I was watching producer Roger Corman's brilliant B-classic, DEATH RACE 2000 the other night, and while I was watching it, I was constantly thinking about the sure-to-be-horrible remake coming up toward the end of the summer. How in the world does anyone think this movie can 1) be viably remade for today's market while keeping its subversive nature intact, and 2) needs to be remade at all? The idea of a remake is not a new one, nor will I argue an invalid one. Some of the best motion pictures of all time have been remakes, including THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (remake of THE SEVEN SAMURAI), SORCERER (remake of WAGES OF FEAR), and JOHN CARPENTER'S THE THING. So I'm not going to sit here and argue that remakes are evil and unnecessary.
I will, however, bring up that Hollywood in particular tends to remake far more films than need be, and usually in a far more inept way than the original, supposedly "inferior" films were. Setting aside the rash of PG-13 JHorror remakes aimed at teens, I instead want to focus on remakes that are a bit more puzzling, including the relatively recent releases HALLOWEEN, THE HILLS HAVE EYES, and DEATH SENTENCE, as well as discussing upcoming remakes/reboots (the Hollywood Executives' phrase- a'la mode.)
The DEATH RACE remake seems to me an unnecessary one simply because the original epitomizes everything one would ever hope to achieve in a movie called DEATH RACE 2000. There's nudity, gore, outrageous dialogue, a seriously black streak of comedy/commentary, and of course, the cars themselves, designed in low-budget futuristic glory by James Powers. Unless the screenplay for the remake culls everything exactly from the story on which the Corman film was loosely based, I just can't see the point of putting the exact same characters through the exact same motions other than upping the production values. That in and of itself is something that is almost laughable, with even the most bloated of budgets spent on CGI offering up a lot of crap (see the horrible effects work on display in I AM LEGEND, for intance), and that's really the only difference between a lot of the films made in the 1970s and today. CG is king, and that's why I think last year's brilliant DEATH PROOF, for example, is a hundred times more thrilling than stupid, stupid green screen and wire work that passes for "stunts" in today's films, and it's why the original DEATH RACE film will be more memorable than whatever gets churned out by the Hollywood remake factory.
Setting aside DEATH RACE for a moment, take a look at a couple of remakes that are as good as, or better than, or so different from their original source material that they validate their own existence. THE HILLS HAVE EYES, remade by Alexandre Aja into an ultraviolent retro-kitsch exploitation film, is better than the Wes Craven original only by a narrow margin, simply because it goes for the throat in every imaginable way, including creating characters that are fleshed out enough to care about, as well as monsters that are truly horrifying. The major differences between this and the original are negligible, but the style and subtext have been beefed up quite a bit, and the film becomes something all its own. HALLOWEEN, remade by Rob Zombie, is a film that differs substantially from the John Carpenter film, though in mostly good ways. While I won't say that Zombie's film is better (I don't think it is), I will say that it's much more interested in the monster than Carpenter's original, and therefore works by its own set of rules, creating a sort of hybrid/genre remix horror/domestic drama - a form that he began devoloping with THE DEVIL'S REJECTS in 2005. Both Aja and Zombie create films from the source that update the anxieties facing the modern viewers, and up the ante as far as the implications of their movies. The horror genre has always been a gauge of social anxiety, and Zombie and Aja prove that their updates of seminal films from the 1970s, arguably the last great decade for American horror, are valid extensions of the original films that incorporate just enough of today's world to terrify us all over again.
Last year's DEATH WISH remake, DEATH SENTENCE, starring Kevin Bacon, is a step in the opposite direction from the HALLOWEEN and THE HILLS HAVE EYES remakes. The first misstep is that the film's violence is meant to be "cool", something that, while present in the original film, is not the message, even though in later sequels it was the only thing holding proceedings together. The Charles Bronson classic is a film that stays with audiences because it doesn't feel ham-fisted. Bronson looks like the everyman, and the film's story never feels completely contrived. The one-man vigilante justice theme is a bit far-fetched, but only in that he continues to get away with it, not that he goes out and does it. In the remake, not only is the audience expected to buy that Kevin Bacon's character gets away with it, but that in no time flat he turns into a badass able to take on an entire gang in a very bloody shootout all by himself. It's just not good enough to warrant the effort. To add insult to injury, DEATH WISH is in the works to be remade yet again, this time by the original studio, MGM, and is to be written, directed by, and starring Sylvester Stallone. Sheesh already.
And that brings me back to DEATH RACE 2000, a film that Stallone got one of his first leading roles in as "Machine Gun" Joe Viterbo. A remake seems unneccesary only insofar as I can see nothing new being added to it. But, maybe like THE HILLS HAVE EYES and HALLOWEEN, there will be some validity to it after all. Still, leaving remakes in the hands of less-than-capable directors (DEATH RACE is being made by Paul WS Anderson, who has only made one film of note in EVENT HORIZON) reeks of simple greed and the desire to cash in on name recognition with a popular audience that increasingly has no respect for film history or classic cinema. Frankly, the studios would probably make more money simply re-releasing these classics into theaters rather than spend the millions and millions to remake them outright, but then, who would come to see them? I, for one, would. And I bet a whole lot more people than even I give credit to would as well. As for remaking things nonstop (look at Hollywood's release schedule: well over half of 2008's scheduled releases are remakes/reboots/or sequels), I would just like to plead that the studios at least embark on these projects as something more than the supposed cash cows they see them as.