The director was a Sydney doctor who’d never made a feature film before, the leads were virtual unknowns and the budget was less than $500,000. To top it off, the film this ragtag team made was a mutant B-movie about a crumbling future Australia where motorcycle gangs and police officers squared off in automotive combat. Did anyone really know what we were about to get…
Thirty-six years after George Miller’s classic Mad Max was released, offering a scarifying new vision of Australia and our filmmaking capabilities, the movie easily stands as one of the most influential cinematic works in the medium’s modern history. A vengeful former police officer turned lone warrior in the post-apocalyptic wastelands, Mel Gibson’s Max Rockatansky became the vehicular equivalent of Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name, and the automotive mayhem that followed him was shot and edited with a razor-sharp intensity and thrilling momentum.
Together with the sequels Mad Max 2 in 1981 and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome in 1985, Mad Max has been the cultural equivalent of the 600 horsepower engine inside the V8 Interceptor that Max used to wreak havoc on his barbaric adversaries: a souped up accelerant of influences. With Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road gunning into cinemas on May 14, a mere three decades after Thunderdome and with Tom Hardy replacing Gibson, here’s a sampling of the many ways that the Mad Max trilogy has seeped into, seduced and straight up supercharged an unprepared world.
Not everyone liked Mad Max back in 1979 – “Ugly and incoherent,” claimed critic Tom Buckley in the New York Times, although the version he was watching had been dubbed because the Australian accents were apparently considered too thick – but those that did often tended to make their enthusiasm obvious. Movies that take inspiration from the original trilogy, which are three distinct films in their own right, range from the subtle to the outright remake. See below for a random sampling.
“1994, after the oil wars, after the destruction of the cities… Battletruck!” The wide-screen imagery of Mad Max 2, with punk-like marauders surrounding a tiny outpost of civilisation and oil, suggesting a western with the Native Americans besieging a cavalry outpost, proved ripe for cheap remakes, and few are cheaper than this New Zealand version, made for the American market, that puts the hero, Hunter (Michael Beck), on a futuristic motorbike, while his sadistic adversary, Straker (James Wainwright), commands the titular behemoth.
1990: The Bronx Warriors (1982)
The first two Mad Max films obviously struck a chord with Italian exploitation filmmakers, because there was a burst of knock-offs that had barbaric warriors battling in the post-apocalyptic ruins of America. To be fair, Enzo G. Castellari’s flick also liberally borrows from John Carpenter’s Escape From New York, although in this version it’s just the Bronx that has gone rogue. Nonetheless, the rows of bikers and columns of vehicles is a definite nod to Mad Max, as somehow also is the roller-skating murder gang The Zombies.
Wheels of Fire (1985)
Filipino director Cirio H. Santiago was a prodigious maker of low-budget exploitation films, sometimes in partnership with his more famous U.S. counterpart Roger Corman. Cheap, bloody action flicks were one of his many specialities, and in the 1980s he quickly knocked out several Mad Max remakes, including this post-apocalyptic adventure about “a stranger who drives like there’s no tomorrow”. Of course, what these ramshackle and sometimes comically shoddy reruns make clear is how good a filmmaker George Miller was, applying a formalist eye to the thrill of movement – his framing is masterful, each edit precise. Here? Not so much.
It’s not just the low-budget realm that fed off the vision of Miller and co-writers James McCausland and Terry Hayes. Waterworld, one of the most expensive blockbusters ever made – its endless shoot drew media comparisons to the folly that was Cleopatra – is essentially Mad Max 2 on water. The post-apocalyptic future is of an endless ocean, post the melting of the polar ice-caps, with Kevin Costner’s nameless anti-hero, The Mariner, scavenging the ocean in his trimaran before having to come to the aid of an isolated atoll attacked by seaborne marauders known as the Smokers; substitute jet skis for motorbikes and so on. Does it work? Yes, there’s spectacle, but it’s often panoramic and comparatively tame – no trimaran is going to evoke the up–through-the-gears propulsion of a V8 Interceptor.
The initial inspiration for expatriate Australian filmmaking team James Wan and Leigh Whannell’s low-budget horror hit was the closing scene of Mad Max, where Max handcuffs his final target, Johnny the Boy (Tim Burns) to a car wreck and leaves him with a hacksaw, a fuel leak, and the growing threat of being burnt alive; cutting through the handcuffs would take too long, but his ankle is another matter. Wan and Whannell used the same dilemma for the opening of Saw, where two men (played by Whannell and Cary Elwes) awaken in a large dilapidated bathroom at the contrivance of the monstrous Jigsaw Killer. There have since been a further six Saw pictures.
Now this is an homage. In English director Neil Marshall’s science-fiction action film, where Scotland has been abandoned following the spread of a nightmarish virus and the survivors have formed a feudal-meets-punk society, two of the characters are named Miller and Carpenter, nods to the director’s influences here. The nightmarish punks, who favour cannibalism and sport costumes that recalls The Humungus and Wez from Mad Max 2, run their own Thunderdome for unprepared southern visitors, and the film culminates in a car chase through the Scottish highlands, complete with retrofitted vehicles, that keeps the camera low to the ground until the inevitable crashing through of a stationary vehicle.
Even from the low-budget beginnings of Mad Max, the costume and production design served a purpose, and in the sequels it became a rich source of imagery. The six years that encompasses the three films is roughly equivalent to the birth and rise of MTV and the primacy of video-clip culture. If you’ve got three minutes to make an impression, a little Mad Max goes a long way.
Billy Idol - 'Dancing With Myself' (1981)
With his peroxide hair, permanent sneer and punk heritage, Billy Idol looked like he’d sprung fully formed from the extras on Mad Max 2. This clip, helmed by The Texas Chain Saw Massacre director Tobe Hooper, adds an adolescent army of post-apocalyptic children that recall Emil Minty’s Feral Kid, although there’s no sign of the outback urchin’s deadly boomerang.
Duran Duran – “The Wild Boys” (1984)
One of the first video-clips to cost more than US$1 million, director and long-time collaborator Russell Mulcahy had inspired Duran Duran’s hit single by giving the English pop idols a synopsis of the titular William S. Burroughs novel, but the video he subsequently made for them draws liberally on Mad Max 2. Simon Le Bon, let it be said, is no Max Rockatansky.
2Pac feat. Dr. Dre – 'California Love' (1995)
Tupac Shakur’s first single following his release from jail was directed by Hype Williams and features a recreation of the vast metallic cage that updated the Roman arena in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome before the African-American cast traverse the desert in suitably familiar vehicles.
Beyonce – 'Run the World (Girls)' (2011)
Beyonce might arrive in this big budget video clip on horseback, but the tableaux shot by feature director Francis Lawrence (the second and third Hunger Games features) for a battle of the sexes face-off reference the post-apocalyptic glamour that seeped into Tina Turner’s portrayal of Aunty Entity in Beyond Thunderdome.
The television commercial often relies on introducing a product by suggesting a link, however unrealistic, to something desirable and familiar. The Mad Max films were never merchandised (although who wouldn’t want themed action figures), but Miller’s work nonetheless fed into the advertising industry.
Nissan 300ZX (1990)
Directed by Ridley Scott, no less, and only screened once during America’s most watched television event, the NFL’s annual Superbowl match-up, because of fears it promoted illegal street racing, this sleek paean to speed and freedom cops a few Miller moves on a high-tech road in the obligatory desert setting.
The Voice (2015)
The geek inciting trailers for Mad Max: Fury Road had already made themselves known by the time the hit U.S. reality singing competition series put together this typically ostentatious promo, yet it’s Beyond Thunderdome – and ‘California Love’ – that this advert references. The bastardised crowd chant, changed to reflect the show’s format, is a nice touch, although as far as I know the program has not yet featured anyone who looks like Master or Blaster.
From ready-to-wear to haute couture, the fashion industry is ravenous for inspiration, with designers finding ideas for each collection in endlessly disparate locations. It was inevitable that the increasingly striking look of the Mad Max movies would arrive on the catwalk. Writing in the New York Times in 1997, fashion doyen Suzy Menkes would annotate one outbreak: “After a period of abstinence, accessories are back in fashion, and they come sharp and hard: stainless steel cuffs and chokers, lacquered aluminium bags and spiky stiletto heels.” Miller and his designers had given a futuristic imprint to the nascent punk movement, and fashion in turn tweaked them so that they served glamour when sported by this year’s models.
Alexander McQueen (Autumn, 2012)
The accoutrements that punctuate Sarah Burton’s collection for the house of McQueen are an expensively wrought descendent of the original down and dirty vehicular imagery that permeates Mad Max and Mad Max 2. Windshields and mirrors are recast as sleek visors, while a belt has the metallic impact of a car speeding towards the camera. The dresses are organic, the essential accessories literally driven.
Films such as Bullitt and The French Connection invented the modern care chase in the movies, but they didn’t have the influence upon motor vehicle culture that Mad Max did. The cars in George Miller’s movies looked like an extension of their characters, and when they were damaged or destroyed it felt right that their drivers perished with them – the relationship between man and machine was symbiotic.
Custom Lego V8 Interceptor
Perhaps the ultimate tribute to the car that Max drove is this customised Lego version. Fans of the movies have been modifying their own real-life version of the V8 Interceptor virtually since Mad Max was released (not to mention the whole Jim Goose subculture), but there’s something culturally complete about a Lego rendition. It brings the picture’s influence full circle: tomorrow’s potential drivers can play at being Max today.
There’s an official Mad Max video game for the PlayStation, Xbox and PC due in September, which lets the player take Max into an open world environment where they can explore by foot and car, ram and fight other drivers, scavenge for provisions, and naturally modify his vehicle to make it faster and stronger. Sadly, no sign of Angry Anderson’s Ironbar. But the structure of Mad Max’s storytelling and the iconic protagonist have long influenced video games, where the driving genre is a constant in an ever changing culture.
There’s a reason this vintage first and third driving game, where the player can attack other vehicles, venture into towns on foot to seek fuel, and dodge petrol bomb-wielding bikers, looks like it was literally adapted from Mad Max 2. The Sega and Super Nintendo game was developed as an official licence, but the publisher Mindscape lost the rights to make a Mad Max video game and had to quickly rebrand the finished game. Readers of a certain age may find themselves strangely nostalgic for blocky graphics and clunky gameplay, younger readers may be flummoxed.
Ever thought to yourself, ‘Hey, I’d really like to spend the week partying in a post-apocalyptic environment where there’s more mushroom than gasoline and the people who resemble Toecutter aren’t necessarily going to murder me?’ Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Burning Man, the annual festival in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert that serves as an experiment in community, art, and radical self-expression. It might not be Max’s world, but as with so many elements in our culture over the last few decades, it wouldn’t exist without him.