When people claim that “bad on purpose,” winking-at-the-camera camp films of recent years aren’t ever as exciting as those of distant schlock cinema past, I don’t think they’re necessarily saying that, as a rule, intentional, “low” camp is by nature less engaging than bad-on-accident, “high” camp. I hope not, anyway. I just think there’s typically a laziness to straight-to-VOD/SyFy Channel schlock that stops at a premise or a title, say Shark Exorcist or Cowboys vs. Dinosaurs, without any thorough or passionate pursuit of where its initial ideas can lead. To put it simply, modern CG schlock is rarely as deeply weird as it’s advertised to be in its Ain’t This Weird?! titles. That doesn’t mean all “bad”-on-purpose cinema is worthless, though. Just look to last year’s camp cinema triumphs like The Love Witch, The Greasy Strangler, and Pee-wee’s Big Holiday to prove that’s not true. Modern camp just needs to keep in mind that its most memorable ancestors, from the likes of Roger Corman or John Waters or Ed Wood, were made with great filmmaking passion that covered up whatever shortcomings their microbudgets couldn’t. Even when their tone wasn’t genuine, their inherent weirdness was.
Death Race 2050 is a genuinely weird film. It isn’t much more than a R-rated version of straight-to-SyFy Channel schlock, but it makes its cheap camp aesthetic count when it can and it survives comfortably on its off-putting tone of deeply strange “bad”-on-purpose black comedy. Much more closely in line with the Paul Bartel-directed/Roger Corman-produced original film Death Race 2000 than its gritty, self-serious Paul W.S. Anderson remake, Death Race 2050 is a cheap cash-in on the combined popularity of Hunger Games & Fury Road and makes no apologies for that light-hearted transgression. Corman productions have a long history of cannibalizing the films they’ve influenced, like when Joe Dante’s Piranha film openly riffed on Jaws (which was essentially a Corman film on a Hollywood budget). The original Death Race 2000, along with countless other Corman productions, surely had an influence on both the Mad Max & Hunger Games franchises and it’s hilarious to see the tireless film producer still willing to borrow from his own spiritual descendants for a quick buck all these years later. It’s also funny to hear him describe Death Race 2050 as “a car racing picture with some black humor,” which is about the most mild-mannered way you could possibly put it. The movie is, more honestly put, a live-action cartoon bloodbath featuring broad comedic personalities that would make a pro wrestling promoter blush . . . with a little car racing thrown in for fun. It never tries to survive solely on the strength of its premise, but instead injects each possible moment with weird character details and ludicrous production design. That’s the open secret of its many minor successes.
The plot here is standard Death Race lore. A near-future dystopia known as The United Corporations of America enacts population control through a televised racing competition in which contestants earn points for each pedestrian they run over. Children & the elderly earn them extra. Each contestant has a pro wrestling-sized persona: an obnoxious pop music idol, a genetic freak with inner conflicts regarding his sexuality, a Texas Christian archetype who’s turned her faith into terrorist fanaticism. None are nearly as popular as Frankenstein, however. A cyborg crowd-favorite who has long remained masked, Frankenstein is the paradoxical heartless killer with a heart of gold. Because this film is at least partly a Fury Road knockoff, New Zealander Manu Bennett plays Frankenstein as a cheap Tom Hardy stand-in instead of a reflection of David Carradine’s work in the original film. He drives across the country racking up points, trying not to fall in love with his comely co-pilot/annoying audience surrogate, fighting off a misguided revolution, and ultimately taking aim at his most crucial foil: a CEO-type dictator who falls somewhere between Emperor Snow & Donald Trump (the film’s only casting “get,” Malcolm McDowell). Rapid montages of a pollution-crippled future mix with television gameshow gimmickry, dismembered body parts gore (both traditional & CG), a long list of pointless tangents (including an otherwise-useless scene that deliberarely points to its own minimum-effort satisfaction of The Bechdel Test), and a romance plot no one asked for to make this ultra-violent race across the country a consistently fun, if wholly predictable journey. Death Race 2050 never transcends the bounds of what it is: a straight-to-VOD trifle. It stands as an enthusiastically entertaining example of the format, though, one that pulls some weird punchlines like “When your DNA sleeps it dreams of me,” and “Looks like rain today . . . and enslavement by machines tomorrow” whenever it gets the chance.
The only glaring faults I can cite in Death Race 2050 are a total lack of chemistry between its dull protagonists (Frankenstein & his co-pilot) and a dinky production value that suffers under what must have been a microscopic budget. That’s not so bad for a shameless, winking-at-the-camera remake meant to capitalize on two unrelated franchises that have earned popularity in its original version’s wake. Although Death Race 2050 tries to update some of Death Race 2000‘s minor details for a modern context (VR goggles that look an awful lot like swimming goggles, a Donald Trump-like villain, a self-driving AI vehicle contestant, references to things like St. Dwayne The Rock Johnson & Bieber Elementary), its spirit is very much rooted in the genuine weirdness of the Paul Bartel original. It’s a difficult tone to strike, I presume, given how often these cheap CG camp exercises come off as lifeless, passion-free slogs. Through some simple production details (especially in its dystopian Rainbow Store costuming), a dedication to R-rated sex & gore, and a surprisingly authentic punk soundtrack, Death Race 2050 shines like a rare CG gem in a murky sea of unmemorable schlock. It’s loud, dumb, “bad-on-accident” fun, but in a deliberately strange fashion that never feels lazy or half-cooked the way its peers often do.