A gritty action thriller presented by Universal Pictures in association with Relativity Media, Death Race (2008) transports viewers to a barren dystopian shell of America, where a brutal competition between imprisoned felons has become the national pastime. Fueled by the sheer volume of prisoners, a national preoccupation with violence, and the potential for private jailers to profit, the Death Race takes place in an expansive arena where hardened criminals go head-to-head in heavily modified cars. It is a violent spectator sport befitting of its name—a cacophony of bullets, clashing metal, and explosions that only concludes when one racer remains.
But some learn to thrive in this harsh environment. Jensen Ames is a steel mill worker struggling to provide for his family. He loses his job when the mill closes, and on the same day, someone frames him for the brutal murder of his wife. Ames is sent to Terminal Island Prison, where warden Claire Hennessey gives Ames a simple choice: participate in the Death Race and compete for his freedom under the guise of legendary masked driver Frankenstein, or live out his life in a cell. Ames accepts her offer, taking to the track for a grueling three-day marathon of violence and speed that serves as entertainment for the masses.
Death Race stars Jason Statham, Joan Allen, Ian McShane, Tyrese Gibson, and Natalie Martinez. Written, directed, and produced by famed sci-fi filmmaker Paul W.S. Anderson, the production required industry-leading creativity and technical expertise to bring its stylized dystopian world to life.
Filmmaking duo Paul W.S. Anderson and Jeremy Bolt, who also served as a producer on the project, had long been fans of producer Roger Corman and his original 1975 blend of action, sci-fi, and black comedy, Death Race 2000. A political satire inspired by the Ib Melchior story “The Racer,” the film presents a dystopian imagining of America in the year 2000. Ravaged by financial crisis and the fallout of a military coup, the American populace now answers to a single bipartisan, religiously affiliated police state while a consistent stream of ultraviolent entertainment keeps them preoccupied. Corman and director Paul Bartel’s original Death Race manifest as a cross-country marathon in which drivers earn points for not only speed, but also brutally running down pedestrians—a practice that has given rise to crazed fans who offer themselves as sacrifice. But one racer, the legendary Frankenstein, has formulated a plot to end the Death Race for good.
Paul W.S. Anderson and Jeremy Bolt have partnered on a number of projects and are the co-founders of C/W Productions. The pair first met Roger Corman at a screening of their debut film, Shopping (1994), at the 7th annual Tokyo International Film Festival and wasted no time in presenting the possibility of reworking his cult classic for modern audiences. With Corman on board, producer Paula Wagner optioned the idea immediately.
Death Race spent over a decade in the early phases of development, during which time Anderson expanded on the concept of his modernized retelling. Throughout the early 2000s, he drew inspiration from America’s growing interest in reality TV as he planned for a more gladiatorial Death Race that would be believable as, in the words of the writer-director, “the ultimate in reality television.”
While the producers and production designer of Death Race knew from the start that they would be creating a gritty dystopian world with the oppressive tone of a prison, much of the setting only began to take shape after the filmmakers pinpointed their ideal location. They eventually found the Alstrom train yard in the Pointe St. Charles district of Montreal to be a perfect fit for the exterior shots of the raceway, while an industrial warehouse on the property would allow them to construct interior sets for Terminal Island.
The Death Race crew constructed the various portions of the racetrack in separate areas of the train yard. To ensure they would present one continuous course in the completed film, Paul W.S. Anderson not only storyboarded the film, but also created a scale model of the set to allow special effects and stunt coordinators to visualize each scene.
Paul W.S. Anderson and production designer Paul Austerberry worked with two concept illustrators to design cars that would be easily recognizable amid the chaos of the Death Race while also reflecting the unrelenting brutality of the competition. Common cars like the Ford Mustang GT—the base model of Jensen Ames’ “Monster”—or Dodge Ram appear with crazy modifications like nitrous-oxide tanks, ejector seats, machine guns, rocket launchers, and even napalm.
Despite the on-set presence of 85 mechanics, the majority of the cars used during the production were barely in working order after filming wrapped. This was partially due to the crew’s dedication to filming stunts as realistically as possible. Save for some instances of wirework used to pull off a few of the more elaborately choreographed wrecks, most of the mid-air flips and crashes presented on screen are real. These were made possible by a number of innovative camera rigs, such as car hood mounts and protective crash boxes, that allowed the crew to capture up-close views of the action while protecting their equipment and themselves.
The extensive planning to execute Death Race’s elaborate scenes required stunt coordinator Andy Gill to create diagrams of each leg of the Death Race. His plans laid out not only the positions of each car, but also minute details such as the number of bullet holes visible during each lap.