Posted Thu May 14, 2015 at 08:30 AM PDT by Matthew Hartman
With 'Mad Max: Fury Road' looming over multiplexes all across the country, I thought now was the perfect time to look back at writer and director George Miller's most famous character - and no, I do not mean Babe or Mumble - "Mad" Max Rockatansky. With three previous films in the franchise, the last of which appeared on cinema screens 30 years ago, whether or not they were aware of it, movie goers and pop culture enthusiasts have been inundated by Mad Max during the intervening years. From imitators, to TV references, to video games - we're going to take a look at the history of these classic movies and the lingering effect they've had on pop culture.
My Max Experience
Not long after I was introduced to the first two 'Lethal Weapon' movies, my dad brought home a copy of the movie that made Mel Gibson famous in his native Australia - 'Mad Max.' I don't recall how old I was but I was immediately blown away by the high speed vehicular violence. Seeing bright yellow cop cars and motorcycles ridden by crazed criminals left my eyeballs glued to the screen. Now my experience with the rest of the franchise was a bit disjointed. You see, having just seen 'Mad Max,' I had no idea that 'The Road Warrior' even existed. In fact, because of how my local mom and pop video store - the late great Video To Go in Dexter, Michigan - organized their VHS rentals alphabetically, for years I knew of 'Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome' as the only official sequel. It wasn't until I was randomly scouring the shelves that I accidentally came upon one of those gigantic oversized thick plastic VHS clamshell cases for 'The Road Warrior' featuring a picture of Mel Gibson wearing a distinctly familiar costume that I discovered this series was in fact a trilogy! I know I was slow on the uptick there but you gotta understand I was probably eight years old. Suffice to say at that point - I was hooked on the shenanigans of Max and his black Interceptor. I have numerous happy memories watching these movies over and over from VHS to DVD and now on Blu-ray.
Max Rockatansky (Mel Gibson) is a simple man just trying to make it in a world that is increasingly becoming more and more insane. As a road cop patrolling the Australian wastelands, Max sees his fair share of mayhem, death, violence, and social decay. Try as he might, Max does his best to not bring the sights he sees home with him to his wife and young son. After being the lone officer to take down a rampaging madman who calls himself Nightrider (not David Hasselhoff), Max and his fellow officers become the target of a viciousmotorcycle gang lead by the psychotic Toecutter (Hugh Keays-Byrne). After the brutal murder of his wife and son, Max becomes a vigilante executing his own unique brand of vehicular street justice.
On a modest budget that he earned while working as an ER doctor, first time writer and director George Miller set out to make a down and gritty near-future film featuring incredible vehicle stunts and roadside mayhem. The results are simply spectacular! By shooting at incredibly high speeds through the desolate roads of the Australian outback - the film never lets up on its visual intensity. With the use of decommissioned vehicles, the vehicle impacts look absolutely insane. Considering the conditions they were shooting under, it's a modern miracle that no one was killed! My favorite bit of trivia about this film was that the motorcyclists were part of a real gang that had to show up to the set dressed and ready to shoot, including carrying their archaic looking weapons. As legend would have it, the gang was given "get out of jail free cards" - notes from the producers to any police officer - just in case they were stopped and prevented from showing up to work on time.
'Mad Max' turned out to become one of the biggest home-grown hits in Australian cinematic history. As international success started to wash over the world, the film was set to make it's U.S. debut with American International releasing the film. Concerned that Americans wouldn't be able to understand what people were saying, the entire film was dubbed over with non-regional accents…and the film quietly died. Few turned out to see the film in meaningful numbers. But an international hit is a hit. In spite of being dubbed over, the then 23 year old Mel Gibson started pinging on filmmaker's radar screens. Peter Weir would cast the young Gibson as Frank Dunn in his World War One drama 'Gallipoli' further increasing the actor's notoriety. When it came time for Miller to gear up for a sequel, big studios were clamoring to release the film. Warner Bros. won the race and secured the rights.
After the great and terrible stock footage war, the world became a gasoline obsessed wasteland. With people willing to kill each other for just a single gallon of "juice," roving bands of nomads took to the roads ready and willing to do whatever it took to keep their vehicle's tanks topped off. We find Max back on the road in his supped up V8 Interceptor, as he attempts to outrun a pair of these ravagers. After a chance encounter with a gyrocopter pilot, Max learns of a group of survivors operating an oil pump and refinery churning out hundreds of gallons of valuable gasoline each and every day. Only Max isn't the only one interested in the stuff. The great and powerful Lord Humungus and his large band of armed barbarian scavengers have laid siege to the refinery trapping the people inside. Needing a vehicle to haul their precious cargo of refined gasoline, Max becomes their best hope to drive them to safety.
As Mel Gibson's personal favorite of the Mad Max movies, it's not too hard to see why. Armed with a much larger production budget, George Miller pulled out all the stops. Everything about this movie is bigger, faster, and way more intense! At the time of it's filming, it was the largest Australian production featuring over 80 custom vehicles - most of which would be demolished on camera while driving at high speeds - and a budget nearly 20 times larger than the first film. This film also features one of the first (if not the first) on camera tanker truck roll stunts that was apparently so dangerous the stunt driver was ordered to not eat 12 hours prior to performing the stunt should he be injured and require immediate surgery. Couple that with the numerous high speed vehicle stunts and you have one of the most exhilarating sci-fi action movies committed to celluloid. My favorite fan theory about this one is that the great and powerful Lord Humungus is Max's old partner Jim Goose - explaining his body scarring and the need for the mask.
So why didn't I know this movie existed for years after seeing 'Mad Max' and 'Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome?' The simple answer to that is Warner Bros' marketing of this movie. Since the first film wasn't a huge sensation stateside, the studio decided it was a bad idea to release a movie titled "Mad Max 2." Their reasoning was that so few people actually saw or were aware of 'Mad Max' that it would just be confusing for audiences to see a sequel to a movie they never even knew existed in the first place. On top of the required retitling, the WB also ordered the stock footage opener combining scenes from the first film with this one to help set the scene. If you're lucky enough to live in other markets, apparently your copies of 'Mad Max 2' don't come with these scenes at all and instead open with the pulse pounding whoosh of Max's V8 Intercepter as he drives down the desolate highway at top speeds. Whichever cut of the film you get to enjoy - it's one hell of a fantastic ride, and one that some 34 years later is still as fresh and exciting as ever.
With the world thoroughly thrown into chaos, humanity must do what it can to reform, stabilize, and move forward. Enter Bartertown. A place where if you have something to trade, you may enter - if you don't have anything of value - your skills or your life may be put to use. Two political factions face off in a pseudo "cold war" for control of Bartertown. Living high above the surface like a queen is Aunty Entity (Tina Turner). She makes and enforces the laws in Bartertwon. Deep down underneath this bustling metropolis (by post-apocalyptic standards) is Underworld, a place full of pigs, their keepers and copious amounts of excrement. Bartertown is one of the few places left in the world with electricity - the source of which is the methane gas that comes from the pigs. The man (or men in charge as it were) is the brains - Master (Angelo Rossitto) and the braun Blaster (Paul Larsson). As Master Blaster control the output (or out-poot) of power - they essentially control Barter Town. When the nomadic Max arrives in town looking for his stolen caravan of camels - Aunty has her pawn and uses him to tip the scales of control in her favor. When Max turns against Aunty, he's betrayed and cast out of Bartertown into the wastelands where he's saved by a band of tribal children who escaped the world's downfall. They turn to Max as their returned savior and seek his help in ushering them to safety. Only to do that, Max must return to Bartertown and enlist the aid of the now fallen Master.
After the rousing success of 'The Road Warrior' audiences were thirsty for more Max. What they got could easily be described as Mel Gibson's Mullet's audition for 'Lethal Weapon.' From start to finish this entry into the franchise felt bigger, more "studio" and very, very 80s. Even with George Miller returning to write and direct this entry - it just feels like one of the numerous Mad Max knockoffs that had sprung up since the first film's release. By going bigger, everything became even more over-the-top than ever, to the point of being a parody of itself. It's fun for sure, but I still remember eagerly tuning into this one on broadcast TV and becoming incredibly confused. My confusion was largely because I hadn't seen 'The Road Warrior' so nothing made much sense, but apparently I wasn't the only one. People expecting the high octane super speed of the previous film got something a hell of a lot slower out of the gate. Sure there is the big climatic road race at the end, but it almost feels like too little too late to salvage the weirdness that came before.
So what happened here? Well, apparently there never was supposed to be a third Mad Max film to begin with. As the story goes, George Miller wanted to make a post-apocalyptic version of 'Lord of the Flies' where a band of feral children have learned to grow and survive on their own isolated from adult supervision. That changes when a mysterious Man shows up to take them to a rebuilt civilization. Apparently when Miller pitched this idea, someone asked why the stranger couldn't be Max? It's this mishmash of ideas that leads 'Beyond Thunderdome' to be one of the strangest movies in the entire franchise. Some people love it. Some people hate it. Others like me are somewhere in between. Depending on the mood I'm in, I either love this movie or hate it, and even when I'm digging on it - it's extremely hard to get past the kids telling their tale with a TV screen on a pole. Even though this film was hardly a flop - as action movies around this time started to get more and more expensive - the final box office haul wasn't exactly indicative of a bonafide hit. And so Max wondered off into the wastelands to be forgotten - but repeatedly referenced and imitated.
The Mad Max Effect
When anything enters the popular culture zeitgeist - it's bound to get tons of references and more than a few imitations. It's hard not to draw connections to this series of films in one way or the other. You can get a casual 'Gilmore Girls' reference or you can simply have a movie set in a wasteland of sorts with a cast wearing cast off hockey pads and still be able to draw a line right back to one of these films. I'm going to pare the list down to my personal favorites.
Notable Imitators: The Movies That Tried To Be Max:
Yeah, I know this one is pretty much on the nose as far as Mad Max imitations go, but damn is it a fun ride. It gets a bad rap, and was apparently one of Joss Whedon's first and worst writing assignments doing script revisions in a hot shipping container out in the middle of the South Pacific. Seeing this one in theaters also coincides with my first memorable migraine experience. Even the thumping, pounding, nauseating, blinding pain in my head couldn't keep me from enjoying Kevin Costner with gills. Half the fun is due to Dennis Hopper - but the show as a whole is a marvel of practical effects and stunt work in the pre-digital days of special effects. There is a DVD out there of the extended "TV" cut of the film - and it is a much better experience. Fewer jump cuts, a lot more character development make this cut of the film work a lot better. Sadly the only Blu-ray available to date doesn't include this cut and is from a fairly dated master. I know a lot of people hate it, but whenever I put it on I can't help but smile.
Not too many people are up on the films of Italian filmmaker Enzo G. Castellari, but they're about to catch up very soon. Blue Underground will be releasing three of his films this June, '1990: The Bronx Warriors,' its sequel 'Escape from the Bronx,' and the completely unrelated but no less incredible Warriors of the Wasteland. From bubble domed super cars, to guys wearing football pads, to a roving band of savages - everything about this movie screams "Mad Max Ripoff." While it's a ripoff, it is a ton of fun. Plus it has former NFL great and Blaxploitation superstar Fred Williamson! I'm seriously looking forward to this Blu-ray release. Even Castllari's "Bronx" movies offer a lot of similar aspects - but his Warriors of the Wasteland is the cream of the crop.
Steel Dawn (No Blu-ray Available)
Picture 'Mad Max 2 The Road Warrior' without any budget, worse vehicles and Patrick Swayze… and you basically have this movie. Costarring Anthony Zerbie and Swayze's wife Lisa Niemi along with Sci-fi genre favorite Brion James and you get a similar looking post-apocalyptic world with a random warrior wondering around the wasteland looking to save the day. Or, actually in this case of this film he stands on his head and trouble manages to find him. This is a completely ridiculous movie that is at times excruciatingly difficult to sit through - but it does offer some fun moments - like a wind-powered pinewood derby car chase! A friend and I did a podcast about his movie not that long ago and it took a lot out of us just to finish the movie let alone come up with an hour's worth of material to talk about.
TV References Taken To The Max
Mystery Science Theater 3000
Keep an ear open through episodes like 'Robot Holocaust,' 'Warrior of the Lost World,' 'Alien from L.A.,' 'Eegah,' 'The Violent Years,' and 'Pumaman.' Throughout the show's riffs and host segments numerous Mad Max references can be heard and enjoyed. My personal favorite is "Can't we get beyond Thunderdome," from the classic episode 'Laserblast.'
Quite simply, pick an episode and you're sure to find some sort of 'Mad Max' reference. Perhaps the most famous and best of the bunch is from episode 507 titled "Proper Condom Use" featuring everyone's favorite lovable Butters as Lord Humungus.
If you're like me and a child of the 80's you probably had a chance to play the classic NES video game! Sure, you might not have been able to watch an R-rated movie, but I bet your parents didn't even blink at you playing the game. One part Off Road with guns and one part random arena missions - I loved playing this game, that is until I got to an arena mission where you run around on foot and it was an absolute pain in the back side to survive. But, once you win the level and get back into your V8bit Intercepter - the game is a riot. Looking back I'm eternally amused at how so many of my friends assumed that the movies were based off the game because they weren't allowed to watch R-rated movies. I was a lucky kid growing up.
I mean come on, sure it's cute, yes it's for kids - but you can't tell me you weren't quoting Lord Humungus or calling King Boo a "raggedy man" when you pelted him with a red shell as you passed him by on the Rainbow Road! This game screams 'The Road Warrior' - only for children. If there isn't a battle car arena side mission in the new Mad Max game coming out, I'll be very, very sad.
Now with the new movie, a new Mad Max game is set to come out this fall for Playstation 4 and Xbox One consoles. Will it be any good? Tough to say - movie based video games have been a risky venture in recent years. Fingers crossed it lives up to its namesake. If not - well, at least I still have my old Nintendo cartridge!
When you start talking about 'Mad Max' and it's influence on movies or the movies that influenced it - it's hard to find a place to start, let alone end. Mel Gibson's adventures as Max may be over, but a new generation is about to discover the franchise's legacy under the care of Tom Hardy. With the positive word of mouth already swirling around 'Mad Max: Fury Road' I'm hopeful that translates to solid box office bucks. For such a long lead up to the film's release, I don't want it to be the last time we see Max take to the wastelands in a ticked out dune buggy or tanker truck.
Got a love for things that are either "Mad" or "Max" ? If you do, take to the comments and sound off on your favorite (or least favorite) Mad Max moments and if you catch 'Mad Max: Fury Road' this weekend let us know how much you loved it - or hated it!
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