Budget can be a reason why a remake is made. A low budget movie that picks up a cult following will be noticed by studios, and cult classics grow audiences over time. Studios, being risk adverse, prefer to make movies with a guarenteed audience. What happens when a film made on the cheap gets a budget? Let’s look at the Roger Corman classic, Death Race 2000.
As a producer, Roger Corman is known for being tight with money. He also seldom loses money on a movie. With Battle Beyond the Stars, he kept costs down by using film students for crew and an out-of-business hardware store for a studio. With Death Race 2000, the budget was a modest $300 000. Yet, the film endures.
Based on the short story, “The Racer”, by Ib Melchior, Death Race 2000 is set in the 1975 future of 2000, where the US economy has collapsed after defeating the Soviet Union and China in the Cold War. Mr. President, the head of the Bipartisan States of America, has ruled the country from afar for 25 years, using bread and circuses to keep the masses happy. The biggest circus is the Transcontinental Road Race, where drivers compete from New York to Los Angeles to score the most points and the fastest time. Scoring comes from killing pedestrians, with women worth ten points more in all categories, children under 12 worth seventy points, and seniors worth one hundred.
Not everyone in the Bipartisan States are happy with the status quo. The Resistance, led by Thomasina Paine, played by Harriet Medin, wants to end the race, and plans on kidnapping the top racer, two-time Transcontinental winner, Frankenstein, played by David Carradine. Frankenstein earned the name after being rebuilt race after race, having parts destroyed or removed through accidents and deliberate actions by other racers.
Four other racers join Frankenstein in the starting line up. Machine Gun Joe Viturbo, played by Sylvester Stallone, is Frankenstein’s main rival and is determined to show who is the better driver in the race. Matilda the Hun, played by Roberta Collins, is a neo-Nazi who has named her car “The Buzzbomb”. Calamity Jane, played by Mary Woronov, takes the Western motif to the hilt, decking her car out with bull horns, perfect for ensuring a kill. Rounding out the line up is Nero the Hero, played by Martin Kove, decked out as a Roman gladiator. Each driver also has a navigator; Frankenstein has Annie, played by Simone Griffeth, and Machine Gun Joe’s moll is Myra, played by Louisa Moritz.
The race starts well, at least for the drivers. The Resistance would prefer to keep things bloodless, but even they start taking matters further. Nero the Hero is taken out in the first stage by the old “Bomb in a Fake Baby” trick, robbing him of not only his car, his navigator, and his life, but also of the seventy points the baby would have been worth. The Resistance tries to take credit for the kill, using a pirate broadcast, but the BSA claims that the French sabotaged the race instead. The Resistance also takes out Matilda the Hun and Calamity Jane. Matilda falls for a Wile E. Coyote-style detour. Calamity is forced off the road by the Resistance and hits a land mine.
During the second stage, the Resistance uses its mole to lure Frankenstein astray so that he could be replaced. Thomasina’s great-granddaughter, Annie, tells Frank about a retreat for old senators that is ripe for points. Frank breaks through the ambush, though. Knowing that Annie is part of the Resistance lets him trust her enough about the trick he has up his sleeve. Frankenstein’s plan is to win the race so that he can meet Mr. President and set off his hand grenade. Frank shares a goal with Annie, the ending of the Transcontinental Road Race; he is the latest Frankenstein, with the others having died instead of being put back together.
The movie is presented as a major sports event, a violent version of ABC’s Wide World of Sports. The result is a darkly satirical comedy about the nature of sports and entertainment, where sex and violence are draws. The goal wasn’t to shame the audience, but heighten awareness while still reveling in what the movie rails against. Everything is over the top, taking Ib Melchior’s deadly serious short story and turning it into a satire. The script is kept tight, and what appears to be a continuity error near the end is really a clue that scene is not what it appears.
The 2008 remake, Death Race, approaches the events in a different manner. The movie opens with the background. The US economy has crashed, hard, with jobs scarce and crime levels growing higher and higher. To combat the crime problem, all prisons in the US are now privately owned and may well be the most stable companies around. One prison, Terminal Island Penitentiary, capitalizes on their inmates by broadcasting the “Death Race”, a three-day, three-stage event forcing prisoners to race against each other in cars armed and armoured to the teeth. The race consists of three laps, the first where the weapons are unarmed, the second where pressure plates can be driven over to activate weapons and defenses, and the third for the carnage.
Two racers at the prison have a deadly rivalry. Machine Gun Joe Mason, played by Tyrese Gibson, is set to kill Frankenstein, voiced by David Carradine. The race is close, with Frankenstein in the lead but getting chewed up by Machine Gun Joe’s truck with Frank’s defensive systems not working. Frankenstein wins, more from the force of the explosion his car makes as it crosses the finish line than anything else. Ratings and, more importantly, profits go up. However, the warder, Claire Hennessey, played by Joan Allen, needs a new Frankenstein.
Elsewhere, former NASCAR driver Jensen Ames finishes his last day at a steel mill as it shuts down due to the economy tanking. Jensen gets his meager last pay just before the SWAT team appear to quell a riot that didn’t happen until the SWAT team arrived. The problem with private prisons is that they need a constant influx of prisoners; the SWAT team may have been trying to drum up potenital inmates. Jensen, though, makes it home to his wife Suzy and newborn daughter Piper. However, a masked intruder breaks in, knocks Jensen out, and kills Suzy, framing Ames for the murder. Jensen is sentenced to life imprisonment at Terminal Island.
After a run-in with Aryan Brotherhood member Pachenko, played by Max Ryan, Jensen is called to the Warden’s office. Warden Hennessey has a deal for Jensen – race as Frankenstein and win one more race, and he can go free. Jensen agrees, and is introduced to Frankenstein’s pit crew. The head of the crew, Coach, played by Ian McShane, shows Frankenstein’s car to Jensen, going over the weapons and defenses available.
The day of the first stage arrives. The navigators arrive by prison bus from Terminal Island’s women’s penitentiary. Other than Machine Gun Joe, each driver has a woman as navigator, for the ratings. Machine Gun Joe, though, has a man; speculation is that’s because either he goes through so many navigators that viewers were turned off by the deaths or he’s gay. Once inside his car, Jensen takes off teh Frankenstein mask, revealing himself to Case, played by Natalie Martinez. Case isn’t surprised; Jensen is her third Frankenstein. During the race, three drivers and navigators are killed. Hector “The Grim Reaper” Grimm, played by Robert LaSardo survives a wreck, but while ranting after escaping his vehicle, is run down by Machine Gun Joe. Travis Colt is taken out by Jensen. Frankenstein’s defensive systems once again failed, but Jensen gets creative. He has Case put the napalm on the ejector seat, then fires it out so that the bottle breaks and the liquid inside cover Colt’s car. Case then tosses the cigarette lighter at Colt’s car. Jensen is well ahead and is set to win until Pachenko catches up to him. Jensen recognizes the gesture Pachenko makes as the same one his wife’s killer had made. Distracted, he doesn’t see Machine Gun Joe until too late. Frankenstein finishes sixth, last among the surviving drivers.
Warden Hennessey isn’t impressed by Jensen’s finish. She calls him in and ups the stakes. Hennessey promises that if Jensen loses, his daughter will be adopted out and he will never see her again. Jensen promises that things will get more vicious in the next stage. In the garage, Frankenstein’s put crew checks the oil sprayer and finds that it is working properly. Jensen starts putting the puzzle together and confronts Case. For her part, Case admits she sabotaged the defenses; she was promised her own release papers for preventing Frankenstein from leaving the Death Race.
When the second stage starts, Jensen has his own plans. First, he gets Pachenko to crash, then breaks the Aryan’s neck. He then gets back into his car, determined to win. Hennessey, though, wants a ratings boost. She’s already seeing record numbers of viewers tuning in, but wants to wring the Death Race for every dollar she can. A new vehicle enters the race – the Dreadnought, built on a semi-rig tanker and better armed and armoured than any of the other cars. The Dreadnought scores three kills of its own before Jensen convinces Machine Gun Joe to work with him to stop the truck.
Hennessey, not so happy with the destruction of her truck but pleased with the new paid subscriptions to the Death Race, makes Jensen a new offer – stay as Frankenstein and live a life of comfort. Jensen wants his daughter back, so no deal. When the third stage begins, Jensen and Joe have an escape plan, using a weakened part of the prison’s outer walls. However, Hennessey won’t let Jensen go easily and has a bomb planted under his car. The race goes as Jensen planned. He, Case, and Joe destroy the wall and escape across the only bridge in. Hennessey sends the signal for the bomb to explode, which it then fails to do. Coach had found the explosive, removing and disarming it.
Outside the prison, police try to chase the escapees, but find themselves outgunned and outmatched. Hennessey orders helicopters to pursue Jensen. When his car is finally stopped, it’s Case in the Frankenstein costume. She’s taken back to prison. Hennessey can at least announe that Frankenstein has returned, and opens a celebratory gift sent to her. Coach detonates the bomb, killing Hennessey.
There are some key differences between Death Race 2000 and Death Race. While each film take a look at the nature of sports and television, the changes to both elements necessitate a different approach. In 1975, the concept of pay-per-view didn’t yet exist. Most people watched television via broadcast, not cable. The three-channel universe in the US meant that the choice in what to watch was limited. In 2008, cable reigns, especially for sports. While some major events, like the NFL’s Super Bowl and Major League Baseball’s World Series, are available over national networks free of charge, others, especially for sports with smaller followings, can only be seen on specialized cable stations and even pay-per-view. The more violent sports, like wrestling and mixed martial arts, are pay-per-view only. Violence is movies is far more visceral. Death Race 2000 was almost cartoon-like in its violence while Death Race went for being grittier.
Also gone from the remake was the satirical humour. Much like the Robocop remake, Death Race plays the situation seriously. The remake, though, has several new targets for satire. First is the use of privately owned prisons. A government-run prison doesn’t have to worry about a profit/loss statement at the end of the day; a privately run one has to make a profit, and there’s only so much that a prison can charge to hold a prisoner. Death Race takes the concept of prisoner labour to an extreme, but one that must be on the minds of some CEOs. Would the general public pay to watch prisoners fight in a gladiatorial arena?
The other new target for satire is the new nature of television. Pay-per-view means that after a certain number of subscribers, any more is pure profit. Cut the costs in producing an event, and that minimum needed subscribers drops. Too many cuts, and the audience will be turned off. But if labour costs can be reduced or even removed? Sponsors will be happy to provide equipment at a discount if the producer can show good numbers. Thus, the MOPAR billboard and the Ford vehicles in Death Race.
Budget is another huge difference between the films. Each car in Death Race 2000 was a shell built on top of the chassis of a Volkswagen Beetle. Beetles had the two requirements Corman was looking for – they had the engine in the back and could be found cheaply. The Beetle was not an expensive car even when new, and was the most popular import in the US. The latter made finding used ones easy. With Death Race, the two main cars – Frankenstein’s and Joe’s – were current Ford models. Even in a movie decrying bloodsport, manufacturers are willing to take the risk of a bad association if it means free advertising.
Another difference comes from the nature of storytelling on film. In the 70s, slow reveals of the main character’s real purpose isn’t unknown. The audience is assumed to be capable of thinking while watching. Death Race, though, provides all the needed information up front about the main characters. The audience knows right away why Jensen is racing. The audience can sit back and enjoy the spectacle, something that Death Race 2000 satirized.
Death Race also removed the points system. It worked for a cross-country race that encouraged drivers to hit-and-run pedestrians. The remake, though, kept the race in a contained area. Finishing first was the only way to win. Since the hit-and-run was removed, weapons could be mounted on the cars. It wouldn’t be sporting to just shoot an unarmed pedestrian, even one taunting a driver like a bullfighter taunts a bull. But if everyone is armed, then it’s fair game. The defensive systems – oil sprayer, smokescreen generator, and napalm – help cars in front from being sitting ducks. Video game elements like the pressure plates to activate weapon systems fit in with the audience, both the one in-universe and the one watching the movie.
Both movies reflect their time period. In 1975, the US had just gone through Watergate and the Nixon impeachment, showing the cracks in the American system of government. In 2008, the housing bubble had just popped, creating Crash 2.0, leaving people trying to pay for a house that was no longer worth what they had paid for it while struggling to keep a job as corporations cut labour costs to stem the hemorrhaging of money. Each movie’s satire reflects the era, which makes a direct comparison difficult.
That said, Death Race 2000, much like Deadpool, has no problems being silly when it needs to be. Sometimes, a point can be made better when the viewer is laughing. Death Race made the decision to keep things serious, possibly as a nod to the original short story by Melchior. The difference in tone means that people are swearing instead of yelling, “Chrysler!” Staying serious also indicates that the film sees the elements being satirized as grave problem, underlining the nature of the issues.
The two movies take different approaches over most of the same topics. Death Race 2000 is over the top, making it an easier watch even with the nudity and violence. Death Race keeps the violence and uses up-to-date film making techniques to get the audience into the middle of the action. Death Race almost pulls it off, and may have been better off without the original lurking in the audience’s mind.