"If you think you're free, there's no escape possible" - Ram Dass

Friday, January 27, 2017

Post-American Pride: DEATH RACE 2050 (Roger Corman Lives!)


Brought Gulliver-low through Lilliputian micro-managerial fascism on the one side and kamikaze cabinet-casting by a rabid right on the other, America--by which I mean me, the ghost of Woody Guthrie, and maybe you--are in serious trouble, maybe. To the left I say don't take it on me if I seem too slack for your food co-op committee; and to the right I say at least do dystopia right, as in public executions, televised death games for condemned prisoners, and cross-country road rage races with points awarded for pedestrians killed. Roger Corman can help you with that. And DEATH RACE 2050 is here - on Netflix, and perfect for an angry beer-and-rage-soaked wochenende. 

I confess, reader, I been blocked. I been brought low by horrific panic in all my usual sources of solace (even Facebook) I couldn't read another step, either from work or the news, or the terrifying cascade of perceived injustice not to mention my own aging face in the black mirror, but then DEATH RACE 2050 came and saved me. For not only does it satirize the Idiocracy of the Post-Trump America so trenchantly it feels pulled from tomorrow's headlines, it does so without making me get so angry I start to shake. Its overall blackly comic deadpan tone is its own tool for coping. I came to it in despair, and afterwards I was ready to rejoin the bloody race, the fucked-up nation, the American madness, with sails newly ripped by fertile breezes.

After all, when the world drowns in its own tears, we'd be fools not to jump in after it, like Ahab with a harpoon in hand. And Rise Again within the Hour!

In case you don't know, the original DEATH RACE 2000 (1975) was a huge hit for Roger Corman, with the terrific hook of a dystopian future where a national cross-country race includes drives raking up points by running over pedestrians. The celebrity maniac drivers included a young Sylvester Stallone as Joe Peturbo, David Carradine as Frankenstein (the hero), Mary Woronov as a cowgirl bull rider, and Roberta Collins as the Nazi-ed up Matilda the Hun. Directed by Paul Bartel, who left this world too soon or could have been another, slightly darker John Waters, It's a gem that's held up over the years remarkably well. Not only was I inspired to re-watch it after 2050, but its hilarious sequel DEATHSPORT, the Shout DVD of which includes a great Allan Arkush commentary track.

None of these have much in common with the Jason Statham remake and its sequels, on which Corman had no part, and which I tried to watch but are too dark, literally and figuratively. In the words of Tony Camonte's secretary, I like a show with jokes. Either way, the Bartel 1975 version is so good it shouldn't be sullied with comparison to anything except this new one, which stands up very well.

This version/update, produced by Roger  and Julie Corman and directed by G.J. Echternkamp, brings in Oculus Rift-stlyle headset and projection technology added to a grim and very plausible future in which 95% of the population are unemployed but don't care because their headset goggle things make their surroundings BLACK MIRROR bright (an artificiality that perfectly fits the film's copious use of green screen) Everyone lives in a state of besotted numbness, waking up only to clamor for blood at the big race. Malcolm McDowell is the fey president, a cross between Donald Trump (hair jokes), and a straight Elton John (he sits at his office flanked by broads feeding him grapes ala his stretch as CALIGULA and his CLOCKWORK ORANGE prison bible vision. He's the big name star here, of course, but his performance is kind of broad and too familiar to past dictators he's played, and brother he's played his share. Not that he's bad, at all. He's Malcolm. But the rest of the cast, holy shit!


First props in the great over-acting school of classic drive-in fare goes to foam-at-the-mouth Burt Grinstead, channeling the spirit of Dick Rude in REPO MAN as a closeted 'perfect male' and Anessa Ramsey as the fundamentalist Christian maniac Tammy ("All hail Saint Elvis Presley!"). She  plays her deranged cult leader like a true force of crazy nature she'd be right at home in FASTER PUSSSYCAT, KILL KILL, as would Yancy Butler as the leader of the resistance. Folake Olowofoyeku as an African American woman driver who pedals her vaporwave single (Drive! Drive! Kill! Kill!") while racing across redneck stretches of this post-Trump wasteland of a nation by day, and by night quietly confessing her dad is a history chair at Columbia; another car is driven by an AI computer (who promptly has an identity crisis) with the navigator a Ballard-CRASH style hedonist (Shanna Olsen); there's also sweet Marci Miller as Frankenstein's right hand woman (and a rebel assassin) and as Frankenstein himself is played by New Zealand male Manu Bennett. Shizz yeah, as April Wolfe points out "Roger Corman's 'Death Race 2050' is the only movie that matters in 2017" - girls is always right.


If you doubt it's got everything this year will need, just note, closely, the fine print on yonder device (above right) while bearing in mind the director's previously best-known feature was HARD CANDY over a decade ago--where he copped out at the big ball break. Here he's makin' up for it, even if the device is never successfully triggered or explained or even given its own ominous suspense cue. Marci Miller just whips it out and puts it in after the projection of rebel leader Yancy Butler berates her in the shower for not killing Frankenstein yet "as a symbol" (and Miller answers in song so Frankenstein in the next room doesn't hear her talking). It's just there for those of us who still can't figure the big castrati cop-out of HC. It don't matter, for here it fits like a glove in a layered free-for-all of metatextual green screen savagery so rife with piled-up details it never needs to explain its few confusing glitches. Evoking great Corman slap-dash jobs like Corman's underrated CREATURE FROMT THE HAUNTED SEA, DEATH RACE 2050 puts the man back into in the big leagues of the emerging realms of low-budget green-screen hipster sci-fi genre pastiche, ala JOHN DIES AT THE END, BOUNTY KILLER, KUNG FURY and IRON SKY. Don't even try to question why this kind of crunch car smash surreal green screen zip feels more real than most of Hollywood's gritty drama. That's just 'the future' and  you're already in it. I bet even now, there's a difference between how you see yourself in your mind's eye (and the mirror with good lighting), and in a selfie. Don't listen to that selfie, son or daughter. Just floor it on through, jump that uncanny valley and fear no hard landing future. Even if the next crunch you hear is your own hard candy cracking, thou wert only ever pixels.


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