Mad Max (1979)

mad max

“I am the Nightrider! I’m a fuel-injected suicide machine! I am the rocker, I am the roller, I am the out-of-controller!

 The Scoop: 1979 R, directed by George Miller and starring Mel Gibson, Joanne Samuel, Hugh Keays-Byrne, Steve Bisley, Vincent Gil and Tim Burns.

Tagline: The Maximum Force of the Future.

Summary Capsule: Mel Gibson VS crazy bikers on the roads of future Australia.

Deneb’s rating: Vroom! Vroom! Beep-beep! Rrrrrowww scree-ee-eech CRASH aargh aargh aargh…

Deneb’s review: It’s a rare thing to find a sequel that’s more well-known than the original. Off the top of my head, I can only think of two – Terminator 2 (arguably, anyway; I mean, everyone’s still heard of the original, but I think the sequel is a bit more legendary), and The Road Warrior, sequel to Mad Max, the film I shall be discussing today.

Now, it’s perfectly understandable that Road Warrior tends to get all the love, as it’s certainly a good film. It glories in post-apocalyptic craziness, and deserves its reputation. Having seen both of them, though (and their sequel, but we’ll discuss that later), I think I have a slight preference for the original. Here comes the part where I tell you why.

Mad Max is set in Australia, in a near-future where everything is breaking down. The infrastructure of society seems to be collapsing – we never find out why, but it doesn’t really matter. Savagery is slowly but surely devouring the land, with the country’s roadways being taken over by biker gangs bent on havoc.

Yes, it’s none too lovely in Oz. Thank goodness for the Main Force Patrol, a rag-tag group of undermanned, underfunded cops armed with fast cars and bad attitudes. Specifically thank goodness for Max Rockatansky (Mel Gibson), the pride of the force, and a fine, upstanding young cop – or as fine and upstanding as one can be in a world going mad. At the end of the day, he goes home to the lovin’ arms of his wife Jessie (Joanne Samuel), then back he goes to the brutal arena of the highways.

As the movie opens, the MFP are having a typical day. A “terminal psychotic” (i.e, bughouse crazy nutball) who calls himself the Nightrider has stolen a police vehicle and is going on a wild, destructive joyride with it. Max and the crew are on the case, though, and following a frenzied car chase (the first of many), the baddie comes down with a slight case of car crash-itis, which proves fatal. Oh, well – at least he’s out of the way, right?

Well… yes and no. The Nightrider himself is definitely history, but it seems he was good buddies with a particularly scary individual known as the Toecutter (Hugh Keays-Byrne), the leader of one of those biker gangs mentioned above. As he’s the type who never backs down from a good blood feud, he promptly swears vengeance on everyone involved – which includes Max, his partner and best pal Jim Goose (Steve Bisley), and, one suspects, the MFP in general.

All in all, it’s not a pleasant situation, and Max finds himself under a great deal of stress and strain. In fact, he’s thinking of quitting the force altogether. Thank goodness he can get away from it all with the family every now and then, right?

Well, not to reuse bits or anything, but it’s not called “Happy Max”. Eventually, the Toecutter and Co. will go that one step too far – and at that point, Max is going to tear open his inner can of badass, and show us all just how scary a raging cop bent on revenge can be. Not to put too fine a point on it, but Max gets mad – and in rather spectacular fashion, too.

OK, now that that part’s done with, I guess I should get to the “tell you why” part I mentioned. After all, Mad Max has several built-in disadvantages when compared to its sequels. It doesn’t have the insane cobbled-together sci-fi stuff of Road Warrior or Beyond Thunderdome, it has a significantly lower budget and shows it, and Max doesn’t truly metamorphize into his iconic kickass antihero self until fairly late in the movie.

So why should I have a preference, however slight, for it over its more grandiose sequels?

Well, basically the reasons listed above.

All right, all right, I’ll explain. Hold your horses.

To start with, while the series as a whole is often referred to as “post-apocalyptic”, that’s not quite the case here. Several other reviews I’ve read have called Max “pre-apocalyptic”, and that fits pretty well, so I’ll stick with it. The world as we know it has not ended here, but it’s going to, and pretty soon, at that. The later entries in the series veer pretty quickly into more or less pure fantasy – it’s all so outrageous that it might as well be happening on another planet – but there’s a layer of disturbing plausibility here that prevents it from being pure escapism, and anchors it in the reality that we know.

I mean, as dystopic futures go, this is one of the more believable ones, because it’s not really all that different from the world we know now. Sure, it’s weirder in spots (explain, if you can, the police higher-up who wears Kendo gear over his suit), and everybody seems to have a fetish for customized vehicles (which I’m not complaining about; they’re cool), but hey, it’s the future – the future’s supposed to look weird from the viewpoint of the present, right? And the problems that infest this future are pretty much the same ones we’ve been plagued with to some degree for decades. I mean, crumbling infrastructure, lawlessness, lack of funding and resources? Sound familiar? Sure, they may not have the pizzazz of killer robots or the like, but that’s what makes them so effective – Mad Max’s future is basically one that, in some cynical part of themselves, most people have been seeing coming for quite a while now.

And while, yes, the movie is obviously a low-budget affair, that makes what it does do all the more impressive. It may not have all the insane post-apocalyptic gimcrackery to play around with, but it does have some really great stunts and car chases, and let’s face it, all the cool stuff that the later films accomplished could never have come about if it weren’t for the basic framework supplied by the first. The series speaks the language of cool – in what other context would appellations such as Lord Humungus, Master-Blaster and Auntie Entity exist in such profusion? – and the genesis of this particular dialect lies here, with the Toecutter, Nightrider, Johnny the Boy and the rest. And, of course, Max Rockatansky. Has there ever been such a name in real life? No. But it’s awesome, so it fits – and that sort of attitude is, to my way of thinking, what gives the series its wings. If it were just fast vehicles roaring across the Outback, it’d mainly be remembered by car chase fans – it’s the language, the script, the acting that make it a classic, and you don’t need a big budget for that.

And speaking of the acting (how’s that for a segue?), that brings us to our last point – Max. No, Max doesn’t become, well… Max for quite a chunk of the film, but that’s a good thing. Sure, we would have gotten some cool scenes out of it if he’d been the “kick ass, take names, show no mercy” type from word one, but the ones that we do get are given more punch by the fact that we know how he got there. If he’d been a snarling, unstoppable juggernaut of fury for the whole movie, he wouldn’t have been nearly as effective.

The meat of the story, you see, is in the fact that Max, to start out with, is a Good Cop. In fact, he’s a great deal better of one than most of his colleagues, who are pretty much a hop and a skip away from gang members themselves. He’s in a dirty but necessary business that is continually growing dirtier, and he doesn’t want to go down with it. In point of fact, he is scared of becoming the person he ultimately does become, a fact that gives the rest of the movie/series an uncomfortable poignancy.

OK – now that Max has been taken care of, I might as well talk about the villains. (Well… that is to say, I could also talk about the supporting characters, but there aren’t that many of them, and most of them are in pretty minor roles, and really, who do you want to read about, anyway? Let’s stick with the villains.) The villains are… villainous. Not a bad thing, really, when you’re talking about villains – a heroic villain would be a little odd. They’re the classic barking-mad sort of villains, who are really only in it to find things that aren’t broken yet, then break them. The main exception to this is Toecutter himself – he’s no less crazy, but it’s a different kind of craziness. He revels in mayhem as much as any member of his gang, but he seems to genuinely believe all the stuff he tells them about “the Bronze” (i.e, the cops). He seems to see himself as a sort of freedom fighter against corrupt authority – and while in reality he’s clearly just a destructive maniac leading other destructive maniacs, what we see of the MFP gives one a nagging suspicion that he may have a point. A small, twisted one, but still a point. You’ve got to take what you can get.

So now that the review is basically over, and I’ve spent two-thirds of it babbling on about how it compares to the sequels, how does Mad Max stand on its own? Well, pretty darn well, I’d say.

Basically, if you love fast cars and black leather, or fast cars and motorcycles, or fast cars and great big fireballs, or fast cars and just about anything, really, check this movie out. There’s a reason why it’s remembered as a classic – it’s good stuff.

Justin’s rating: A dingo ate my baby, you say?

Justin’s review: I don’t think I’d ever want to be saddled with the responsibility of running a biker gang. While motorcycles do seem like a fuel-efficient trend in these pricey times, they’re also insanely dangerous (there’s a reason why – and this is true – medical professionals call them “donorcycles”). Not to mention that continually motivating big, burly, overly psychotic men under the influence of PCP takes more than an afternoon of “Hey guys, let’s play capture the flag!” No, you always have to be taking them on rampages and more rampages, which sound fun at first but quickly become exhausting. There’s only so much loot you can carry on the back of a hog, blood stains don’t wash out, and bugs keep getting stuck in your teeth as you chase down the innocent for a mercy deathblow.

Not to mention that sooner or later, you’re going to end up ticking off the one guy who has the power to kill you all in a revenge montage. And you just never know who that guy might be. Will he be the mild-mannered grocery store clerk? The florist? The well-armed police officer with a souped-up sedan and a vendetta straight from the bowels of hell? Why, it could be ANY of these guys!

I’m not sure what I was expecting with Mad Max, other than its pop culture footprint – an Australian post-apocalyptic road rage sort of deal. So imagine my slight disappointment when I found out that the low budget first entry in this series wasn’t post-apocalyptic at all, but just minorly dystopic, and it takes well over half the film for Mel Gibson to get worked up into his now-standard Revenge Mode™ . I mean, apart from the occasional murderous biker gang in the outskirts of Australia, it looks like these people are pretty hunky dory with their lives – they even have vacation beach houses and the like!

Max (Gibson) is a member of the unfortunately-titled Main Force Patrol, which consists of five police officers, three cars, and 10,000 square miles of Outback to cover. Instead of keeping his head down and counting out the days until he can retire on his kangaroo farm, Max prods and pokes the local biker gang – led by the charming Toecutter – until they slaughter his family and it’s all “ohhh whyyyy god? don’t dieeeeee on me!” and then comes the revenge, soaring down the road at 85 mph.

Nowadays, it’s a pretty standard template for these kinds of action movies. Give the hero enough justifiable reason to eschew the law and become a torturous vigilante, and he shall do so, and we shall cheer him on. Back then, maybe it was kind of new or something, but what Mad Max is probably best-known for is its fairly graphic violence. People are burned alive, run over, squashed, shot, impaled and tickled. In fact, this may be the only movie in the world which was inspired by an ER doctor who saw first-hand all of the gruesome injuries that car accidents caused, and went “Hey, let’s make a movie to capitalize on all this gore!”

Which is a good reason as any, I guess.

“Be vewy, vewy quiet. I’m hunting wabbits. Ha! Gotcha there, mate; no rabbits here. We ate ’em all when chickens became extinct.”


  • Although the exact cause of the breakdown of society is never named in the film, one may presume it has something to do with the resource-sapping war that ultimately leads to the state of affairs in Road Warrior.
  • One of the gang’s earlier scenes features a female mannequin (nicknamed ‘Polly Styrene’ by the crew). During the climactic sequence, she shows up again – she’s strapped to the back of one of their bikes.
  • The sequence where Jessie and Sprog get ice cream features a ‘milk bar’, or general store, with various posters and advertisements on the outside. These came from a milk bar in the production designer’s neighborhood – he removed them at five o’clock in the morning when no one was there, used them in the scene, then returned them at the same time the next day.
  • Hugh Keays-Byrne based his performance of the Toecutter off historical records of Genghis Khan.
  • The road sign with ‘Anarchy’ and ‘Bedlam’ on it was not created for the movie – it’s an actual sign pointing the way to actual places.
  • Mel Gibson didn’t go to the audition for this film to read for a part, he actually went along with a friend who was auditioning. But because he had been in a bar fight the night before and his head looked like “a black and blue pumpkin” (his words), he was told he could come back and audition in three week’s time because “we need freaks!”. He did return in three weeks’ time, wasn’t recognized (because his injuries had healed well), and was asked to read for a part.
  •  Because he was relatively unknown in the US, trailers and previews did not feature Mel Gibson, instead focusing on the car crashes and action scenes.
  • Tim Burns (Johnny the Boy) was so into character that he annoyed everyone on set, and was abandoned one day during lunch while handcuffed to the wreck.

Groovy Quotes:

Max: Look, any longer out on that road, and I’m one of them, you know? A terminal crazy. Only I got a bronze badge to say I’m one of the good guys.

Stationmaster: Anything you say.
Toecutter: ‘Anything I say’. What a wonderful philosophy you have.

Jim Goose: (into loudspeaker) Hey, fella, stop! (to Max) What a turkey. (loudspeaker) Hey, fella, you’re a turkey, you know that?

Nightrider: I am the Nightrider! I’m a fuel-injected suicide machine! I am the rocker, I am the roller, I am the out-of-controller!

Charlie: We’re really going to get it this time. He had his indicator on.

Johnny the Boy: Look at you! A cripple and a mute!
Jim Goose: Yeah, skag – he sings, and I tap-dance.

Toecutter: (putting on a Scottish accent) Jessie, Jessie, Jessie – you’ve no’ go’ a sense of humor.

Grease Monkey: What the molly-frog d’you think you’re doing?

Mudguts: Ohh, push me, shove you!
Cundalini: Oh yeah, says who?
Mudguts: Push me, shove you –
Both: Oh yeah, says who? Push me, shove you, oh yeah, says who, push me, shove you, oh yeah, says who…

Toecutter: Remember to keep your sweet, sweet mouth shut!

Fifi: They say people don’t believe in heroes anymore. Well, damn them! You and me, Max – we’re gonna give ‘em back their heroes!
Max: Fif’, d’you really expect me to go for that crap?
Fifi: You gotta admit, I sounded good there for a minute.

Jessie: Oi! (She goes through a complicated sign-language routine, then points at Max.)
Max: What’s that?
Jessie: Crazy ‘boutcha.

Toecutter: The Bronze take our pride.

Police radio: March Hare to Big Bopper, assist on Code 3 Red Alert! March Hare to Big Bopper, March Hare to Big Bopper!

Nightrider: D’ya see me, Toecutter? D’ya see me, man?

Max: I’m scared, Fif’. Y’know why? That mad circus out there – I’m beginning to enjoy it.

Jessie: OK, Tarzan – I’ll bring you back some bananas.

Jim Goose: We’ll see you on the road, skag! See you like we saw the Nightrider!
Johnny the Boy: We remember the Nightrider! And we know who you are!

Charlie: You’re blaspheming again. I don’t have to work with a blasphemer.

Toecutter: The Night… rider. That is his name. The Night… rider. Remember him when you look at the night sky.

Jim Goose: Shut the gate on this one, Maxie, it’s the duck’s guts!

Kid: Hey, mister, what happened to the car?
Bubba Zanetti: What do you think happened to it?
Kid: Looks like it got chewed up and spat out.
Bubba Zanetti: Perhaps it’s the result of an anxiety

Johnny the Boy: If you’re going to waste the Bronze, you gotta do it big!

Toecutter: AAH! I hate guns!

Nightrider: I am the chosen one, the mighty hand of vengeance sent down to strike the unroadworthy! Hee-hee-ha-ha-ha-ha! I’m hotter than a rollin’ dice! Step right up, chum, and watch the kid lay down a rubber road right to freedom!

Jessie: I can still see his face now. Looked like he’d just swallowed a brick.

Toecutter: The Bronze – they keep you from being proud.

If you liked this movie, try these:

  • The Road Warrior
  • Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome
  • Death-Proof


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