Mad Max (1979) | Sci-Fi Saturdays

by Jovial Jay

You don’t want to make Max mad. Because when Max gets mad, he gets even!

On the surface, Mad Max is an adrenaline filled, action picture with violent crashes, despicable road gangs, and a police officer on the edge between chaos and order. But this film has so much more going on once you scratch the surface.

First Impressions

The first thing you notice in the trailer is the film is distributed by American International Pictures. The fact that this is an AIP picture should cause some concern (as constant readers of this series may understand). But, after that, let’s see what we’ve got. It’s reminiscent of a 1960s exploitation film with fast cars, extreme violence, and gang warfare. Max is a police officer that you don’t want to make “mad.” Toecutter is a gang leader that wants to kill Max. There’s mayhem, and more in this trailer for Mad Max.

Presented below is the trailer for the film.

Sci-Fi Saturdays

Mad Max

Mad Max title card.

The Fiction of The Film

A few years from now. A member of a local motorcycle road gang, and cop-killer, named Nightrider (Vince Gil) steals a Main Force Patrol (MFP) V8 Pursuit Special and races along a desolate stretch of Australian highway. The chase heads into town nearly running over a small child, and totals both The Big Bopper–Roop & Charlie’s (Steve Millichamp & John Ley) car–and March Hare–Scuttle & Sarse’s (George Novak & Stephen Clark) car–plus Gosling One aka Goose (Steve Bisley), on his motorcycle. Only Max Rockatansky (Mel Gibson) is left to pursue in his Interceptor. Max stays hot on Nightrider’s tail, forcing him into some construction equipment, in which he explodes.

At headquarters Max, the top pursuit man, is offered a black super-charged Pursuit Special (the last of the V8’s) as a bribe to stay on staff. Later Sgt “Fifi” Macafee (Roger Ward) warns Max that Nightrider’s scoot jockey friends are out to get him. In the town of Wee Jerusalem a group of nomad bikers led by Toecutter (Hugh Keays-Byrne) stop at the train station to pick up the body of Nightrider. The bikers chase after a young couple in a red coupe, terrorizing and raping them. When Max and Goose arrive on scene, they find scoot jockey Johnny the Boy (Tim Burns) and arrest him.

Toecutter sends another gang member, Bubba Zanetti (Geoff Parry), to get Johnny out of jail. Johnny is being released as none of the victims showed up to testify against him (possibly thanks to Toecutter and Zanetti). Goose doesn’t like this and vows to “see them out on the road” like they did with the Nightrider. Later that evening one of the gang messes with Goose’s motorcycle outside a club. Fortunately nothing happens that evening because Goose hooks up with a lounge singer at her apartment above the club. But the next day his brakes lock up and he is thrown from his bike without injury. He borrows a pickup from a local motorist and begins driving back home when Johnny and Toecutter attack his car. He crashes and is pinned in the wreck. Toecutter forces Johnny to throw a lit match into the gasoline-soaked wreckage, burning Goose.

Mad Max

Max approaches the scene of his most recent pursuit. He’s looking to retire, since he’s enjoying the chase too much.

Max decides he is through for good after seeing what the gang did to Goose. Fifi suggests he take a two-week vacation to think about it. So Max and his wife Jess (Joanne Samuel) take their son “Sprog” to the beach. After pulling into a mechanic shop to get a tire fixed, Jess and Sprog head down the road to get ice cream and get accosted by Toecutter and the gang. One scoot jockey manages to throw a chain around the bumper, which ends up pulling his hand off. Jess races back to pick up Max and they leave, without the fixed tire. They end up staying with a friend, an elderly woman named May (Sheila Florence), on her farm near the ocean.

One day Jess walks through the woods to the beach and back, and thinks she’s being followed. Max grabs a shotgun and runs into the woods to check it out when Jess realizes she doesn’t know where Sprog is. She finds the Toecutter and the gang holding the child, but is saved by May who brandishes a shotgun and locks the nomad trash up. Both the women and the boy escape in Jess’s car,  but it is damaged crashing through the gate and breaks down on the highway. Jess grabs Sprog and makes a run for it. But she is soon run over by Toecutter and his bikers. Max shows up too late to save his son, but manages to get Jess into a hospital.

Max returns to the MFP station and steals the last of the V8 Interceptors. He heads to the mechanic’s to get information about the gang (realizing that the mechanic knew the gang was at the beach). Max then goes after the gang driving several off a bridge into the river. Catching up to Johnny, who has crashed his bike, Max is ambushed and shot in the knee by Bubba, but he is able to kill the biker. As Toecutter and Johnny depart, they run over Max’s arm–but he manages to make his way back to the car. He chases Toecutter into the path of an oncoming Semi truck, decimating the man and the bike. Heading into the prohibited area, the wastelands, Max finds Johnny after many hours of driving. The young lad is stripping the boots from a corpse of a crashed car. Max chains him up to the frame, sets up a delayed fuse with a lighter and the leaking gas, and offers Johnny a hacksaw. He can try to saw through the cuffs, or maybe through his leg instead. As Max drives off, a large fireball explodes behind him. Max speeds off into the future.

They say people don’t believe in heroes anymore. Well damn them! You and me, Max, we’re gonna give them back their heroes!” – Sgt. ‘Fifi’ Macaffee

Mad Max

The iconic opening shot of the decrepit “Halls of Justice” indicated something is not quite right.

History in the Making

Mad Max was not the first of the post-apocalyptic/wasteland movies, but it’s the one that seems to get a lot of the credit. It’s not an obvious science-fiction film. Only by virtue of its sequel Mad Max 2 (aka The Road Warrior) does the overt idea of the apocalyptic future wasteland take hold. But, those ideas and the germ that there had been a global destruction of the oil and fuel infrastructure are all present in this film. This was an impressive feat for a first film by director George Miller. Much like The Boys from Brazil, Mad Max is not necessarily considered a genre film. On the surface it’s derivative of exploitation, chase, and revenge films. But Miller takes a formulaic B-level film plot and adds nuance and social commentary to it. He also just made it look better than similar films of that genre. The cinematography of the film makes it obvious that this is not like so many other AIP films from the 70s by Roger Corman or Russ Meyer.

Mad Max also created a world that would endure through three sequels, the most recent of which came 36 years after its progenitor. Its post-apocalyptic ideal would influence many other films of the 1980s. Those other films often were dealing with fallout from nuclear armageddon, much like A Boy and His Dog or Damnation Alley, but the design of Mad Max–fast cars and road rage supreme–crafted an action fueled ideal for others to follow. The Road Warrior, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome and most recently Mad Max: Fury Road showed that sequels to seemingly simplistic action films can actually hold some philosophical importance.

This was also a large film for the Australian market. Sci-Fi Saturdays has looked at films from Japan, Russia, & France, but this is the first and most important sci-fi film from the land down under. It was the beginning of the Australian influx of content to American at the beginning of the 1980s. Films, music (from bands like INXS and Men at Work), and television shows (like The Paul Hogan Show) from Australia graced popular culture in the US during the end of this decade and into the next. Mad Max would take a little over a year to make it to the States, but would become a popular cult film, striking a chord with film fans and gear heads alike.

Mad Max

Toecutter and his gang are a hodgepodge of twisto scoot jockeys out to maim, rape, and kill civilians who venture out onto the highways.


So what makes this film sci-fi? First, even though it appears to be contemporary, it takes place “a few years from now.” This film is not entirely clear what has happened, but it can be intimated that there has been some kind of economic or societal collapse which has led to creation of the Main Force Patrol and gangs of motorcycle riders cruising the roads looking for “action.” Some people might mistakenly believe that the film represents Australia in the late 70s. This of course is ridiculous. Mad Max is a blending of a western, a 70s road picture, and the dystopian science fiction of the 70s like THX 1138, A Clockwork Orange, or Soylent Green. It’s not as overt as they are, but still fits into the same vein.

Some examples from the film that put the setting in a world apart from our own include the existence of the MFP, the language used to describe the bikers (again, sometimes mistaken for Australian slang), and the several mentions of a fuel shortage. The iconic opening shot of the film shows the dilapidated “Halls of Justice.” Weeds are growing over the signage, which is the headquarters for the MFP. Their offices are trashed inside, indicating the group is squatting more than taking ownership of the offices. Yet, this is their main headquarters where their cars are stored and worked on. The film also mentions the black V8 that Max is “gifted” as being the last of the Interceptors. It could be they’re referring to the last of that model, but given everything else going on, something more has happened.

The film also makes use of a number of new slang terms used to describe, mostly, the bikers. Phrases like “twisto bikey,” “scoot jockey,” & “nomad trash” help provide clues about the nature of this world and the people in it, much like A Clockwork Orange invented new slang terms to separate Alex and his droogs from straight society. Mad Max also intimates that there’s a fuel shortage. When Max returns to the mechanic that pointed his wife towards the ice cream shop at the beach (putting her in contact with Toecutter and his gang), the mechanic says that they’re “out at the beaches, looking for fuel.” This may seem like a particularly gang-related sort of thing to do–steal fuel. But later in the movie we see the gang boarding a gasoline tanker and siphoning off several gallons of fuel. It’s not until the prologue of The Road Warrior that audiences will understand that “two mighty warrior tribes went to war and touched off a blaze which engulfed them all,” destroying pipelines and society in the process.

Mad Max also is a strong, early entry in the burgeoning action genre of the late 70s. Like Death Race 2000, which was more of a satire, Max has extreme takes on violence, death, and the allure of the road. Fast cars, reckless behavior, and wild crashes would herald the advent of other action films coming in the next decade. Over-the-top films of violence and carnage–some sci-fi, many not–that provide a small rush of adrenaline to the audiences gathered to watch.

Mad Max

Max, stripped of the things hat were holding him back (his family), makes a dark decision to go full vigilante as a road warrior for justice.

Societal Commentary

The film contains a lot of setup of the divide and conflict between Max and Toecutter. It’s a story of a man taken to the breaking point, and actually breaking. It’s a story of grief and revenge. Max is a man that does his job, and he’s very good at it. The opening makes that abundantly clear. After two MFP cars and a motorbike wreck, Max is the only one that is able to bring the Nightrider to justice. He’s an anti-hero, even for the time. A savage lawman in a savage land. But once his child is killed and his wife injured, something inside Max snaps, and he becomes a vigilante seeking justice. Much like the Marvel Comics character The Punisher, Max actively seeks out the villains and administers his own brand of justice. As the Halls of Justice degrade and fall to ruin, this world seeks a new instrument to mete out punishment.

But Max didn’t want this. In fact it was what he was afraid of happening. He tells his Sergeant that he wants to retire. He’s afraid that he’s beginning to like it out there, “on that road, and I’m one of them, you know? A terminal crazy.” He says the only difference is that he has a small bronze badge separating him from the bikers. He then drives into the prohibited area of the world–leaving behind civilization and setting his life on a new course. It’s a metaphor for modern man in the guise of a road-Western. Much like Michael Douglas losing his mind in 1993s Falling Down, Max decides to give up what’s left of his life and succumb to the darkness and savagery of the wastelands.

One final point that I want to make about the film is the way it deals with Max’s child. The boy, only called by the Australian slang word for child–”sprog,” seems only to exist to be the element that drives Max over the edge. There are many times he’s not even addressed. Who is taking care of the boy? Jess heads off to the beach, while May sits down for some tea, and Max is working on his car. Sprog is nowhere to be seen, which is convenient for the bad guys to grab him and use him to threaten Jess and later Max. It’s the one small complaint about an otherwise well constructed film.

Mad Max

George Miller had characters pole vaulting onto trucks decades before he used that same imagery in “Mad Max: Fury Road.”

The Science in The Fiction

While the motivations of the characters in the film in regard to fuel may seem distant and ill-defined, it’s important to remember during the making of this film the world especially the Western world, was experiencing oil-shortages. First in 1973 and then in 1979, OPEC embargoed oil to several nations of the world, resulting in increased prices for barrels of oil, higher prices for gas, and actual rationing and shortages at the gas stations. In the United States long lines stretched out at the pumps as people waited hours to fill their cars with the precious life-blood for the 4-cylinder engine.

Unlike other apocalyptic films using famine, war, or plague, using an oil and fuel shortage was much more tangible to filmgoers. By the 1970s cars had become a passion and an extension of Western mythology, allowing people to travel the open roads and high speeds, free from the burdens of society. Lack of fuel would stifle this lifestyle and certainly become a concern to many. Mad Max becomes a commentary on many levels by the end of the film, eschewing order for chaos as Max decides to buck the system and reclaim the myth of the open road for himself.

Mad Max

It’s impossible to catch the action from the chase sequences, but this image shows a little of the dynamic setup, and low camera angles used for the thrilling action moments.

The Final Frontier

As mentioned earlier George Miller would continue the franchise with three sequels (with a fourth rumored to be currently in the works). Music for this film and The Road Warrior was created by Brian May. This is of course Australian composer Brian May, and not the British rocker from the band Queen. It’s confusing since by the time Mad Max was released in the States, Queen had recorded the soundtrack for Flash Gordon, and would continue writing scores and soundtracks for films through the 1980s.

The film also features an actor and at least one concept that Miller would revisit in his 2015 dystopian epic, Mad Max: Fury Road. Hugh Keays-Byrne portrays Toecutter as a twisted psychopath praying on the innocent people through fear and violence. Miller asked him to return to the franchise in 2015 as a completely new character, Immortan Joe. Joe is an entirely different character than Toecutter, but equally if not more engaging. Both portrayals allow for the character of Max (and others) to shine. Miller also took a visual of the bikers pole vaulting onto a moving gas tanker from this film and used that (in a much grander way) in Fury Road. It was cool to see the origins in this film.

Of course, most people know this and The Road Warrior as the films that launched the career of Mel Gibson. The first three Mad Max films would be his only foray into science-fiction, spending the majority of his film career as an action hero or leading man in comedies and dramas. Mad Max takes a low-budget idea that might commonly be a B-movie and accelerates it into a thoughtful, and exciting film about the darker side of the human psyche. The themes presented here would be the seeds to which Miller and Gibson, along with others, would cultivate in future films and stories about the future of the world.

Coming Next

Battlestar Galactica

This website uses cookies to improve your experience. Accept Privacy Policy