In the ten years that have passed since Gus Van Sant announced that as a follow-up to his first mainstream success (Good Will Hunting) he would film a shot-by-shot remake of Alfred Hitchcock's seminal Psycho--to which I will confess a bit of curiosity in revisiting with the intention of viewing it purely through the prism of a contextual exercise, which in fairness was Van Sant's intent--still the ultimate in the "how dare they!" camp of Hollywood regurgitation that has dominated production in the ensuing decade (seriously with Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street remakes in various stages of production, does there exist an influential horror film from the 1970's or 80's that hasn't been remade) I've moved from the anger to the acceptance stage and hardly ever find my fist vainly shaking mid-air in disgust anymore when the news of the latest retread gets announced. Still, with that said, I have little to no interest in seeing the Paul W.S. (so as not to be mistaken for the more talented director whose first and last name he shares) Anderson's remake of Death Race 2000 (1975, Paul Bartel), retitled simply Death Race for brevity and outdated time's sake, despite an interesting collection of cast members including the intermittently likable Jason Statham as well as the always sturdy Ian McShane and Joan Allen(!?). Judging from it's underwhelming performance at the box office this weekend, people seem to share my indifference (although I am sure most of the intended audience do not realize it's a remake to begin with).
It's no wonder that so many talented filmmakers, including Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Jonathan Demme and Joe Dante to name just a fraction, emerged from Roger Corman's New World pictures factory. After insuring all his productions contained a sellable hook, exposed breasts, gratuitous violence, a drive-in accessible running time and most importantly, a meager budget, Corman would grant his filmmakers carte blanche to make whatever they saw fit within those limitations. Only under these guidelines could a film as offensively brazen as Death Race 2000 crystallize. Paul Bartel, the eccentric actor/director who appeared in films throughout Corman's oeuvre, had the keen satiric eye to bring Robert Thom and New World house writer Charles B. Griffith's satiric vision of a future where the number one sport is vehicular manslaughter (extra points for the elderly or children). Bartel and his writers deftly create a future where the American past-time is a sport that combines two indelible 70's trends: the popular and increasingly aggressive NFL with special attention to two teams with a defensive mindset and a win at all cost attitude: the Pittsburgh Steelers and Oakland Raiders and the anti-hero archetype that became a staple in American cinema following Easy Rider. Death Race 2000 leaves you agape with its audaciousness and could only exists as a B-movie that slipped through the cracks to become a word-of-mouth sensation.
The new Death Race seems like a missed opportunity, especially in light of the in-fighting in NASCAR that is making it a more theatrical, and henceforth, popular sport. Of course, this being a mainstream film produced by a major studio and directed by a successful but not necessarily distinctive franchise starter (three of his seven directorial efforts spawned at least one sequel), a deft satiric hand is not to be expected. Instead of garnering points for running over innocent civilians, it appears that prisoners are chasing one another, because you know, who cares if prisoners get killed, right? (If someone has seen the film and can refute my assumptions, please let me know). I'm also assuming that the young and elderly emerge unscathed. And that, strangely enough, counts as a devolution.
While the remake will probably be long forgotten by the time it premieres on HBO next June, the original with it's iconic lead performances by David Carridine and a pre-Rocky Slyvester Stallone as his arch rival, it's matte painting vistas, and the still outrageous lack of good taste on display throughout (to reiterate--that's a positive) will still be discovered by generations throughout this millennium.
Here's the trailer for Death Race 2000....accept no substitutes!