Mad Max 2 (1981) | Sci-Fi Saturdays

by Jovial Jay

Please welcome back the Warrior of the Wasteland!

Mad Max returns to theater screens in Mad Max 2 which was marketed as The Road Warrior in North America. Director George Miller takes his apocalyptic nightmare and doubles down with the second film in his series which defined the apocalyptic genre in the 80s and beyond, while creating a new interest in Australian cinema and further launching the career of Mel Gibson.

First Impressions

The trailer for Mad Max 2 is an adrenaline filled, post apocalyptic, action film that is short on plot points, but gives audiences a good idea of what to expect from action. The main characters are looking for gasoline for their junkers and have to fight off some bad looking characters. There’s little footage of Mel Gibson (in this iconic role) but that’s only due to the fact that American audiences didn’t know who he was at this time. Grab your shotgun and leather jacket and hop in your Interceptor for a wild ride into the wasteland.

Presented below is the trailer for the film.

Sci-Fi Saturdays

Mad Max 2

Mad Max 2 title card. Also known as “The Road Warrior.”

The Fiction of The Film

At some time in the future, when deserts still spouted black fuel, two warrior tribes went to war until there was no fuel left. These tribes crashed and society went with them. The roads became “a white line nightmare” where gangs roamed looking for fuel and anything else they could scavenge. Max (Mel Gibson) lost his wife and son due to gang violence and turned to the wasteland himself. Now, Max drives his V8 Interceptor on the desolate roadways of the wasteland, partnered only with a dog and whatever he can scrounge. The film opens with him avoiding an attack by a pair of gang members, one with a red mohawk, as he discovers a wrecked truck which yields some gas and a small music box.

Shortly he comes upon an abandoned gyrocopter, but is quickly surprised by its Captain (Bruce Spence) who takes Max prisoner, but Max proves smarter and turns the tables on the Gyro Captain. Max spares the life of the man for information on where he gets his fuel. The Gyro Captain shows Max a refinery in the desert which is under attack by a gang of Marauders, where Max sees the red-mohawked man again, Wez (Vernon Wells). A number of the gang chase down two people trying to escape. They rape and kill the woman and mortally wound the man, Nathan (David Downer), before Max stops them.

Max makes a deal with Nathan to return him to the ad-hoc refinery in exchange for “all the fuel he can carry.” Unfortunately Nathan dies as Max arrives, and with no proof that he’s not also a Marauder he is taken prisoner. The Marauders return with their leader, The Humungus (Kjell Nilsson), to make a deal: walk away from the fuel and their lives will be spared. They have 24 hours. The leader of these settlers, Pappagallo (Mike Preston), says that they need to take the fuel and move out before the gang returns the next day, but a debate rages that they should walk away. Max offers to help them get a rig he saw the day before to haul the fuel to the coast, if they let him go free.

Mad Max 2

The Marauders drive whatever they can cobble together and use human shields as battering rams on the front of their vehicles.

Max leaves at night carrying gas cans and being followed by a small feral boy (Emil Minty). Max evades the Marauders camp and finds the Gyro Captain the next morning, still chained to the dead log, dragging it through the desert. Max frees the other man, so he can carry the fuel cans, and they take the copter to the abandoned semi rig. Max hauls ass back to the refinery–with the Gyro Captain as air support, driving through the Marauders encampment. Wez and a number of others chase them, and a few make it into the refinery compound, killing several of the people before being killed or escaping.

Max changes his mind and no longer wants to drive the truck for them. He just wants to get his gas and go. After Max leaves he is attacked once again by Wez and a couple others. They crash Max’s car and shoot his dog. When one of the other Marauders (Max Phipps) tries to siphon Max’s gas, he unknowingly trips a booby trap which blows up the remaining Marauders, except for Wez who escapes. Max is left for dead, but the Gyro Captain finds him and returns him to the encampment to be tended to.

At this point Max is fed up with constantly battling these bikers and demands to drive the big rig for the settlers. Max heads out the next morning in the semi, with the Gyro Captain following in his copter, and Pappagallo in a souped up dune buggy, with several other warriors on the tanker with arrows and molotov cocktails. The other settlers use the distraction of the fuel truck to exit and go the other direction in a derelict school bus and several other vehicles. The compound explodes shortly after the last settler leaves, killing several Marauders that entered.

Pappagallo, and the warriors on the tanker are all killed by Humungus and the Marauders, and the Gyro Captain’s copter is shot down by a well placed arrow. Max and the Feral Kid, who has stowed away onboard, are being systematically hunted by Wez and the others. Max’s tricky driving kills several of the gang but there are too many. Wez climbs up the front of the cab, but before he can get to the Max, the road warrior plows headlong into the Humungus’s vehicle killing both Marauders. After the crash Max realizes that the tanker was a decoy hauling sand, and all the fuel went safely with the other settlers. The omniscient Narrator is revealed to be the Feral kid, grown up and the leader of the great Northern tribe, who is recounting the story.

Just walk away and we’ll give you a safe passageway in the wastelands. Just walk away and there will be an end to the horror.” – The Humungus

Mad Max 2

The most memorable character from the film is probably Wez, the red mohawked Dog of War and second in command to the Humungus.

History in the Making

Mad Max 2, more commonly known by its American title, The Road Warrior, has become the template for filmmakers creating movies about a post-apocalyptic world. A wasteland with strange, sometimes mutant, gangs where survivors fight for the resources to continue their existence. There are no more cities, just cobbled together shelters from whatever the people can find. It’s actually much closer to the idea of the apocalyptic film A Boy and His Dog than Damnation Alley. Both those films depict a world that is in a post-nuclear state which have pockets of normalized pre-war living–either in an underground bunker or far off location that was spared the fighting. Mad Max 2 has none of that. It’s moved from the semi functional town environment of the first film, in the “wasteland,” where lawlessness and chaos reign. Director George Miller envisions a harsh society where the strong and amoral gangs do what they want, when they want, for what they want.

It also further opened the door for Mel Gibson around the world. Australian audiences had known about him for a couple years. But with both Gallipoli and Mad Max 2, both released in 1981, the rest of the world discovered him. He would go on to become a famous actor and action star for the Road Warrior series (of which he’d star in one more film, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome), and the Lethal Weapon series as veteran and police officer Martin Riggs. But in the four years between this and the next Mad Max film, he would appear in four highly acclaimed films which would garner attention for his acting and not his action. The Year of Living Dangerously, The Bounty, The River and Mrs. Soffel showed the more serious side of the actor working along Academy Award winners Linda Hunt, Anthony Hopkins, Sissy Spacek and Diane Keaton, and distanced him from the warrior of the wasteland he was known for at the time, Max.

Mad Max 2

The Humungus, which invokes part Conan the Barbarian and part Jason Vorhees is a terrifying Warlord of the Wasteland and the Ayatollah of Rock n’ Rolla.


While the original Mad Max felt more like a 1970s exploitation film about biker gangs, with its fast cars and wild stunts, The Road Warrior was something wholly fresh and evocative. It set a new bar for apocalyptic fiction, creating a look and aesthetic that inspired creators from film, television, comics and novels in their approach to writing and depicting an apocalyptic future. Mad Max 2 shares some of the previous genre elements from other genre films like the above mentioned A Boy and His Dog and Damnation Alley, as well as Death Race 2000. Among these are its setting, its props and its costumes.

Set in the Australian desert (but it could be anywhere) the film feels hot and dry. It’s an inhospitable place on the best of days, and here humans have staked their claim and are trying to survive and make more fuel. Their vehicles are scavenged from whatever they could find and get working. These include Pappagallo’s shell-less truck, which looks super dangerous to drive, to the armor plated school bus, and the Frankenstein-like tractor trailer that Max drives. It’s all an improvised looking hodge-podge of materials. The same goes for their clothing. It’s a cross of light flowing fabrics making them look like bedouins, mixed with athletic pads and masks for defense. There’s also an older man dressed in a military uniform which may or may not be his own. With the Marauders, things only get weirder with their ass-less chaps, leather inspired ensembles and other odd, fetishistic elements–which clearly set them apart from the good guys.

It also introduced a future where mankind was not suffering from the overt fallout from a nuclear holocaust (even though there may have been one), but one that was much more grounded in a reality which audiences could better understand: a fuel shortage. Stemming from the world that was described by George Miller in the original Mad Max, this film goes even further to show how precious fuel is–even more than water. Max throws anything he can find under a fuel leak, such as a hard hat and frisbee to catch as much of the gasoline as possible–even going so far as to sop it up with a rag. These elements would inspire many artists both inside and outside of film in creating their own visions of the desolate future. Several filmmakers would make immediate ripoffs of the stylistic elements of the film, such as Warriors of the Wasteland, 1990: The Bronx Warriors, or Warlords of the 21st Century aka Battletruck. Other bigger films would arrive later such as Waterworld, described as The Road Warrior, but on the oceans. Mad Max 2 would also inspire comic and book authors with titles like Tank Girl and Mortal Engine. Even comedies would spoof the popularity of this film such as 1985s Weird Science, where Vernon Wells returns as a mohawked biker that terrorizes the main characters.

Mad Max 2

The costume design invokes the hodgepodge and haphazard lifestyle of the denizens of this world.

Societal Commentary

What sort of person would you become in a lawless world where fuel for your automobile was the most precious thing? “Their world crumbled. The cities exploded. A whirlwind of looting, a firestorm of fear. Men began to feed on men,” says the narrator of the film. Society falls apart without the ability to heat homes, run industry, and wage war–and all that is left is the individual striving for survival. This is Max. He is the lone roamer of the wasteland that serves as both a warning to audiences and a gateway to the adventures of the post-apocalyptic hellscape.

It’s not necessary to know why Max hurts, but his back story is touched on briefly in the prologue. His family was taken from him, so he ran away from the remnants of the society to seek vengeance and survival on the roads. Max works with no one, except out of necessity. He never seems to become friends with the Gyro Captain. He is either prisoner or captor of the seemingly odd man, leaving him without a thought to his existence. But Max’s companionship affects the Gyro Captain. He sees the connection even if Max does not, and comes to rescue him from Wez and the others who leave the road warrior for dead.

Eventually Max decides to “join” this society of settlers, but not because he feels a longing for humanity. He still is driven by the desire for revenge and retribution–wanting to strike the Marauders back for the pain and suffering they have caused him. He is blind to the connections he is making with the tribe, from Pappagallo’s silent respect to the Feral kid seeing something of a father figure in him. Max dismisses the others to continue on his own. Maybe he believes his solitude is a penance for the former life lost to him. Or perhaps his travels as the anti-hero of the apocalypse are to show the audience that there is still good in humanity and these connections are important. More important than fuel.

Mad Max 2

“Mad Max 2” takes the stunts and mayhem from the first and multiplies them by 10.

The Science in The Fiction

Yet fuel is still important to the denizens of this world. The prologue indicates that all of the “black fuel,” which is presumably oil, is gone–or at least its shortage was what touched off the war between the “two tribes.” The settlers manage to find an area where there is still some oil to be had. Presumably the oil derrick at the center of their settlement is one that was already there. It’s difficult to conceive that this group found an oil deposit and brought in a derrick to pump it out. However they do seem to have some knowledge in the refinement of oil into fuel, even though that is never discussed. The conversion of crude oil into a usable gasoline is not an easy process. However, if this station was set up to process the crude in advance, it is possible that the settlers could figure the process out.

In any capacity, dwellers in the new land of The Road Warrior all need to become masters of their domain. When something breaks, you might be able to find a replacement, but the more logical way is to repair it yourself. Max has to discover how to keep his car running, even without fuel. He creates the improvised explosive device underneath the car to stop others from taking what is his, even at the expense of losing the last of the V8 interceptors. Being prepared and learning about the technology at hand is probably the second biggest skill in the wasteland, after surviving.

Mad Max 2

The hockey mask and football pads are definitely not going to help the driver if this car wrecks.

The Final Frontier

George Miller is best known for his Mad Max quadrilogy (soon to have a fifth film focusing on the female character of Furiosa), but has also directed some films that are possibly as far from Mad Max thematically as they can be. After 1985 when he completed Beyond Thunderdome, he worked on two other films The Witches of Eastwick and Lorenzo’s Oil, not sci-fi related by adult fare. But in the 90s and 2000s, Miller would change his oeuvre entirely producing the family friendly Babe, and directing Babe: Pig in the City, and the two Happy Feet animated films. To be able to look at Happy Feet and say that this director also directed The Road Warrior seems like a super odd comparison, but he is a talented creator with many ideas and passions.

Mad Max would return two more times, with Mel Gibson only acting in one of those films. But the notion of the scorched, apocalyptic wasteland would continue in science fiction film and literature for decades. The film has created so many inspirations and parodies that it just seems natural to think about an apocalyptic future in this way. Things will swing around radically next week as Sci-Fi Saturdays takes a look at an entirely different vision of the future as it kicks off the summer movies season of 1982 with the sequel to Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

Coming Next

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

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