Drive Angrier: The Bleak Mayhem Of Mel Gibson's Original Mad Max

For someone who's never been to Comic-Con, the whole idea seems a bit baffling—waiting in line all day to attend a half-hour promotional junket for a movie that won't be out for another year, getting to say you were there when Robert Downey, Jr. said he had a pretty good time making this next Avengers movie. But it would've been something to be in the room this year when they unveiled the masterful trailer for George Miller's Mad Max: Fury Road, out in 2015. Watching it alone on my computer was enough to make me want to murmur, "My world is fire and blood," and then crash my Toyota Sienna into another Toyota Sienna, because holy motherfucking fuck, this thing looks incredible.

It's enough of a miracle that this movie is even getting a chance to exist. George Miller, the Australian lunatic who made the first three Mad Max movies, has been trying for years to get this thing made, spending the last decade and a half in kids-movie territory (don't sleep on the first Happy Feet) and seeing his Justice League movie get trashed because someone thought Zack Snyder had a better idea. It's like Hollywood finally figured something out: Nobody has ever been better than Miller at staging hyper-violent vehicular chaos, and while they've got a master who still wants to work, maybe they should let the man work before he gets too old to do this anymore.

Miller's masterpiece will probably always be 1981's The Road Warrior, his second Mad Max movie, an elemental world-gone-nuts masterpiece. At this point, it's practically impossible to make a post-apocalyptic movie without ripping that one off in one way or another, and its closing 15-minute car chase is easily the best car chase ever put on film. (The Bullitt chase is great and all, but I will shoot a roof-mounted crossbow at the next asshole who tries to tell me it's better.) And for all its weird-as-fuck flaws, 1985's Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome is still the movie that inspired Tupac's "Califonia Love" video, and that alone is worth our unending gratitude. Those movies aren't streaming on Netflix, but last week, Miller's original 1979 Mad Max showed up there, and if you're still having trouble getting excited over Fury Road, go ahead and watch that bad boy again.

Mad Max is a nasty piece of work, even more brutal and nihilistic for taking place in a world that presumably didn't look all that different from 1979 Australia. There's no apocalypse here—the mohawks and codpieces and medieval sieges wouldn't come in until the next movie. An opening chyron tells us that everything we'll be seeing happens "a few years from now," but doesn't offer any clues as to how society got so fucked. But society is still at least there. The world of Mad Max has functional hospitals and mechanic shops and train stations. It has horny disco singers and sleazy lawyers who can get marauding junkie bikers out of jail on technicalities. And while its police force seems to consist entirely of leather-clad psychopaths, that police force, at the very least, exists.

Maybe that's what makes the movie's villains scarier than the cartoon boogeymen of the sequels. The bikers in Mad Max aren't roving tribes stealing oil to survive (though they do steal oil, from a moving tanker). They're just drugged-up assholes who pillage towns for fun, knowing full well that they could get caught or killed and not really caring. They'll blow into town, rape men and women alike, drag people behind their bikes for no reason, and get bloody revenge on any cops who try to stop them. They don't look especially tough or outlandish, and their leather jackets and occasional splashes of hair-bleach are the only hints of the future-punk fashion we'll see on their Road Warrior counterparts. But they do seem to enjoy causing mayhem; Miller cast real Australian bikers in many of the parts, and it shows.

As the movie opens, a bearded nutjob who calls himself the Night Rider has broken out of prison, murdered a rookie cop, and stolen a car, and he keeps himself entertained by cutting a hysterical pro-wrestling promo over the CB radio: "I'm a fuel-injected suicide machine! I am a rocker! I am a roller! I'm an out-of-controller!" The movie's cops go all-in on running him down, smashing through civilian vehicles and beating the shit out of their own cars (and, in one case, vocal chords) in the process. As Max, a young Mel Gibson proves to be the only one capable of unnerving the Night Rider, playing chicken with his car and then aggressively tailgating him until he crashes into an oncoming tanker and blows himself up.

The Night Rider's biker friends get their revenge, burning Max's charming-badass buddy Goose to a crisp. (Mad Max was prescient on a lot of things, and one of those things was the inclusion of a doomed best friend named Goose.) But when those same bikers kill Max's wife and son later in the movie, there's no indication that they even knew they were messing with the same guy who'd killed the Night Rider. Killing women and children is just what they do.

It's a shame Mel Gibson turned out to be a raving anti-Semite a couple of years later, because he is so good at stuff like this. Gibson was only 22 when he filmed the movie, which is mind-boggling, considering that his face already looked like it was sculpted from gravel and steel. Max actually starts out as the most soulful and reasonable of the movie's cops. In one scene, he jabbers endlessly at his wife, trying to tell her how special she is, to the point where she finally tells him to shut up. It's a pretty stark contrast from the Max of later movies, the one who barely ever says a word and only stares daggers into everyone. (And honestly, the domestic-bliss parts of the movie, where Max leaves the police force and goes into full-on dad-and-husband mode, drag pretty badly.) But when his family dies (later in the movie than you might expect), he goes into his ice-blooded murder-machine zone, and it's just about perfect.

Max packs a sawed-off shotgun, but we hardly ever see him shoot anyone or anything. Instead, he prefers to do his killing by driving into people, or by causing them to drive into other people. Consequently, the movie's vehicular stunts are absolutely absurd. Miller made the movie on a $400,000 budget, so we know he didn't have multiple opportunities to stage these wrecks. (He even let his own van get demolished for the cause.) We also know that those vehicles were driven by actual people, and with some of those crashes—the motorcycles flying off the bridge and into the river, the motorcycle crashing headlong into a semi—it's incredible that nobody died for real.

Mad Max went on to make almost $100 million on that budget, making it the most profitable movie in history until The Blair Witch Project broke its cost-to-earnings-ratio record. It was banned in a couple of countries. It turned Gibson into an international movie star, a spot he held for a long time before fucking everything up by being real-life insane. A weirdly bowdlerized version, with American accents dubbed over everyone's voices, ran continually on American UHF channels through the '80s and '90s, and left many a kid scarred. And its raw, nasty, cold-blooded intensity was such that an entire Comic-Con auditorium full of nerds was going apeshit over a sequel 35 years later. With good reason. We all need a little more fire and blood in our world.


Tom Breihan is the senior editor at Stereogum; he's written for Pitchfork, the Village Voice, GQ, Grantland, and The Classical. He lives in Charlottesville, Va. He is tall, and on Twitter.

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