Mad Max (1979) Blu-ray Review

A column article by: Charles Webb
Mad Max (1979)
Director: George Miller
Writer: George Miller, James McCausland, Byron Kennedy (story)
Starring: Mel Gibson, Hugh Keays-Byrne, Steve Bisley, Tim Burns
Release Date: April 12, 1979



First off, if you haven’t see Mad Max before and you’re the kind of person who frequents this site, I’d recommend that you remedy the former immediately. Go on, don’t let Mel Gibson’s presence scare you away—being crazy in his 50’s doesn’t wipe out all of the good works he’s done in his 30+ years as an actor.

Back? Cool, let’s talk Mad Max, which recently made its debut on blu-ray. The 1979 film (released in 1980 in the U.S.) was the precursor to the apocalyptic cheapies of the next decade, spanning everything from the Tim Thomerson 3D craziness of Metalstorm: The Destruction of Jared Syn (1983), to one of the movies I hate the most from the 80’s, Cherry 3000. Technically, the imitators were a response to the surprise success of Mad Max along with the all-out phenomenon that was The Road Warrior, but Max is the progenitor for the “dirt/leather/apocalypse”-genre. Everything in it forms the template for much of the apocalyptic fiction to follow: the fetishized clothing, the weirdly sexual villains, the lack of or ineffectual central authority.

What’s surprising re-watching the movie for the first time in so many years is how briskly-paced the film is. Clocking in at 93 minutes, it wastes no time explaining whatever cataclysm broke down society (or at least Australia), barely has time for characterization, and really only has one line of motivation for most of the characters: revenge. Max (Gibson) and the other cops of the Main Force (the post-apocalyptic police in the film) are effectively at war with a biker gang led by Toecutter (Keays-Byrne), who rolls into the area after one of his gang members, the Night Rider, dies in the spectacular chase that opens the film. The whole thing is cyclical, you see—the cops were chasing Night Rider because he’d just killed some police officers.

Max is the most formidable and competent of the Main Force officers, fearless to the point of recklessness, but perhaps it’s because he’s the one with the most to lose if the bikers and the killers win: back home he has a wife and infant son, and the movie plays with the idea a bit that Max is about ready to pack it in. Max isn’t especially heroic, he’s just the most sane of all the characters, including the other cops, the bushido gear-wearing D.A., and of course, the bikers.

Here’s the trailer, so you can get some sense of how this utterly grim movie was presented to the world:

You’ll notice the American voice dubbing used in the trailer—apparently, until 2002 release of the DVD in the U.S., the movie was only available with the American dub. It’s interesting to reflect that Gibson would be able to make such a huge impression on American audiences without the benefit of his own voice in his breakout role. In truth, Max’s voice is the least interesting thing about him. He doesn’t have very many lines (that I can recall), and Gibson plays him at first with a devil-may-care attitude and in the final act with a dead-inside-and-you-will-be-too glower.

It’s also interesting that the trailer does a little bit of a bait and switch, underselling the nihilism of the movie. Despite being pretty brutal, it plays up the heroic image of Max and the other cops without a hint of the recklessness and madness that seems to inflict them in as near a measure as Toecutter and his gang.

This actually defines the pretty clear line drawn between Mad Max, its imitators, and even its own sequels. The latter are all action experiences focused on the usual stakes and quest template, while Max was—consciously or not—a grim statement of a moment in a conjectural future. Without really elaborating too much on the cause, it says quite definitely that at the end of the world, we’re all going to become animals, gnashing our teeth. The difference between the officers of the Main Force and Toecutter’s gang is really a matter of degrees. Both are about winning, but it’s the Main Force cops who are finally catching on that the rules of the game aren’t on their side anymore.

The Presentation
Someone must have really cared about restoring the movie given the quality of the transfer. With only some minor exceptions the image is gorgeous, with color levels cranked up just enough to make some of the mean machines in the movie pop right off the screen.

It’s not an unqualified success: during some of the darker scenes, the grain levels tend to get a little out of hand, but I’d be surprised if the original materials used for this disc were much to work with.

Special Features

Disc 1 (blu-ray)
Mel Gibson: Birth of a Superstar
Mad Max: The Film Phenomenon
Original Theatrical Trailers
Commentary with cinematographer David Eggby, art director John Dowding, effects supervisor Chris Murray, moderated by Tim Ridge
Road Rants trivia track
Photo Gallery
TV Spots

The commentary is full of all kinds of trivia related to realizing the apocalypse on a shoestring budget. But most of the back and forth between Eggby and the rest of the crew tends to feel self-congratulatory and not especially insightful. I’ll cop to not being so hot on the commentary due to the absence of director George Miller. It would have been insightful to hear his thoughts on the movie 30 years after the fact, particularly given the energy he’s put into reviving the franchise for the new millennium.

The other features are ported from the 2002 disc and don’t really add all that much beyond condensing the experience of watching the film with the commentary track.

Disc 2 DVD
Commentary with cinematographer David Eggby, art director John Dowding, effects supervisor Chris Murray, moderated by Tim Ridge
Mad Max: The Film Phenomenon

If you liked this review, be sure to check out more of Charles Webb's work at his blog Monster In Your Veins.

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