One Friday evening in 1980, I journeyed to the far West Side of Chicago to a drive-in on Cicero Avenue and attended what may have been the strangest double feature in the history of the world. The top of the bill was The Gong Show Movie, a film written by, directed by, and starring Chuck Barris, the host of the TV show of the same name. The B-picture was something called Mad Max. And so, sitting in my 1970 Chevy Chevelle, I found myself watching, seriatim, one of the worst movies ever made—for the The Gong Show Movie was irredeemably terrible in a way few things ever are—and one of the most sensational action pictures ever made.
Written and directed by an emergency-room doctor named George Miller, Mad Max portrays a depopulated Australia cut off from oil and rapidly descending into a state of nature as gangs seek to corner the market on the suddenly scarce resource that made society run.
One good cop, a young husband and father named Max, tries to restore law and order, but when his wife and son are killed by a gang of gasoline-obsessed crazies, he hunts them down until he finally finds the leader and cuffs his ankle to a car about to catch fire. Max explains that it will take 10 minutes to saw through the handcuffs but only 5 minutes to saw through his own ankle—and the car will explode in less than 10. Then he walks away as the bad guy screams. Roll credits.
Miller drew on the twin anxieties of the civilized world in the late 1970s to give his movie startling resonance: the fear caused by the leap in urban crime in every democratic society, and the fear of Arab and Persian oil power, which had led to an embargo in 1973 that tripled the price of gasoline and to a cutoff of supply following the fall of the shah in Iran.
Miller’s inexhaustible invention was evident from the way he figured out how to use the emptiness of the Australian continent to convey the breakdown of order—giving the movie the combined pace of an action thriller and intensity of a horror movie and allowing him to make Mad Max for next to nothing.
There would be two sequels over the next few years: The Road Warrior and Beyond Thunderdome. Miller had a lot more money to play with, and he created entire postapocalyptic societies for us to see through the eyes of Mel Gibson’s Max—who became the successor to Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name character from the 1960s spaghetti westerns. There’s no question that The Road Warrior in particular was enormously influential, spawning hundreds of life-after-the-end-of-civilization movies in dozens of languages over the subsequent decades.
But the epic scale of The Road Warrior and Beyond Thunderdome makes them seem silly in a way Mad Max never is. In addition, Miller turned out to have an unfortunate Jungian streak, and so his movies are shot through with archetypal self-seriousness of the sort peddled so successfully in the 1980s by ersatz wise man Joseph Campbell.
Now, three decades later, Miller has brought forth Mad Max: Fury Road. There’s a new Max (Tom Hardy), and unlike the old one, who was “mad” in the sense of “angry,” this one is “mad” in the sense of “crazy.” And so is the movie. It’s nuts. It’s bananas. It’s got the most advanced case of ADHD in motion-picture history. It makes the hyperactive Road Warrior look like security-camera footage from the lobby of a Mormon temple.
This is kind of an alt-version of the original story, since we’re now 75 years into a postapocalyptic world that has resulted not from an oil shortage but from a global thermonuclear war. Max is taken captive at the beginning of the movie by a vicious warlord who is mostly sealed in plastic to hide his radiation sores. The movie’s opening scenes at the warlord’s citadel offer a genuinely startling vision of hell on earth. The warlord’s army is made up of hairless, white-skinned teenagers whose bodies are racked with cancerous tumors. Max becomes a “blood bag” for one of these kids, meaning that the kid is kept alive and strong through a direct transfusion from Max’s veins into his.