Anytime a film comes down the pipe that’s directed by an ex-rock video director or somehow connected to a musician, Sam passes that flick my way. (Grazie, amico mio.) And if it’s a forgotten, classic flick that I am reviewing for an “Exploring” or “Drive-In Friday” featurette, or a tribute week — such as, for example, reformed porn-turned-rock video director Gregory Dark giving us the radio romp Night Rhythms during our “Radio Week”* — rest assure that review will be music trivia top-heavy (or bottom heavy, as the case may be).
Such is this review for Roger Corman’s Death Race 2050.
Now, I know what you’re thinking: This is a week dedicated to the films — and the rip-offs and the precursors (such as Corman’s own 1954 film, The Fast and the Furious) — to the 21st century Fast & Furious franchise. Death Race is a franchise unto itself. And what does this have to do with rock music? Is this another one of your reviews, R.D, rife with tangents and non-sequiturs that have nothing to do with reviewing the actual film itself?
Yep. Strap on your feedbag.
So, we all know the backstory on how we ended up with 1975’s Death Race 2000, right: How, long before Corman dreamed up the DR: 2050 version, the first “sequel” to Death Race 2000 was actually 1978’s Deathsport. And the reason Corman made either film was because he wanted a “futuristic action sports film”*+ in the drive-ins to take advantage of the publicity surrounding 1975’s Rollerball starring James Caan (oddly enough, of Red Line 7000). And that Corman optioned “The Racer,” a dark, short story by Ib Melchoir about the Transcontinental Road Race (The Angry Red Planet, Robinson Crusoe on Mars, Journey to the Seventh Planet, Planet of Vampires**). And under the satirical thumb of Paul Bartel, stripped away all of the dread that made Rollerball great and, instead, gave us a live-action version of Hanna-Barbera’s ’60s cartoon, The Wacky Racers?
What you may not know: After working with Universal Studios on a deal to license The Fast & the Furious title for their burgeoning action franchise, Corman and Universal came together again as result of the studio also turning Corman’s Death Race 2000 into a theatrical reboot and profitable, direct to home-video franchise. (At one time the project was at Paramount with Tom Cruise producing and starring: we got Days of Thunder, instead.)
The idea for the 2050 sequel came to fruition when an Italian journalist interviewing Corman commented The Hunger Games shared a similar (camp) cinematic style, as well as the social and political themes explored in Death Race 2000. So Corman reached out to Universal, who produced Paul W. S. Anderson’s 2008 remake, with a plan to bring back the dark, sociopolitical satire of the original — and the killing of pedestrians. Universal was on board: the studio co-produced the film that became Death Race 2050 with Corman’s New World for the home video streaming market.
As is the case with most “sequels” (see Escape from New York vs. Escape from L.A., The Evil Dead vs. Evil Dead II: Dead by Dawn, and Phantasm vs. Phantasm II), Corman took no chances and stuck to the architecture of the 1975 film, albeit with higher quality, CGI-enhanced production values.
It’s the year 2050 and America is controlled by the United Corporations of America, a corporate government ruled by The Chairman (a pseudo-Donald Trump well-played by the always awesome Malcolm McDowell; it’s all about the hair). As with the world of Rollerball in the year 2018: the government has devised The Death Race: a violent, bloody road race that runs from Old New York to New Los Angeles as a form of brainwashing entertainment — and as a form of population control: drivers score points for killing pedestrians and any travels stupid enough to be on the road during the game. And the “Jonathan E.” of the game — the half-man half-machine Frankenstein (a very good Manu Bennett, who you know as Azog the Defiler in the Hobbit film trilogy) — is thrust into political intrigue by his rebel spy navigator.
Is it loud . . . but stupid? Is it uber cheesy (more so than the original) . . . but tasty? It is it campy and crazy? Do we get the delight of Yancy Butler instead of the brood of Jennifer Lawrence? Is it as frantically unhinged as anything Allan Arkush, Paul Bartel, and Joe Dante put together for Roger Coman? YES to all! It’s a pure ’70s drive-in exploitation homage to the movies that we love here at B&S About Movies. And we hope to see more from the director. . . .
Okay, now for the rock ‘n’ roll connection we teased earlier:
Who did Corman entrust this sequel-cum-reboot to? The step-son of a washed-up, one-hit wonder ’80s musician. A successful editor, cinematographer, and screenwriter with several shorts and documentaries to his credit, G.J. Echternkamp (who also co-starred on ABC-TV’s How to Get Away with Murder), walked away with several “Best Director” awards for his feature film debut, the 2007 documentary Frank & Cindy, that tells the story of his blonde bombshell of a mother and his step-dad, Frank Garcia, an alcoholic, ’80s one-hit wonder musician who, out of love-pity, Cindy lets live in her basement. Frank was the bassist in the band OXO, who scored a 1983 U.S Top 30 hit with “Whirly Girl.”
And based on the success of the documentary, and the successful airing of a documentary of its production on the Showtime docu-series This American Life (Season 1: Episode 4), the story became a 2015 comedy starring Oliver Platt as Frank Garcia and Rene Russo as Cindy.
What’s that? You say you don’t remember “Whirly Girl” or OXO? Well, good for you. You didn’t spend countless hours wasting away in front of MTV.
But perhaps these (embedded) clips from their American Bandstand appearance (Frank is the one in the green one-piece jumpsuit) or their appearance on Solid Gold will warm those analog cockles. And yes, we found a copy of their highly-rotated MTV video. . . .
Oh, and get this: Cynthia Brown and Frank Garcia got jobs — as well as their son, G.J. Echternkamp — working for Roger Corman after he was impressed with the 2007 film. Which leads us back to: Death Race 2050!
And so ends another rock ‘n’ roll celluloid adventure from the analog ethers. Send all of your complaints to Sam. For it was his dreaming up a “Rock ‘n’ Roll Films Week” (that ran Sunday, July 19 to Sunday, July 25) and a “Fast & Furious Week” (now running from Sunday, August 2 to Saturday, August 8) that blessed — or cursed — you with this review.
Sam, you’re an OCD-lovin’ movie packrat, brother. Love ya, man.
* Be sure to join us for our “Exploring: Radio Stations on Film” roundup overflowing with links to all of our reviews of movies set inside radio stations.
** Be sure to join us for our “Exploring (Before Star Wars): The Russian Antecendents of 2001: A Space Odyssey,” which runs downs the influences of numerous films from the ’50s through ’70s, including Ib Melchoir’s.
*+ There’s more “Deadly Game Shows” to be had with our review of Elio Petri’s granddaddy of ’em all: 1965’s The 10 Victim, which includes links to all of the deadly sports films you love.