Roger Corman is not a visionary. But he is a prophet foretelling the future.
In 1954, the notoriously thrifty B-movie/genre director pioneered the multi-picture deal, selling his low-budget Fast and the Furious to American Releasing Corp. with a guaranteed two-movie advance — Universal eventually licensed the film/title for one of the most successful movie franchises ever. In 1967, when he was directing Peter Fonda, Susan Strasberg and Bruce Dern in the psychedelic LSD film The Trip, the U.S. government prepared to ban the synthetic drug, leading to a wave of controversy and free publicity for the movie. And in 1975, Corman’s outrageous political satire Death Race 2000 — in which WrestleMania-type drivers race across a dystopian America, murdering people for points — demonstrated an eerie prescience for the increasingly violent entertainment that would come to usurp American prime time.
Now Corman is back again, with Death Race 2050, a film I watched with a kind of blissful glee before the 2016 presidential election, and one that I’m now, like a lunatic, butting into every political conversation: “It’s just like Death Race 2050!”
“Death Race is a car-racing picture with some black humor,” Corman tells me. “But underneath all that, the movie reflects something of today’s world, which is a little bit darker than the world when I made the original.”
When Corman talks about his latest low-budget gem, which is getting a straight-to-DVD release from Universal, he’s characteristically measured. There's something to his deep, melodic tones that suggests he’s gathered me round the hearth to tell the story of America’s demise.
You could be forgiven for mistaking his description of the first Death Race for talk about the headlines:
“The United States of America has become the United Corporations of America. The president is the chairman [Malcolm McDowell], and he has a slight comb-over in his hair.”
Not every Death Race has been so engaged. Corman feels the 2008 Jason Statham remake had great action and characters, but he laments the “unfortunate situation in which the $200 million pictures don’t have a deeper meaning, because the studio must play it somewhat safe.”
“This is why independent or lower-budget films can afford to take chances to be revolutionary,” Corman says.
But the crucial element the remake really lacked? Pedestrian deaths.
“I came up with the idea that the drivers get points for killing pedestrians — that was a completely original idea,” he tells me. “In the society in the movie, there is a small rich group at the top, and a large group of poor people, and entertainment was used to satisfy them. People have always been interested and fascinated by seeing violence — football or boxing or mixed martial arts — but I started thinking about how can I go the alternate route and bring the audience into the violence. And it’s what made the original Death Race do so well.”
Corman says he hadn't considered reviving the property until an Italian journalist interviewed him and started talking about how the Hunger Games series was quite similar to Corman’s original film. A light bulb snapped on. Hunger Games is a moneymaker, and if that franchise could do well with the same kind of political allegory, then what might happen if a new Death Race was made on a tight budget?
“I called Universal, and I said, ‘You did a good job, but you’ve taken out the killing of the pedestrians and the broken-society themes,’” he says. The studio bit, asking immediately if he would do an updated version.
The characters in this film include: a man genetically engineered for masculine perfection who is also probably closeted; a self-driving car awakening to his own horrifying consciousness; a hip-hop mogul whose big hit is a song that just repeats “Kill, Kill, Kill, Drive, Drive, Drive” over and over; and my personal favorite, Tammy the Terrorist, a racist maniac hell-bent on winning for her God, Saint Elvis Presley, while all of her loyal followers happily sacrifice themselves for her cause.
“I spent the most time on Tammy because I was thinking about terrorism, and I preferred to stay away from ISIS,” Corman says. “There have been more terrorist attacks of Americans against Americans than ISIS against Americans, so I specifically wanted her to be an American woman.”
He thought of every cult or religion he could, but the most glaringly obvious, contemporary cult of worship was right there in front of him: pop culture.
“On the first death, Tammy says, ‘All hail Saint Elvis Presley.’ The line just came to me,” he says, “and I invented her religion, where sometimes she’s quoting Michael Jackson and sometimes the Bible, and that’s her terrorist fundamentalism.”
And in a time when California is begging Uber to halt its self-driving cars for running red lights and nearly nicking pedestrians, Corman’s sentient vehicle is pure, prescient gold. The car goes rogue, traversing a barren landscape while sputtering meandering thoughts about life, but is so dependent on the humans who made him it can’t even fill its own gas tank — solar power was clearly not adopted.
“We’re creating entities that can think for themselves,” Corman says. “Will they compete with human beings? It’s fairly clear that things are pointing in that direction, and the fact that a computer or entity may become conscious of itself, think for itself and possibly become a danger to humanity is there.” But before he can get too apocalyptic, he reiterates, happily, that in Death Race “it’s done with humor.”
“It’s very important that these political and social comments be in the film,” Corman says. “But they’re beneath the surface. It’s a car-racing black comedy, and the audience must see that. First, they must see all the laughs.”
That formula has been a magic one for Corman for a good half-century, so why should the nonagenarian Cassandra stop now? Entertain, but with a message for the future — on a budget, of course.