Seeing Mad Max in 1979 was experiencing real culture shock; this garish, stylish, amped-up, souped-up dash of violent poetry was so bald and blunt in its presentation, it seemed as if someone from 1995 had brought it back in a time machine. The pace was faster, the blasts of music sharper, and even the visuals were hyped far beyond what was normal action entertainment: it was if Mad Max were concocted to appeal to sensitivities dulled by decades' worth of more violent entertainment.
What horror films did by in the '70s by upping the visceral & graphic content, the action film finally caught up with in ex-doctor George Miller's Mad Max. Cars didn't just crash, they splattered all over the highway in wrecks that looked unnervingly out of control. The creative car mounts seen in Steven Spielberg's Sugarland Express (themselves inspired by Frankenheimer's Grand Prix) gave the viewer a hubcap's POV of high-speed highway mayhem, with gravelly roads blurring into infinity, and vehicles coming together like asteroids colliding in space.
The action scenes were salted throughout Mad Max in such a way that guaranteed a maximum of violent tension for 1979. Its reputation was superceded three years later by the much more expensive Mad Max 2, aka The Road Warrior, which so upped the ante for violence and constant jeopardy that some viewers who saw this original afterwards were deeply disappointed, as if 2 had established an addict's fix that Mad Max couldn't satisfy. With the exploitative appeal of (yes) an auto wreck you can't turn your eyes from, both of these films gave you the impression that, good gawd, it looks like people had be getting maimed filming these things.
Budgeted at only 200 thousand dollars, Mad Max keeps its tension going with three kinds of scenes: Max's interactions with his vigilante-minded highway patrol buddies; his edgy relationship with his wife, and a chronicle of the gang's warped activities. Nowhere near as stylized as the leather'n octane gang led by Humungous in Mad Max 2, the baddies here behave like biker outlaws fed only by sadism, sex and violence. They have names like Mudguts, Clunk, Daibando, and Starbuck, and affect flashy costumes that mix punk styles with leatherboy fashions of the 60s. The Toecutter makes a ritual out of burying their previous leader, Nightrider, but also keeps his minions in line with a variety of intimidations, including sexual bondage. If the point is that society no longer functions, the tribal group pictured here would seem to be a savage force that celebrates the general breakdown. But they are not an alternative, just parasites, as they feed off the remaining straight society that they need for food and to keep their autos running. Mad Max is exploitation, but of a rather pure kind. Yes, the appeal is the violence and chaos, but there's a nice tension that develops between the anarchy of the bandits, and the repressive counterattack of Max and his cop buddies.
The performances (in the American re-dub, at least) are pitched at an artificially-hyped level that's too gross to even be called comic-book - everybody screams and expresses themselves by smashing things and each other. So the acting is high-genre-mimetic, with suicidal killers going from screaming rage to whining tears at the turn of a steering wheel, and cops who don't know how to talk without shouting. Mel Gibson made his mark and started his climb to stardom by simply looking like a handsome bruiser with a hint of sensitivity in his eyes. Everyone else has mostly one-note characterizations that they fulfill with gusto.
It's the direction that keeps pushing things over the top. Using mostly wide angle lenses, the sense of depth is exaggerated so that a forward movement toward an actor literally throws his nose into your face. Miller uses effects boldly and expressively, holding nothing back; the strongest moment is a smash move into Max's tortured eyes when he beholds his burned buddy on a hospital bed. The crash of music blends with eyes that look like they're popping out of his head.
Finally, with Mad Max and its sequel, the Aussie Miller forever hijacked the 'road' picture away from us Yanks (until last year's The Fast and the Furious?). Thunder Road probably initiated the subgenre, and remained the champion from 1958 until Gone in 60 Seconds in the '70s. It now looks like a fossil with its slow passages and rear-projected driving scenes. But besides the crashes and high-speed gear-shifting tension, Mad Max does have the sense of drifting, of the loner at one with the highway and a misfit everywhere else, that Robert Mitchum pioneered in his moonshine epic. As only a good genre movie can do, the strange closeups of Mel Gibson, with the windshield reflecting the passing road, evoke the same alienation and melancholy.
MGM Home Entertainment's DVD of Mad Max is going to be a satisfying package both for established fans and new recruits. The transfer is very good, looking far better than AIP's original fuzzy release prints. The aspect ratio is not as wide as on an earlier letterboxed laserdisc, perhaps 2.10 to 1 by my guess. The disc is two sided, with a choice of 16:9 and flat transfers on one side and the majority of the extras on the other.
The docus are slick and informative, but overly packed with film footage that's a spoiler if you've not seen the film, and redundant if you have. The Mel Gibson career piece is very fluffy, concentrating on his beginnings in Australia and then by necessity glossing over most of Mel's entire superstar career, because none of his big successes are MGM properties. You get plenty of people just falling over themselves to say how beautiful a young man he was. Original crewmembers Jon Dowding, David Eggby, Chris Murray and Tim Ridge provide a nice commentary track that betrays their excitement filming this thing when they were young and very, very reckless.
A second 'Road Rants' track is a subtitle track that pops up with a wealth of detailed information, naming the actors and specifying all the cars. It's like having a know-it-all telling you to watch for continuity errors and the like, and is a lot more appealing than it sounds (Savant hates those FxM annotated presentations of movies). TV spots and a trailer are included, and although the trailer is menu'ed as Australian, it starts out with an MPAA notice!
The big thrill of this DVD, and the extra we've all been waiting for, is hearing the original Australian dialogue track, which admittedly neutralizes some of Savant's original feelings about the film, as exploitative and shrill. In their original dialects, with their voices matching their mouths, the cop characters come off as a lot more interesting and human, more 'natural' actually than the comicbook characters of The Road Warrior. That optional subtitle fact track is useful here too, as it explains some thicker instances of Oz jargon in the dialogue, including profanity that doesn't sound profane at all to us Yanks.
The now-intolerable American track is included as well, along with French and Spanish dubs that are nice; overall, there's a high ratio of useful extras on this disc and not just fluff. For those wondering why it took so long to hear the original audio, remember that MGM just acquired the title from Orion five years ago, and Orion got it from AIP back around 1981 ... and you can just bet that any request to the Australians for restoration help was probably met with demands that AIP's original commitment be revisited! Luckily, MGM cared enough to straighten it all out.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,