In the late 1970s, George Miller was a young Australian emergency room doctor with big screen dreams. Inspired by the countless horrific car wrecks that brought in numerous patients to his hospital and the effects of the 1973 oil crisis on Australia, Miller had a dream of a vibrant and kinetic film that captured the madness and anarchy that he saw. Paired with friend and fellow amateur filmmaker Byron Kennedy, Miller would spend several years gathering up financing (including earning cash himself by taking emergency medical calls with Kennedy) for the film that would become 1979’s Mad Max.
With a meager budget of between $350,000 and $400,000, Miller’s vision of Mad Max would come to life as a scrappy, wild exploitation film thanks to the any-means-necessary attitude of the tiny team making the movie. Set “a few years from now” according to the text intro, Mad Max takes place in a future where law and order is rapidly breaking down, with a crumbling Australian society protected by the few unhinged highway officers of the Main Force Patrol. Following a wild chase that sees an outlaw known as The Nightrider killed, Officer Max Rockatansky and his fellow cops are targeted by the criminal Toecutter and his ruthless gang. The chaos that follows threatens to engulf the body and soul of Max.
Mad Max’s narrative is weirdly paced, consistently shifting in focus, and full of strange detours. That is to say, it’s a typical exploitation film of the time. It means that the film is inherently uneven and may feel strange to fans who have come to the franchise due to any of its other entries. By nature of being low budget, the world of the original Mad Max doesn’t feel as unique as the one presented in the other films. It’s 1970s rural Australia, just with extra chaos thrown in to show how society is falling apart. In addition, the film has a heavy focus on Max’s MFP partner Jim Goose (Steve Bisley) in its first half, who is heavily affected by the chaos of the world and whose eventual death causes Max to quit being an officer. Yet the film really comes to life in its brutal, low budget/high risk action sequences, which show a style and energy that little of the rest of the film can match. Mad Max may have been seen as high voltage insanity back in 1979, but the escalation of its sequels and the film world in general makes it seem like a quaint character piece in comparison today. However, it still largely works, with Max’s happy family life juxtaposed against the world’s chaotic violence in order to give greater emotional heft to the story at hand.
Unlike most common exploitation films of both then and now, Miller chooses to leave much of the violence of Mad Max off screen and implied through the reactions of characters. And the film is all the better for it. Max’s tortured reactions to the charred body of his friend Goose and the incredibly evocative and artistically tragic deaths of his wife and child on the highway are far more impactful than any amount of visceral detail could do. By skirting around graphic violence, Miller was forced to be far more artistic in his filmmaking. That elevates the craft of a film that could have been all about cheap thrills and makes the revenge rampage that follows feel justified in a more personal manner.
Speaking of rampages, the action in Mad Max is all about speed. Blazing fast cars and motorcycles bomb down tiny highways, attempting to run each other off the road and revel in the chaos that ensues. Miller placed cameras on the cars themselves, capturing their breakneck speeds firsthand and often ramping up the film speed for even faster vehicular mayhem. And when it came to stunts, Miller’s team put life and limb at risk to pull off the insane crashes that were called for. While they may not have the fine-tuned nature of big studio movie stunts, the reality and immediacy of Mad Max’s car crashes make them far wilder. Motorcyclists are flung off bridges, cars plow through other vehicles, and the sheer ferocity of the chases still hum with life today.
Just as importantly, Miller makes sure to show the stakes of the car chases throughout the films. People die quick and brutal deaths, innocent lives are put at risk, and the dangers of the chases are reflected on the faces of everyone involved. In a moment of brilliant insanity, Miller has the eyes of a victim bulge out in an almost Looney Tunes-like manner before he rams head-on into a tractor trailer, providing a sudden and grotesque shock which quietly winks at the audience that laps up the violence they are being fed.
While cops and criminals alike sweat and bluster from the intensity of the car chases (and one even appropriately cribs AC/DC lyrics), Max is cold and intensely resolute in every chase. At the film’s beginning, he’s the embodiment of unrelenting justice on the road, quickly running down The Nightrider when no one else could. By its end, he’s the unhinged personification of revenge, powering through every brutal injury and massacring The Toecutter and his gang one by one with a cold and unfeeling rage. Gibson was only 23 years old when Mad Max was released and his baby face proves his age. While that may undermine the idea of Max being a worn out cop, Gibson already had plenty of charisma, even if it was in an unrefined and untrained form. He’s often called upon to wordlessly react and emote with very little dialogue (a trend that would continue in the rest of the Mad Max films), and while his best scenes don’t come until the film’s climax, he captures the audience’s attention and sympathies as he begins his quest of revenge.
Bisley as Goose adds some comic relief while also capturing the pathos of living in a world that’s slowly falling apart while Hugh Keays-Byrne embraces the anarchy and violence as the vicious Toecutter. It’s a wild, unhinged, scenery-devouring performance that adds some needed vibrancy to a somewhat dour world. Keays-Byrne most certainly makes an interesting acting choice in each of his scenes, maybe even two or three. But with moments like his oddly terrified reaction to a granny with a gun and his charismatic insistence on one of his gang members setting fire to a trapped Goose, you can’t fault him for going as far as possible with The Toecutter. Keays-Byrne would return as the markedly different Immortan Joe in Fury Road, establishing him as one of the Mad Max series’ most valuable players.
The low budget, unpolished nature of Mad Max works against it just as much as it works for it, resulting in unpolished dialogue, a somewhat unlively tone, and a shoestring budget you can see, as well as unbridled passion, gutsy filmmaking choices, and the noticeable fingerprints of a burgeoning filmmaker.
Given that Miller and his team filmed wherever they could, set up takes fast in order to avoid the law, and even temporarily stole props from nearby stores to furnish sets as needed, it’s remarkable that Mad Max has the clear vision that it does. Miller’s voice comes through even the most limited of budgets and it’s no wonder that the film caught fire with audiences around the world, leading to not just more Mad Max movies, but the subgenre of “ozploitation” in the years to come, which saw countless no-budget Australian films look to capture (or just rip off) the spirit of Miller’s debut film.
The legacy of Mad Max would grow stronger and wilder in the years to come, but the seeds of this highly influential franchise would be planted in the fertile soil of a low-budget exploitation film with style, energy, and creativity to spare.
Next, read about Miller’s masterpiece sequel in The Weird, Western Apocalyptic Fairy Tale of “The Road Warrior”