Mad Max (1979)
By: Paul Ryan on October 10, 2009  | 
MGM (USA). Region: 1, NTSC. 2.35:1 (16:9 enhanced). English DD 5.1, English DD 2.0, English (Dubbed) DD 2.0. English, Spanish, French Subtitles. 93 minutes
The Movie
Cover Art
Director: George Miller
Starring: Mel Gibson, Hugh Keays-Byrne, Steve Bisley, Joanne Samuel
Screenplay: James McCausland, George Miller
Country: Australia
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Though it is now thirty years since it first hit cinema screens, Mad Max feels just as vital, thrilling and unique as ever. This futuristic tale of escalating vengeance between cops and bikers launched the careers of Mel Gibson and director George Miller, and watching it today, it's easy to see why. This is a film rich in brilliantly choreographed action - combining the near-insane stuntwork of Grant Page with David Eggby's imaginative (and extremely high-risk) cinematography - jet-black humour, and an eccentric cast of characters. Moreover, this is a film with a ferocious sense of confidence and drive, with nary a wasted moment. Nothing in the film feels extraneous or indulgent. Every scene - every frame - builds to a cohesive whole.

Unlike many other revenge thrillers, Mad Max also has heart. Over the course of the film, we really develop a connection with Max Rockatansky (Gibson) and his gentle wife Jessie (Joanne Samuel), who are an empathetic, and genuinely likable couple. Their interactions - not to mention the blokey camraderie of Max and his fellow Main Force Patrol officers - help to make us truly care for these characters, making the eventual tragedies that befall Max all the more meaningful. It might be easy to underrate Gibson's performance in the romantic scenes of the film – after all, his easygoing larrikin persona is the cornerstone of his screen image – without these moments, there wouldn't be enough of a contrast between Max, the loving, good-humoured family man, and Max, the vengeance-driven, hollow-eyed shell with absolutely nothing left to lose. It's this light and shade that makes the character so memorable, and so compelling. Its not just the loss of Max's friends and family that are the tragedy of the story, but the loss of Max himself. It's hackneyed to say it, but you can really see why Gibson became a star as a result of this performance. Equally good is Steve Bisley as Max's partner, and best friend, Jim Goose, whose wisecracking veneer covers a deep undercurrent of rage and frustration at a world fallen apart.

Mad Max's atmosphere is truly unique, and has never been equaled by either its sequels, or the flood tide of knockoffs it spawned. It's a world of decay – moral, economic, and social – typified by the shambolic, trash-strewn interiors of the Halls of Justice that The Bronze operates out of. Yet there is a constant streak of laconic, often black humor that offsets the potential oppressiveness of this world. Whilst Mad Max 2 created a influential post-apocalyptic (and, unlike this film, explicitly post-atomic) aesthetic of desert wastelands, the countryside/industrial/outer suburban settings of Mad Max carry their own indelible sense of latent menace. The unusual character names (Rockatansky, Goose, Sprog, and so on), and quirky characters (Roger Ward's bald, brawny Fifi Macaffee looks like he could have stepped out of Tom of Finland) and to the texture of a strange and unusual world.

The elemental, almost primal madness of the Toecutter and his gang could have seemed hammy or overly campy in the hands of a less assured filmmaker, but the sustained mood of the film instead reinforces a sense of menace that constantly emanates from these villains. From Vincent Gill's manic, demented Night Rider, to Tim Burns' dim-witted Johnny the Boy and most notably Hugh Keays-Byrne's unpredictable, animalistic Toecutter, these are movie thugs unlike any other. Funny and despicable, but – unlike many screen villains - never so overpowering that they steal the show from the hero.

Or, as turns out, anti-hero. One of the things that makes Mad Max so powerful is that in order for its protagonist to finally defeat these marauding, depraved thugs, he has to be stripped of every vestige of humanity by the film's end, becoming just as brutal, just as cold – maybe even more so – than the monsters he seeks to bring down.

Mad Max was banned in New Zealand and Sweden, and heavily cut in many other territories, but there is really very little actual graphic violence. The fact that film still carries an R18+ rating over here is testament to Miller's ability to create a sense of brutality through frenzied editing, abetted by Brian May's high-strung, deliriously melodramatic score. Some of the worst violence occurs either off-screen (the rape of the fleeing couple, for example) or is potently implied (as when Jessie and her baby are felled by the Toecutter's bikes).

Notoriously, Mad Max's American release was comprehensively botched. Picked by American International Pictures just as the company was swallowed up by Filmways, the new AIP management took the step of re-voicing the film with American accents – the only other Australian film I've ever heard this happen to is Patrick, by the way – and dumped in it drive-ins and grind houses. Its subsequent commercial failure in the US was the reason Warner Brothers retitled the sequel The Road Warrior for its American release, as it was figured no one there had heard of the original. In fact until this 2001 DVD release, the original Australian-voiced release had never been commercially available in the United States.

Unlike the Australian DVD release by Roadshow (which features a DTS track, but very minimal extras), this release by MGM comes with a raft of bonus material. This double-sided disc (with the film and commentary on side 1, and bonus material on side 2) is easily the most impressive version currently available.
One or two minor blemishes aside, this restored anamorphic transfer is simply beautiful. Colours are rich and natural, and the detail - check out that jetstream behind Gibson's head as he staggers down the highway - is just stunning. For the philistines among you, there's also a pan-and-scan version included, so if you prefer the film with 55% of the image missing, knock yourselves out. With a blunt object, preferably.
With this release, American viewers get to finally hear how the actors really sounded, whilst we curious Aussies get to have our national pride kicked squarely in the nuts by the embarrassing dub track, so it's the best and worst of both worlds really. The original Australian audio track comes in both 2.0 mono and remastered 5.1. The infamous American dub is mono-only, and deserves no better, but is welcome for the sake of completeness. The 5.1 track isn't quite as lively as you'd expect, but has some effective directional cues and depth. Audio sync on all tracks is good, though some of the uniquely Aussie slang is rewritten for the dub – for example, "Charlie's copped a saucepan in the throat" becomes "Charlie's been hurt bad in the throat" - and it's very obvious whenever it comes from the actors mouths. This track sounds audibly rougher than the other two Aussie tracks, with some changes in pitch, along with a bit of crackle and hiss. The Australian mono track is much smoother.
Extra Features
Audio Commentary – David Eggby (Director of Photography), Jon Dowding (Art Director), Chris Murray (Special Effects Supervisor), Tim Ridge (Historian/Fan): Though neither Miller not Gibson are involved, this commentary track is very, very good. The four participants - three who worked on the film, one who's a big fan - have plenty to say throughout, with Eggby the most active contributor. This a great listen, and really gets into the nuts and bolts of the film's shoot, with locations, logistics and budgetary issues discussed at length.

"Mad Facts" Trivia Track: A nice idea, this one, but not very well-executed. This trivia track can be played in tandem with the film – in red-bordered text at the top or bottom of frame – but is full of inaccuracies. Among these, the track claims sections of the film were shot in Sydney and Western Australia (just look at a map of Australia and consider the logistics that would involve), and that Tim Burns (Johnny the Boy) is the same Tim Burns who appeared in a 1967 episode of Star Trek. Australian viewers are at least sure to get a chuckle from the stilted attempts at translating – often incorrectly – Aussie slang. Play this at the same time as the commentary and the factual errors become even more apparent.

Mel Gibson – The High Octane Birth of a Superstar: As the fawning title implies, this is a less-than-probing bit of hagiography concerning Gibson's early career. While the range of interviewees (including NIDA teacher Betty Williams, director Michael Pate, and early co-stars John Jarrat and Piper Laurie) is admirable, this is banal stuff, the kind of thing you might see as a cable film channel interstitial. The overwrought, movie-trailer-style narration by George Del Hoyo is truly cringeworthy, but at fifteen minutes, it's thankfully brief.

Mad Max – Film Phenomenon: Considerably better is this 25-minute retrospective piece, despite a similarly overbaked voiceover. The participants from the audio commentary are again featured here, and while some anecdotes are repeated from that track, there are some new stories included as well. David Stratton provides a local critical perspective, while American reviewers Andrew Johnston and Kirk Honeycutt make some points about the film's echoing of Western tropes. We also get to meet an Aussie fan who owns what is claimed to be Max's original Pursuit vehicle, and all things considered, it is in remarkably good condition.

Trailer: This is listed in the menu as the original Australian trailer, but is actually the US release trailer, complete with MPAA rating and dubbed American voices. Even so, it's an exciting, nicely conceived promo, with an eerie synth score that evokes the uniquely strange atmosphere of the film.

TV Spots: Four short TV ads for the film, which at least shows that AIP did do a little more promotion for the film than you might have heard. All four are in very ragged condition, but they do make you appreciate the restoration of the feature itself.

International Poster Gallery: Sixteen one-sheets and lobby cards from various international territories, including a few original Australian posters. Very nice indeed.

Terminator Special Edition DVD Trailer: A brief bit of promotional fluff for MGM's DVD release of some movie about a killer cyborg that looks remarkably like the Governor of California.
The Verdict
Movie Score
Disc Score
Overall Score
It's galling that such a classic – no, landmark – Australian film gets a much better DVD release in the US, but that's how it is. MGM's release of Mad Max is exceptionally good, though the absence of any input from Miller or Gibson is admittedly a shame. The film itself has been lovingly restored, whilst the extra material – if variable in places – gives additional background and context. Until someone puts out a better release, this is the version to get.

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