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14 May 2015updated 14 Sep 2021 3:12pm

BOOM! Looking back at the crude, cheapo, scuzzy brilliance of the original Mad Max

As Mad Max: Fury Road hits our screens, we look back at the 1979 original exploitationanza.

By Ryan Gilbey

The Mad Max series does not want for critical acclaim or audience fervour. Mad Max 2 is rightly regarded as one of the greatest action movies of all time; Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, while inferior to its immediate predecessor, showed the series’ director, George Miller, determined not to repeat himself, instead striking out into new territory, with a new tone (meditative, even soft) and an important female component (Tina Turner). The latest addition, Mad Max: Fury Road, shows that age has caused Miller (who is now 70) to neither mellow nor compromise; it, too, is tonally distinct from the instalments of this post-apocalyptic fantasy that came before.

The odd duck, it seems, is the 1979 original, Mad Max, which is the scuzziest and most disreputable of a series that already has the pungent whiff of B-movie about it. (In this instance, the B must stand for “Boom!”) Though the series eventually moved off into other terrain, the first film is essentially a vigilante story of the kind that was common in the Seventies and Eighties (think of the Death Wish series and The Exterminator – or rather, don’t), albeit crafted with a good deal more flair.

To my eyes, Mad Max still looks incredible, more than 30 years after it was made. Like most teenage boys in the mid-Eighties, I came to this and the 1982 sequel because of the car chases, the violence, the leather, the freaky characters, the futuristic setting, and the leather (did I mention the leather?). Now I see the film has virtues I wasn’t equipped to understand as I gazed lovingly at the screen back then, probably forgetting about my acne and imagining I was Mel Gibson – not something anyone would ever find themselves doing these days.

I’ll cut to the chase (how appropriate) and tell you what’s so good about this crude, cheapo exploitationanza. Well, for starters, the fact that it’s a crude, cheapo exploitationanza has insulated it pretty sturdily against the cinematic fads and phases that have since come and gone. The stark, low-budget, make-do look of the film increases the grittiness – it’s like those early David Cronenberg gorefests (Shivers, Rabid) where it really did seem like anything could happen because it was all clearly operating outside conventional movie etiquette.

In Mad Max, that is combined with the desolate mood that permeated the most interesting Australian New Wave films of the Seventies – Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock and The Cars That Ate Paris, or Fred Schepisi’s The Devil’s Playground and The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith.

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All those films seem to take place in a land that time not only forgot, but tried to bury alive. This works to the benefit of Mad Max, which is billed as happening a few years ahead of whenever the viewer happens to be watching it. I love that device – doesn’t the 1984 comedy Splash, after the flashback prologue, begin with the title ‘Cape Cod, yesterday’?

So the sense of isolation that was presumably imposed by the budget – they seem to be shooting on back roads, backwaters, the back of beyond generally – creates this dislocated atmosphere that makes the film look far better now than it would do if there had been the money to build futuristic sets. (Look at two Paul Verhoeven films, RoboCop and Total Recall, to see how poorly time sometimes favours big budgets. Or compare Star Wars, which looks so cheesy, with THX-1138, where, again, frugality has equalled longevity.)

Other things I love about Mad Max: Mel Gibson before the mannerisms had kicked in; the fact that Max’s big ‘turning point’ scene (when he decides to go vigilante after the murder of his family) is conducted while he is wearing pyjamas. If only more action heroes would wear pyjamas.

Also, the director George Miller’s beautiful, expressive, almost Cocteau-esque way with film language: the wipes, the endless dissolves-within-dissolves. There’s a breathtaking one that is used when Max visits his horribly burnt friend in hospital – Miller uses the dissolve between Max looking anxious and Max looking horrified to avoid showing us Goose’s face, though Gibson’s expression is equally chilling.

I also love the spare, no-nonsense editing – there’s no fat on this movie – and the way Miller throws in a virtually subliminal shot of bulging, bloodshot eyeballs (whose eyeballs? I dunno) during moments of horror.

The movie gets the job done, quickly and without undue histrionics (the emphatic score only underlines how lean the action is). And it leaves a rare chill in the air, as much due to what it doesn’t show (the economic way Miller shoots the murder of Max’s wife and son, so that all we see is a baby’s shoe and a coloured ball in the road) as to what it does. Tim Burns, as the deranged Johnny the Boy, is frighteningly good in the final scene, where he’s laughing maniacally and pleading with Max. The end-note of cultivated sadism is hard to dispel.

Accidental plus-points include the villain’s resemblance to Gary Glitter, and the appearance in the cast list of one David Cameron, playing ‘Underground Mechanic’. I loved also seeing the late Sheila Florance, so great as the prune-faced Lizzie in the official Worst Ever (and therefore Best Ever) prison drama, Prisoner Cell Block H, turning up here in callipers, wielding a double-barrelled shotgun. Dandy Nichols couldn’t have done it better. Viva Australia!

Mad Max: Fury Road is on release.