s a classic car film. Roger said, “You beat me, George. You beat me.” Roger’s a big fan of Mad Max, of course, but there was something to that original film with David Carradine that just had a vision of where America might end up. Today when you look at how the film incorporated technology, it probably wasn’t far off the mark in some ways.
It was interesting because where we shot in Lima, Peru, that society down there blended with the big dollar signs coming into the country. But then the city is built upon a jungle and literally the people are coming out of the jungle to join that metropolis. That was a really interesting location to film. I actually saw a person that had been hit by a vehicle and killed. I was in a traffic jam, and I walked up and saw the body on the road. It was barely covered by somebody’s jumper, and the police were standing around and kids were sitting around playing and going on as if life was sort of normal because that was kind of a normality there. It was a normality to see a dead body.
How did that affect your performance in the film?
BENNETT: This was after the film, but I knew when I was there the disparity in a country where you have a very wealthy top line and then a very poor bottom line [means] that you’re going to have this blindness to what reality is. Then it’s all created by television screens and by advertising and by influences—fashion and all this sort of stuff.
I love the point system used in the Death Race, which ranges from 10 for adults to 50 for seniors.
CORMAN: Yes. In the original Death Race 2000, which became sort of a cult favorite, it led to a lot of jokes—20 points for the little old lady in the crosswalk and things like that.
When I was a kid, my friends and I would joke about that in terms of our own driving. Was that an idea that existed before Death Race, or was that a joke to Death Race came up with?
CORMAN: I think it started with Death Race, as a matter of fact.
Just as with the original film, you’re dealing with a lower budget here and thus have some basic digital effects. This movie revels in that, like the moment when some fans get blown up in the stadium at the beginning of the movie. I remember in the original film you had the racers revving up in the stadium and the shot was simply a matte painting. I guess the lower budget adds to the satire and helps get you into the lunacy of it all.
CORMAN: Yes. You have to. I think the special effects do help it. Now, we don’t have the type of special effects that they have in say in The Fast and the Furious, which incidentally is a title I sold to Universal. They’ve taken the special effects of cars to the greatest level I’ve ever seen. All we can do is approach that a little bit. That one shot [in Death Race 2050] where a car flies off a tall building, hits and then skids off another building, and eventually falls to the ground and keeps on racing—that of course had to be special effects. We’ve got some good stunt drivers, but they’re not going to do that.
The film seems to be a commentary on the hyper-masculine culture that we have. As much as we are becoming more sensitive to certain issues and social topics, it seems like we’re also going in this other direction such as in movies where guys are really macho, like going back to the '70s. Is that something you thought about when you are making this?
CORMAN: We thought about it a little bit. For instance, I was thinking about the first Spartacus with Kirk Douglas. You look at that type of picture today, and Douglas just looks like a well-built, strong man. The men today have bodies with useless muscles all over the place, and so that hyper masculinity or even useless masculinity has become the norm.
Manu, at your recent New York Comic Con panel somebody asked you about doing other historical roles, and you said you’d like to portray someone from another culture that’s not as well known or understood. Does that stem from your roots in New Zealand, a country that many people have no idea about other than through Peter Jackson movies?
BENNETT: I think it’s coming from a country where I’m an indigenous person, even though I never really felt that indigenous. I’m Scottish and Irish and Jewish as well. I’ve got a huge mix in bloodline going back. But it’s also growing up in Australia where there’s a bad indigenous record with what’s happened with the aboriginals, then going to New Zealand where there’s sort of a good indigenous record because we had a treaty there. Then becoming an actor inspired by those cultures, and then coming to America and all of a sudden being part of popular culture through shows like Arrow and this. Then feeling part of this machine that’s got a dollar sign on it, you find yourself as an actor wondering where you’re going to land and what’s important to you and can you hold on to those values without trying to follow the machine into certain directions. It was interesting to do Death Race because it is kind of this macabre film, but its ultimate question is, Where does society fall when dictators are exposed and the masses at the bottom end revolt? That interested me to play Frankenstein, the man who is in the most turmoil but maybe has something to say that might mean something or do something to change that scenario without being political; just being emotional, just trying to be human.
Roger, you have tackled serious topics before, like in The Intruder with William Shatner back in 1962. I remember your company Concorde-New Horizons did a movie back in 1988 with David Carradine and Sherilyn Fenn called Crime Zone, which is about young people seeking escape from a totalitarian city only to discover that there was an actual safe world outside that they didn’t know about.
CORMAN: Yes, that was a specific attempt to do a science fiction/action picture with some ideas about culture behind it. I like to do that, to put these ideas in. It makes it more interesting to make the film creatively, and I think it makes the film more interesting to the audience. I always try to keep that a little bit below the surface. So on the surface you’re seeing an action picture, an entertainment, and if you want to react to these ideas that’s fine, but they are subtextual.
Death Race is available to stream or download here.