Ahead of His Time: Roger Corman on ‘Death Race 2050’

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Roger Corman
Roger Corman on the set of Roger Corman’s Death Race 2050

Roger Corman may be the most influential filmmaker in history.

As a director in the 50’s and 60’s he brought us the amazing adaptations of the works of Edgar Allan Poe and H.P. Lovecraft and, in the 70’s and beyond, his work as producer introduced us to film-makers like Martin Scorsese, Ron Howard, and Joe Dante, just to name a few. Of all the films which he directed or produced one film series seems to re-emerge in pop culture every few decades:

The Death Race series.

The Original Death Race 2000 was released in 1975 and was directed by Paul Bartel. The filmed starred David Carradine and a pre-Rocky Sylvester Stallone.  The story was based on a short story by I.B. Melchior. The concept of the original focused on a reality television show where racers tried to eliminate to competition by any means necessary and were able to score points by killing pedestrians. It was ahead of its time in how it depicted a society driven by watching the depiction of violence. Death Race 2050 is a modern reboot of the tale.

Frankenstein inspects his car

From the Producers:

– An outrageous action-packed film and reboot of the original Death Race 2000, Roger Corman’s Death Race 2050. Filled with full-throttle mayhem and black-hearted humor, this all-new film drops the flag on a phalanx of automotive gladiators who earn points for killing pedestrians — and their fellow drivers. Roger Corman’s Death Race 2050 is an original release from Universal 1440 Entertainment, a production entity of Universal Pictures Home Entertainment.

Producer Roger Corman overseeing production

I was able to discuss with Mr. Corman about the past and future of not only Death Race but that of the Independent Film market as well.

Ric Rebelo:  Why do you think the Death Race series that has given it such longevity?

Roger Corman: Well, the original Death Race 2000 was made in the 1970s and won a poll as the greatest B-picture of all time, which kind of makes me king of the second raters. At any rate,  Death Race was rather original and outrageous. Death Race 2000 was a futuristic car racing film, in which the drivers were scored on how fast they could drive from New York to Los Angeles, how many other drivers they could kill or knock off the road, and most importantly, this is what made the picture so unique, was how many pedestrians they could kill.

You don’t often come up with something original and I believe, that is an original idea. So, when I came up with the original idea with killing the pedestrians, I said ‘you can’t take this too seriously.’ So, I added a certain amount of satire so the picture is a rather strange hybrid of the car racing, the killing of pedestrians, and a comment on the use of violence to control a population as entertainment, going all the way back to the time of the Roman gladiatorial games. Death Race is a very complex picture with certain comments on society within it but, above all, it is a car racing film.

Ric: Since the original Death Race was released, have you been surprised by America’s growing passion for reality television?

Roger: Yes, I am aware of that. That was part of my thoughts, I wanted to bring the audience into the show rather than just sitting watching Gladiators, watching mixed martial arts or something. I wanted to integrate the audience and the participants.

Ric: So what has changed in Roger Corman’s Death Race 2050?

Roger: Well, the original was based on the future from the perspective of the 1970’s, this is now a futuristic view from 2016. For instance, the name of our country is no longer The United States of America, it is The United Corporations of America, as you can see the increasing of power of major corporations. Malcolm McDowell plays the chairmen of the board of the United Corporations of America, which traditionally would be the President of the United States.

We also changed the concept of most of the drivers. For example, one of my favorites is Tammy the Terrorist.  She is a leader of a cult terrorist religion, in which she tries to blow up everybody she can as well as hit them with the car. We have another car that is a self- driving car because that is in research today, nobody would have thought of that in the 1970’s. One of the drivers is a genetically-engineered perfect man due to the interest in genetic engineering today. We tried to reimagine all of the characters and relate them to what is going on today and what might be the future of research.

Ric: How do you feel the state of independent filmmaking has changed over your 6 decades in the industry?

Roger Corman: Well, what maintains on independent films is that fact you are able to gamble more with a lower budget, for example, Death Race would not have been made by a studio if I had told them that I wanted to kill pedestrians in a car racing picture. I would have been ushered out of the studio very quickly. But as an independent, I could make it.

So you can be more experimental, more daring with an independent film. Two other points I would say, one it is easier to make a film today because of the digital cameras, the lightweight equipment and so forth. You could make a film faster and less expensively. That change was for the good. What has changed for the bad is the fact that when I made films, historically, I knew with some modest degree of confidence that the film would have a full theatrical release. The original Death Race 2000 did get a full theatrical release and it did extremely well.

Roger Corman’s Death Race 2050 will go to DVD and then Netflix. Universal has various deals with it, but it will bypass theatrical. When I sold them the remake rights, they remade it a number of times. The first one went theatrical where each of the others have gone to DVD, which will happen to Death Race 2050 in January.

Ric: What do you think of the current situation in Hollywood?

Roger: I think you are going to see the continuation of the concept of originality in the independent world, the major studios seem to remake one comic strip after another and one two hundred million dollar picture after another. They are playing it, to a certain extent, safe because when you have a budget like that, it is difficult to try and take that chance.  But on films that cost less, you can gamble. I think it’s a nice step forward for Universal to recognize that and to go to independent filmmakers on a gamble on an original film.

After Watching Roger Corman’s Death Race 2050, I can say that as a fan of the original this update on the story is fun, fresh and entertaining. Whether you are a fan of Death Race 2000 or a newcomer to the series, you will enjoy this satirical take on our current society and the extremes it may be headed to.

Death Race 2050 Blu-Ray Art

Roger Corman’s Death Race 2050 will be available on Blu-Ray January 17th.

Disclaimer: A review copy of Roger Corman’s Death Race 2050 was made available by Universal Pictures

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