DVDanger: Death Race 2050
Plus jungle Sacrifice! and street punk Parasites
By Richard Whittaker,
9:00AM, Sat. Feb. 4, 2017
Another year, another Death Race movie with Roger Corman's name attached. Don't worry, if you lost track, Death Race 2050 is nothing at all to do with Paul W.S. Anderson's 2008 Death Race, or its prequels, or even 1975's Paul Bartel-directed midnight classic Death Race 2000.
Yes, the original and this somewhat remake have Corman's name above the title, but that's how the attention-hog exploitation master works. That's not to undermine his achievements as a director, but since 53 of his 56 directing credits come before 1972, and two since then were uncredited, he's really a producing guiding hand. Instead, this is actually G.J. Echternkamp's film, which is a real shock, considering it's hard to imagine any project more removed from his breakthrough movie, 2007's Frank and Cindy. A bizarre hybrid family history/music documentary, Echternkamp actually remade the story of his Eighties pop-rock father and his former superfan mother as a feature with Oliver Platt and Rene Russo in 2015. And now he's under the tutelage of Corman.
That's not necessarily a good thing. After all, the pop-art genius behind Vincent Price's Edgar Allan Poe cycle has been reduced to executive producer credits on flat schlock like the Sharktopus franchise. Yes, there is a Sharktopus franchise, and that may be the most depressing film-related sentence of the year.
The subtlety meter is cranked down to zero when Malcolm McDowell introduces the race as the chairman of the United Corporations of America. A Trump-esque figure with a flamboyant comb-over, he uses the Death Race to subdue the masses. This time it's Manu Bennett (taking a break from his much better work as Deathstroke on Arrow) under the iconic Frankenstein driving leathers and mask. The vehicular homicide antihero, originally played by David Carradine on an off-day from Kung Fu, is one of the drivers on a transcontinental race. Points aren't awarded for speed or style, but for running over bystanders.
The problem is that Corman (he wants the credit, he gets the blame) has created something that neither has the aggressive political satire of Robert Thom's script for the original (read our 2007 interview with Thom here), or the stunt-centric savvy of the reboots. Instead, it feels cheap and dumb, a rip-off of Idiocracy and The Hunger Games – a strange circularity, considering how much both arguably owe to his subversive classic.
It's all just wasted opportunities. Modern set dressing like VR, drones, and reality-television celebrities ape the original's spicy satire and make it feel dated. Marci Miller is given the task of carrying a subplot about an anti-race rebellion, but seems more like she's channeling Christine Taylor's quizzical bafflement in Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story than Simone Signoret in Army of Shadows. Similarly, Bennett's Frankenstein seems too affable and sensitive to ever become a four-wheel murder machine.
Maybe it's all just because this is irrelevant. Corman himself has called this a contemporary sci-fi action black comedy: Unfortunately for him, The Purge series has done all that with so much more bite and relevance.
Death Race 2050 (Universal) is available on DVD/Blu-ray combo now. Also out now:
It's not often that an exploitation rip-off of an arthouse landmark sparks a whole genre, but that's Umberto Lenzi's cannibal groundbreaker Sacrifice! (aka Il Paese del Sesso Selvaggio aka The Land of Savage Sex aka The Man From Deep River aka Mondo Cannibale, from Raro Video) for you.
Originally intended as a remote paradise porn by Thai author Marayat Bibidh (better known as Emmanuelle author Emmanuelle Arsan), it became infamous as a rip-off of Seventies dark Western A Man Called Horse. Italian horror regular Ivan Rassimov is the cut-price Richard Harris playing John Bradley, a posh (and very dubbed) British photographer in Thailand. He takes off to the jungle after stabbing a man in a bar, and ends up being kidnapped by a murderous tribe who think he's half fish. Yes, the racial stereotyping is laid on thick, with mid-Seventies Thailand depicted as a Stone Age hell. Over time, he adapts to their ways, and finds himself caught up in their war with neighboring cannibals.
As a massively insensitive "white man goes native" narrative, it's no Man Called Horse, and the "American on the run" story is done so much better in last year's Laotian thriller River. However, Sacrifice! is at least fascinating for writing the cannibal horror playbook: warring tribes, random skulls on poles, exploitation regular Me Me Lay, beautiful scenery, ill-timed nudity, weird rituals, oddly misplaced orchestral soft rock score, and, (sadly included here in full) animal abuse.
Sacrifice!'s biggest problem is that it's gory, but mostly in the worst ways, like the tribe killing alligators, and, naturally, the cockfights. The cannibal plot doesn't crop up until the last half-hour, which will leave the horror fans very disappointed. The rest is dated, soft-core travelogue.
The Thai jungle is pretty, though, and the inclusion of behind-the-scenes doc "Mondo Cannibale" is unmissable, if only for Lenzi whinging about his paycheck, co-scripter Francesco Barilli complaining about everyone, and Lay recalling games of badminton in her unexpected cut-glass English accent.
A very different kind of fish out of water in Parasites (108 Media), which arrives on VOD like a scummy piece of exploitation but, like the best exploitation, has some serious smarts under the grime. Director Chad Ferrin has carved a respectable well, maybe not respectable, but solid career churning out gutterpunk fun like Easter Bunny, Kill! Kill!. Here he riffs on "lost in the city" classics like The Warriors and Judgment Night, as three college kids get caught in the rough end of town, and find themselves hunted by the homeless.
Yet, this isn’t simply nice guys vs. street-level degenerates, but a dark and nuanced tale of gentrification where everyone may be the bad guy at any one moment. Gang leader Wilco (veteran character actor Robert Miano) paints himself as the hero of the homeless. "We're the last of the fucking Mohicans," he tells one of his gang as he posits a future where people like football star Marshall (newcomer Sean Samuels in a standout performance) "put a Starbucks on every corner, so some hip puke can walk his dog where we laid our heads."
However, Ferrin doesn't let him off the hook as some kind of messiah. Slugging a mix of tequila and meth, he's a sleazebag messiah, a crumbling maniac as likely to pummel his own followers as those he sees as an interloper. That’s much of why Parasites (no, I have no idea why this name) succeeds: because it’s a brutal, grueling survival horror in a recognizable setting. Fix it up as a double bill with Gabriel Carrer’s equally nihilist The Demolisher to eviscerate your remaining faith in humanity.