This is a film that existed in my imagination long before I actually saw it on VHS. As a teenager in the nineteen eighties, there were a few posters on my bedroom wall that I now remember vividly, and each of them have a special place in my formative years: a madness poster (the cover of their third album ‘7’ – a point where they had hit the mainstream and were loving it!); a map of the world that came free with The Joy of Knowledge, a magazine collection that Mum and Dad were convinced would transform me into a genius; the film poster of EXCALIBUR (1981), which will be covered in a future post, and there was a page cut out of Starburst magazine with Mel Gibson walking in a desert accompanied by his dog.
At that time, I hadn’t seen MAD MAX 2, but I really, really wanted to because it looked brilliant, it looked like the film that I really wanted to make. I also really, really wanted a dog, but that’s another story.
I had been fed on a diet of the comic 2000ad and more recently fantasy role-playing games. I’d convinced my dad to let me to rent the first of the films, against his better judgement, from the video shop, in one of those monolithic video cases.
MAD MAX and its even better sequel (Dirk passim) laid the ground-work for the action genre in its present form. Aggressive, quick paced, a laconic hero and a flimsy plot; it set the template for action hero films in the 1980s. It was named ROAD WARRIOR in the US because the first film had a limited release, the second film inflated budget (the most expensive film to come out of Australia at the time) which Miller spent on cars and costumes to create an apocalyptic vision of a world where fuel is scarce and there are tribal battles to acquire it.
A youthful Mel Gibson as Max is on the road following the brutal murder of his family at the end of the first film. He comes across a rag-tag village based around an oil refinery who are besieged by Humungous and his S and M cronies. He offers them a way out to the promised land using an oil tanker he has discovered. The rest is an exploitation masterpiece: car chases, a gyro-copter, explosions, mo-hawk-acrobatics, flame throwers, snakes and the obligatory 80s tit-flash. The kind of scenes that I was recreating in games such as Battlecars and Car Wars.
It was a good couple of years before I could put a film to a poster. A few years later I saw the rubbish follow up at the cinema, even Tina Turner’s big hair can’t rescue the Thunderdrome, but this film is one that I like to revisit at least once a year with a few tinnies and shrimp off the barbie.
‘Mad Max 2’ pulls me in for a similar reason that ‘Bladerunner’ does: it is excellent at “worldbuilding”. From the opening narration you are involved in this universe completely through its bleak visuals and relentless aggression. The performances of the Gyro Captain, the marauders and “the feral kid” all add to it: each one seems to be behaving like a different type of animal, highlighted in the scene where the Gyro Captain is trying to get to the “Dinki Di” can before Max’s dog. Unlike Dirk I also like ‘…Beyond Thunderdome’ because it mostly retains the atmosphere and throws in other elements like the ‘Lord Of The Flies’/’Lost Boys’ references that seem to fit right in to me. The plot is tripe but it’s not exactly central to this one either: having said that, last time I watched it I had completely forgotten about the nice twist that the escaping tanker is full of sand.
You are spot on regarding how the film creates a world. I think many on my post-Star Wars list, even the ‘realist’ ones, create a singular vision of a world through it’s design. Star Wars gave film makers the confidence to create depth in the worlds they create, and produced an appetite in audiences for richer experiences.
I take your point about The Thunderdrome, but by time it came out advertisers and music videos had sapped ‘the look’ of it’s energy.
“The Road Warrior” was one of those great mythological ’80s films that teenagers of that time idolized for good reason (like “The Terminator,” “Highlander,” and “Red Dawn”). Moreso than the original “Mad Max,” it was a more visceral experience that truly threw its viewers into that dystopian future. While I don’t think “Thunderdome” is a horrible movie, its a studio-ized take on Mad Max that feels watered down for the mass audience rather than being true to what came before.
You are right. The pleasure of the film is infused with a sense of nostalgia for that period when films like this seemed so exciting, off-beat and interesting. The studio-ization of dystopian future continues … WATERWORLD, THE POST MAN etc
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