Steve Turner
Former Editor, 5.0 Mustang & Super Fords
October 1, 2008
Photos By: Courtesy of Universal Pictures
Think S197 Mustang meets '82 GT meets Apache helicopter and you get the vibe of the wreck-tech effect laid on the latest Mustang by Death Race production designer Paul Austerberry. The result is Frankenstein's Monster, an appropriate steed for the most popular inmate racer on Terminal Island.

Horse Sense: Jason Statham is well known for driving movies like The Transporter movies, and now Death Race. When asked what his favorite car flick is, Jason says Bullitt is his top car movie of all time. Can you say remake?

A cold mist falls outside a rail yard and train factory along the waterfront outside Montreal, Canada. Crumbling warehouses set the stage for post-apocalyptic decay. A crew hustles into position, and I jockey for a place as the shout of "Action!" turns the decrepit scene into Terminal Island, host to the latest reality craze, Death Race. Nine armor-plated, heavily armed vehicles barrel around the corner. Tires squeal, gunshots ring out, a car explodes, and the scene is over. This is but an instant of what promises to be a nonstop romp of automotive carnage in the latest Hollywood reimagination of a familiar cult film.

This time around, there isn't a cross-country race with points awarded for running over pedestrians. The modern Death Race is hosted inside a prison complex known as Terminal Island wherein prisoners take place in a life-and-death race to the finish line, with the promise that if they win five races, they will be set free. When the most popular racer, Frankenstein, is killed, a replacement is needed. Jason Statham's character, Jensen Ames, a former racing champion with a troubled past, is framed, sent to Terminal Island, and "encouraged" by the warden to take the place of Frankenstein. No one will be the wiser because Jensen will don Frankenstein's metal mask and drive his famous car, Monster.

The massive beast on the left is the Dreadnought, which is part tank and part tanker equipped with various machine guns and flamethrowers. If this all has a familiar Mad Max vibe, it's no mistake-Paul W.S. Anderson was influenced by The Road Warrior, just as that movie's director, George Miller, was influenced by the original Death Race.

The car is the reason I'm writing about Death Race, and not because the movie looks like a great popcorn flick, but because Frankenstein's Monster is none other than a Mustang. What else could it be after all? If you're in it to win it, you want a performance car. Even though a Challenger was briefly considered, the Mustang got the nod to be Jason's co-star, and I can't think of a better antidote to the glossy cheese of Knight Rider than the gritty authenticity of Death Race.

And authentic it is. Writer and director Paul W.S. Anderson is best known for his video game flicks, including Mortal Combat and the Resident Evil series. While those movies are obviously full of computer-generated imagery, Paul really wanted to make Death Race ring true, just like one of his favorite films, The Road Warrior. "I wanted to kind of go back to the old-school way of making car chases," Paul says. "You mash them together, and when they hit concrete blocks, they spin through the air. So that's a much more difficult way to make a movie. I think it's a more satisfying way, because it's more visceral."

From the cockpit, Frankenstein's Monster is part race car and part war machine, with a rollcage, exposed gauges, and plenty of switch gear to control all manner of weaponry, including machine guns, oil slicks, and fiery napalm. Other modifications include RCI five-point harnesses, an RCI fuel cell, and a trunk-mounted battery.

And visceral it is. Besides witnessing the carnage and mayhem that will make up Death Race, I was able to visit the on-set shop charged with keeping these cars alive. Picture Car Coordinator Dennis McCarthy, who helped bring in the cars for the film from L.A., says he's never been involved in a car movie with hours like this one, as the actors would smash up cars that had to be repaired and running the next day for shooting. In fact, two 13-hour shifts of special-effects crews, numbering 40 during the day and 30 at night, ran to keep these cars going for the shoot.

Paul describes the cars as tanks and says that with the shooting and crashing going on between the tank-like cars, Death Races comes off as more of a war movie than a racing movie. Of course, if you're going to film an automotive war movie without a lot of CGI, you're going to break few eggs to make that omelet. Imagine your Mustang's wheels being pushed back into the firewall and having it running the next day. That is the kind of miracle achieved by the Death Race crew. Nice work, fellas.

More than a few Mustangs went into making Frankenstein's Monster come to life. In fact, there were six total. Some were base cars that were cut up and configured for in-car filming or close ups. They even had a GT500 that died early on, and the engine came out of that car to star in a scene where the Frankenstein's crew is dyno-testing the Monster's engine. Don't be confused: The cars that are doing all the high-speed stunts are Mustang GTs that were sent off to Roush to have performance mods added, including a Ford Racing Performance Parts supercharger upgrade.

As Dennis explains, they needed the power to spin the tires and motivate a Mustang burdened by the weight of the faux armor plating and weaponry imagined by production designer Paul Austeberry. Even though much of the plating resembles metal, it's really plastic, but all that stuff adds up. Despite the rough duty and crash damage that mandated shipping in plenty of spare parts from L.A., Dennis explains that the Mustangs were reliable and never had a mechanical failure that wasn't related to a crash. That is Ford tough!

Self-proclaimed car geek Jason Statham was instantly attracted to the Jensen Ames role in Death Race when he saw the illustrations that inspired these vehicles.

I certainly felt tough as I slid past the rollcage into the Kirkey seat of one of the hero Mustangs designated for close-up interior shots. With its stripped-down demeanor, the Death Race Mustang exuded the ambiance of a Mustang drag car fused with an Apache attack helicopter. Carefully crafted with a raw style Paul accurately describes as "wreck tech," Frankenstein's Monster features plenty of switches and gauges, an absence of creature comforts (save for a CD player), and a well-worn aesthetic you won't see at your local Mustang show. It's a look that takes an S197 Mustang to a place in the not-so-distant future where reality TV meets the Internet in a voyeuristic battle.

I'll be thinking about sitting in the Monster when Death Race hits the theaters on August 22, but I'll take solace in the thought that after all that abuse, two of the movie Mustangs survived.