Cinematic visions of society on the brink of collapse have rarely been as frightening - yet thrillingly visceral - as Mad Max, the pre-apocalyptic Australian action classic that marked the directorial debut of George Miller and demonstrated how cash-strapped genre movies could make a virtue out of threadbare production values. Working in accordance with ‘Ozploitation’ production practices, which stated that actors and stuntmen were cheap but celluloid was expensive, Miller wastes no time in establishing that the Australia of ‘a few years from now’ will not be a safe place; Mad Max opens with motorcycle gang member Nightrider escaping from police custody and attempting to outrun pursuing officers in a stolen patrol car. Miller gives the audience a glimpse of how far he is willing to go to show a society that is rapidly going off the rails by placing a child in the middle of the highway, with the infant almost being run over by the speeding vehicles. With the officers in pursuit being outmanoeuvred by Nightrider, the responsibility of stopping this psychopath rests with Max Rockatansky (Mel Gibson), a more capable lawman who uses his considerable skills behind the wheel to end the criminal’s vehicular rampage by causing an explosive crash. Max steps out of his patrol car to survey the burning wreckage, which is both a sign of a mission accomplished and a prophetic warning of what is to come: the Nightrider’s comrades in chaos, led by the villainous Toecutter, are on their way to town, and terrorising innocent bystanders is just their way of warming up for a war against the local law enforcement. However, they may have met their match in Mad Max.
Even though Max deals with such speed freaks in a calmly decisive manner, his psyche is being ripped apart; at home, he is a loving family man, but when patrolling the road, he is as merciless as the maniacs he takes down. Confiding in his wife, Max admits, ‘I’m scared. It’s that rat circus out there. I’m beginning to enjoy it. Any longer out on that road and I’m one of them, a terminal psychotic, except that I’ve got this bronze badge that says that I’m one of the good guys’. Although civilisation is collapsing, Max manages to keep his cool and it is instead his partner Goose who is first to snap; the infuriated Goose beats up gang member and rapist Johnny ‘The Boy’ Boyle when the perpetrator is released without charge as all witnesses are too scared to testify. Max restrains Goose and stands by a justice system that is insufficient in a world gone wrong, but realises that his personal and professional responsibilities are out of balance when his partner is burnt to death in a revenge attack. Taking an extended family vacation at a remote farm, Max is followed by Toecutter’s gang, who run down his wife and son; Max pulls his uniform back on and takes to the road in a super-charged pursuit vehicle to settle the score. This quest for vengeance effectively represents the end of any social order, and the method that Max uses to kill Johnny - handcuffing him to a wrecked vehicle and setting a fuse - suggests that he is now almost as unhinged as Toecutter. The hero has succumbed to the sadism of the ‘rat circus’.
Produced for just AUD$400,000, Mad Max exhibits a crude efficiency that holds up remarkably well in the age of CGI-enhancement. Mad Max 2 (1981) is often cited as a rare example of a sequel that is superior to the original, and Miller’s follow-up is certainly a fine exercise in narrative economy. However, the post-apocalyptic landscape presented by the second film is now overly familiar from countless straight-to-video imitations that pass off cheap desert locations as post-nuclear wastelands. Because of its budgetary shortcomings, Mad Max remains frighteningly credible, with its sparsely populated small towns, desolate highways and an almost abandoned Hall of Justice where law enforcers half-heartedly listen to the police radio and fail to prosecute the guilty. The film was inspired by the 1973 oil crisis, which had Australian motorists committing acts of violence in order to fill their petrol tanks, with screenwriters Miller, Byron Kennedy and James McCausland speculating on what society would be like several years down the line if the fuel situation were to continue; they envisioned a world where only savages and scavengers survive, a point made in a not-so-subtle manner when Miller pans up to a buzzard overlooking the activities of Toecutter’s gang. The raw intensity of the attack sequences - a couple being chased, Max’s wife running for her life with her son in her arms - makes Mad Max the action genre equivalent of Tobe Hooper’s relentless shocker The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), with distressing sounds (screaming, smashing metal, the revving of engines) being used to keep the audience on edge in-between the rough-and-ready bursts of road rage. Brilliantly realised with limited resources, Mad Max remains an unrivalled example of future shock.