Directed by Philippe Mora and starring a feisty, young Dennis Hopper, Mad Dog Morgan (originally release as, simply, Mad Dog which is what the title card for this release reads) cast the actor in the lead role during a strange time in his career. After The Last Movie flopped, he went and did some odd low budget and foreign projects, this being one of them. That said, this quirky Australian film set during that country's gold rush and based on a true story is one of Hooper's best efforts as an actor.
Set during the mid 1800s, we meet an Irishman named Daniel Morgan who has joined plenty of other people in heading to Australia from his homeland to hopefully make a fortune panning for gold. Morgan is a bit of a hothead, however, and after getting on the wrong side of the law, after smoking a lot of dope and committing armed robbery. He winds up in a prison camp where he's raped by his fellow inmates, all in plain view of an establishment that could care less about what happens to him. The guards simply let it happen.
A few years later, he's set free and finds himself wandering rather aimlessly throughout Australia, eventually resorting to various criminal activities to earn a living and more than happy to act out against the authorities who locked him up. He meets up with an Aborigine named Billy (David Gulpilil) from who he learns various survival tactics. Morgan eventually heads into Victoria to take on the law face to face with Billy in tow but we all know what happens to mad dogs... they're generally put down.
Mad Dog Morgan, particularly in its uncut form as it is presented here, is a pretty vicious film. Hopper really gets into the role here, long before he made a career out of playing lunatics on the big screen in movies like Blue Velvet, and he winds up delivering a fantastic and crazed performance that's definitely in the top tier of his filmography. You can absolutely believe he is the unhinged madman he's playing in this film, as he just completely throws himself into his work. The supporting cast, many of whom will be familiar to fans of Australian exploitation films of the time, are all perfectly good here but it's definitely Hopper's show and he steals every scene he's in. His relationship with Gulpilil's Billy is the film's backbone, and if it borders on possibly intentional homoeroticism at times (Morgan tells Billy that he loves him), so be it. They share a very strong bond between the two of them, so it's not so surprising that Morgan reacts as maniacally as he does when Billy gets injured in a firefight.
Contrasting with the rather harsh nature of the storyline and the violence that it contains is the cinematography that comes courtesy of Mike Malloy, who had previously worked with Nicholas Roeg. The camerawork does a fantastic job of capturing the natural beauty of the area where the film takes place with plenty of long shots showing off just how empty and uninhabited parts of the country were. It makes the perfect setting for the story to play out it, making the film feel very much like a Spaghetti Western at times, complete with a stirring instrumental soundtrack made up of some rather unsettling Aboriginal music.
Mora's movie may take some liberties with the story as far as historical accuracy is concerned, but it's ripe with atmosphere and tension that is made all the more effective when the film's sporadic violence burst onto the screen. Bullets plow through heads, burning men jump off of cliffs into the water below (one of infamous Aussie stuntman Grant Page's most famous moments - watch The Other Hollywood for some interesting insight into this scene!), and Morgan himself is the victim of a nasty rape. It's trashy at times and more than a little exploitative to be sure but it fits the tone of the picture perfectly, resulting in a pretty damn awesome finished movie.
While Troma has done a decent job on some of their Tromasterpiece titles as of late, Mad Dog Morgan isn't one of them. The film is presented in its original 2.35.1 aspect ratio but the transfer has been sourced from a tape and is presented non-anamorphic letterboxed. There are tape rolls evident throughout the film and the image is frequently soft. Colors are faded and minor compression artifacts aren't hard to spot in the darker scenes. Considering that the film was recently restored for its Australian DVD release, it's a bit frustrating to see Troma using a lousy tape source for their special edition release.
The English language Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo fares marginally better than the video but not by a whole lot. The dialogue is reasonably clear and the levels are fine but the whole thing leans towards the flat side of things. There's a bit of hiss here and there but it's not a constant annoyance even if it is a minor one. No optional subtitles or alternate audio options are offered.
The first disc contains only a brief introduction from Philippe Mora along with the standard menus and chapter stops you'd expect to see, but the second disc has a pretty decent offering of supplemental goodies. First up is a twenty-eight minute conversation between Mora and Hopper entitled That's Our Mad Dog, which is a pretty interesting look back at the making of the movie from the pair. Hopper begins by talking about his experiences in Australia and how he was warned by some of the locals not to screw the film up, what with Morgan being considered a bit of a hero and all. They then proceed to talk about working on the film, the other cast members, the themes of the picture and what it was like shooting out in rural Australia. It's all quite interesting and definitely worth sitting through.
Troma also has listed an Interview With Philippe Mora which is essentially an alternate version of the introduction that he provides to the film on the first disc. More substantial and therefore more interesting are interviews that Mora conducted with cinematographer Mike Malloy and associate producer Richard Brennan. Both are pretty decent efforts and between the two they do a good job of covering how Hopper came on board and what it was like to work with him during this odd period in his life and career, how the film got started and what it was like shooting and lighting a picture like this. An audio only interview that Mora conducted with an Australian radio station when the film was released is also included.
Rounding out the extras are a brief Locations Featurette (0:44) that compare the locations then to what they look like now, seven minutes worth of deleted scenes, a still gallery, a collection of pages from the film's original press book, a Troma re-release trailer for the feature and trailers for other Troma productions. The Australian release featured an additional documentary on the film and a commentary from Mora, neither of which appear on this release, unfortunately.
The extras are pretty decent and the movie itself is great, making it all the more disappointing that Mad Dog Morgan looks as bad as it does on this DVD. Seeing the film in its uncut form is a plus, but it's hard to recommend this title when a superior version has been released elsewhere. For those without region free capabilities, this is the best version available, however. If you can get past the bad transfer, this isn't a bad release, but that's not going to be easy to do. Rent it.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.