Inspired by the Roger Corman-produced Death Race 2000 (1975), the new version of Death Race, also produced by Roger Corman, is directed by Paul WS Anderson, a filmmaker whose career has consisted mostly of remakes of projects with pre-existing cult followings (including computer game adaptations such as Resident Evil, and a thematic sequel to Blade Runner called Soldier), which have more often than not disappointed the fans. Stripping away everything from the original Death Race 2000 apart from the character names and basic plot, Anderson’s Death Race is a slick, polished B-movie that technically is a better film than the original, but lacks the shock value, innovation and critical edge of its predecessor.
In fact, Death Race seems to be much more influenced by computer games than by the movie it takes its title from – which should perhaps not be surprising, considering Anderson’s career so far. The action has been relocated to a prison, with inmates racing around an enclosed track that includes the kind of ‘power-ups’ – shields, weapons, death traps, all activated by driving over illuminated circles – that have until now been seen only in games. As the original Death Race had a big influence on computer games such as Carmageddon and Grand Theft Auto, it seems that things have come full circle.
With its reference to the Corman/Bartel original, its video game stylings and its mixing of genres – sci-fi, horror, action – Death Race clearly nods towards cult cinema, yet when the word ‘cult’ is mentioned, Anderson rejects the idea, claiming that ‘when a movie makes close to $200 million worldwide, it’s beyond a cult level’. Unlike the original film, the new version benefited from a massive budget and its attendant publicity machine. However, while Anderson is so keen to distance his film from cult cinema, it is precisely the limited means of many B-movies that allowed filmmakers to take risks and be innovative. Predictably, if depressingly, Anderson’s big budget means he just plays it safe.
Read the rest of the feature in our autumn print issue. The theme is cruel games, from sadistic power play in Korean thriller A Bloody Aria to fascist games in German hit The Wave and Stanley Kubrick’s career-long fascination with game-playing. Plus: interview with comic book master Charles Burns about the stunning animated film Fear(s) of the Dark and preview of the Raindance Festival. And don’t miss our fantastic London Film Festival comic strip, which surely is worth the price of the issue alone!