Mad Max (1979)



George Miller

Mel Gibson (Max Rockatansky), Joanne Samuel (Jessie Rockatansky), Hugh Keays-Byrne (Toecutter), Steve Bisley (Jim Goose), Roger Ward (Fifi), Tim Burns (Johnny the Boy), Geoff Parry (Bubba Zenetti)

Fuel Shortages/Societal Breakdown

“A vision of an apocalyptic future set in the wastelands of Australia. Total social decay is just around the corner in this spectacular cheap budget gang orientated road movie, where the cops do their best to lay down the law and the outlaw gangs try their hardest to defy the system. Leather clad Max Rockatansky husband, father and cop turns judge, juror and executioner after his best friend, wife and baby are killed. Here we see the final days of normality of a man who had everything to live for, and his slip into the abyss of madness. Mad Max is the antihero on the road to vengeance and oblivion.” -written by user Cinema_Fan on

So there’s a new Mad Max movie coming out this week and in honor of that I am not only doing a Doomsday Reels article on an off week, I’m doing three. Yes, in the spirit of a new link in the franchise I’m gonna do an article on all three Mad Max movies. The Road Warrior will publish on Wednesday and Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome will be out Friday for the premiere of Mad Max: Fury Road.

Mad Max is probably the most famous post-apocalyptic movie of all time, it is also one of the key films that made me decide to widen the scope of this column to dystopian movies as well because, like its American cousin Escape From New York, this story is firmly pre-apocalypse with a fully functioning society still in place for the full run-time of the movie.  Most of what people think of when they think of Mad Max kind of melds in with its very post-apocalyptic sequels, but for the first movie things are simply in decline.

There are many different sources on the reason for the setting of the film, Director George Miller has cited the fuel shortage in Australia in the mid 1970s as an inspiration, but I’m willing to bet that a lot of it was budgetary.  I think it was simply cheaper to film a cop-turned-vigilante film where the cars were expected to look a bit dinged up and the police could be headquartered in what appears to be an abandoned building, and the uniforms could be a home spun mix of fetish gear and football pads.

Mad Max is a classic example of my favorite principle of storytelling: it doesn’t have to be original so long as it’s interesting.  Mad Max is a pretty standard revenge story centering around a biker gang gone out of control and the one man who will put them back in order.  Functionally, this is a remake of Tom Laughlin’s The Born Losers just with a slight Sci-Fi twinge.  This movie is really hard to summarize without spoiling the whole thing, so just skip the block of text between the next two pictures if you somehow haven’t seen it and want to be surprised.

Mad Max - 01

We  open on a car chase as a group of police officers attempt to catch a howling maniac calling himself The Nightrider who has killed a police officer and run off in one of their faster cars; a V8 “Pursuit Special.”  After many failed attempts by the officers, only Max Rockatansky (Mel Gibson) is left to catch the criminal and he gives chase.  The Nightrider begins crying after Max wins a game of chicken and accidently crashes into a fuel truck, causing a massive explosion that kills him and his girlfriend.

Nightrider’s friends, a biker gang led by Toecutter (Hugh Keays-Byrne), roll into the area looking to cause trouble as retribution for their friends’ death.  They chase down a couple in a car and rape and injure the pair of them.  A particularly dumb biker by the name of Johnny the Boy (Tim Burns) is left at the scene and Max and his friend Goose (Steve Bisley) arrest him to face charges for the crime.  No one shows up for the court case so Johnny is released without a charge, this angers Goose, who beats Johnny.

To get back at Goose, the bikers sabotage his motorcycle and then attack him on the road as he’s taking it in a truck back to the station.  He flips over in a field and they ignite the gas spilling from the engine.  Goose is alive, barely, but is apparently so disfigured that Max loses his hard-on for law enforcement and decides to leave the force.

The expectation is that Toecutter and his crew will attempt to chase down Max for his part in Nightrider’s death and Johnny’s arrest, but it’s random happenstance that causes Max and Toecutter to meet up again.  Max takes his wife Jessie and infant son on vacation to the countryside.  When the couple stop to get a tire repaired, Jessie goes to get ice cream and runs into the gang.  She knees toecutter in the groin and drives off, another biker loses a hand when the chain he’s swinging gets caught in the luggage rack on the vehicle’s roof.

The bikers follow Max and Jessie to their country hideaway and lure Max out into the woods only to chase after Jessie.  Jessie attempts to flee by car, but the engine breaks down and she’s forced to retreat down the highway on foot, holding her child in her arms.  They’re run down by the bikers and Max arrives too late to find them mangled on the highway.

After some personal reflection, Max dons his police uniform, borrows a super-charged car from the lock-up (a deleted scene apparently dealt with the murder of the other officers at the hands of Toecutter’s gang) and Max heads out to exact revenge.  It’s actually surprising how tame the violence is in this part of the movie, given its infamous nature: four of the bikers are hit by the pursuit special as they attempt to cross a bridge, one is bloodlessly shot off his bike, and even Toecutter just ends up running into the front end of a semi-truck in an attempt to escape (the goriest the scene gets is when we see his eyes bulge out of his face cartoonishly, echoing Nightrider’s at the beginning of the movie, just before he gets pancaked.)

The most brutal death is still entirely bloodless, just brutal in how its staged.  Max comes upon Johnny the Boy, the last surviving gang member, attempting to steal a dead man’s boots at a car accident.  Max handcuffs his leg to the vehicle and sets up a lighter to ignite the gasoline leaking from the engine and throws a hacksaw to Johnny, telling him that it would take him ten minutes to cut through the chain but only five if he cuts through his ankle.  There’s no evidence that Johnny evens tries to mutilate himself before the explosion that occurs as Max drives off, but just the implication leaves the ending with a rather gory tone.

Mad Max - 02

For all its masculine spectacle, Mad Max deals with some pretty human themes.  Throughout the entire movie Max just wants to quit the police force; he has a wife and child he loves and even though he’s good at what he does, he’s scared.  Sure, some of that fear is that he’ll become such a strong-handed brute that human interaction will be beyond him where anything but violence is concerned (an omen of the future to be sure), but he’s also just scared of losing his family.

It’s why it feels right that Toecutter’s run-in with his wife later in the film has nothing to do with Max being a Bronze (dystopian police officer) or having been the person who technically was responsible for Nightrider’s death.  The world is so messed up that Max couldn’t just walk away and leave it to be someone else’s problem, because trouble could find him no matter where he goes.  I think this might have worked better if the entire first half of the movie had not involved Toecutter in any way, and the villain had been introduced as an unconnected adversary midway through, but it still works.

The acting is all fair to adequate, though it is amusing that the film’s lead (and the most famous person to come out of this film) is kind of dull and flat in comparison to everyone else.  Honestly Steve Bisley and Joanne Samuel, as Goose and Jessie respectively, carry about 85% of this movie while Mel Gibson’s Max just kind of reacts to things.  Much has been made about how Tom Hardy has very few onscreen lines in Mad Max: Fury Road, but I don’t think I could quote you a single Max Rockatansky line from this movie and I watched it two hours ago.

Naturally, the best performance in the movie is from Hugh Keays-Byrne as Toecutter.  Byrne is a classically trained Shakespearean actor, which comes across very clearly in his performance, and claims to have based his characterization on Ghengis Khan (its certainly apparent in his costuming.)  Toecutter isn’t much of a character per-se, he’s the usually twitchy wild-eyed gang leader you’ve seen a million times, but he’s certainly entertaining to watch.  It’s also Byrne’s wild-eyed mania which would set the tone for future villains in this series (and I’m betting also for Immortan Joe, the character Byrne will be playing in Fury Road.)

Mad Max - 03

Australian cinema is very fetishistic about cars and Mad Max is nearly pornographic in its emphasis on that.  Supposedly many of the car chases had to be left on the cutting room floor since the budget couldn’t afford them; this may be why we largely have to take the movie’s word on Max being such an amazing driver as largely all we see him do in this movie is drive down relatively straight roads really fast (he attempts to apprehend two men in  chases in the movie, and both end up killing themselves before he can so much as attempt a PIT maneuver.)  Still the police cars are iconic looking, as are the gang’s bikes (largely production models donated by Kawasaki), and especially the V8 Pursuit Special (It won’t be called a V8 Interceptor until the sequel, Interceptor’s are actually the yellow cars seen in the opening chase.)  The Pursuit Special, the “Last of the V8s”, is one of the most iconic vehicles in post-apocalyptic cinema and also the second one tackled in this column behind Damnation Alley’s Landmaster.

As I said above, there’s nothing particularly original or groundbreaking about the movie, it’s pretty rote and predictable as far as the trajectory of its plot, but George Miller manages to make it rise above being just another revenge story by giving us a compelling set of characters, story, and action.  I also like how there are a lot of parallels in the movie.  The beginning chase with Nightrider and the ending chase with Toecutter, the child running out in the road at the beginning and Max’s wife and son running down the road at the midpoint, Goose’s wreck and the final scene of the movie.  It creates a weird sort of symmetry that delivers expectations that are either met or subverted based on the writer’s whim (even though any seasoned audience know what’s going to happen at every turn.)

Mad Max ended on an ambiguous note with a lot of characters seemingly in limbo, and nothing save for Max and his car would return 2 years for the sequel, but that’s another article entirely.

There was a time when home video versions of Mad Max were hard to come by.  No more, Chewers!  You can get the old double-sided DVD if you love a bargain and hate yourself in equal measure, there’s a Blu-ray/DVD release which is adequate but out of print, there’s this nice trilogy blu-ray, and Shout! Factory has decided that this is a horror movie and put out a nice Scream! Factory blu-ray with tons of special features including both the original Australian and re-dubbed American audio tracks.  It’s also available on Amazon instant.

“Greetings from The Humungus! The Lord Humungus! The Warrior of the Wasteland! The Ayatollah of Rock and Rolla!”

Mad Max - 04