Now Playing: Zombieland
Because of the season, or because someone who actually thinks that movies are fun is in charge, but local TV has pulled out a surprising string of cult movies and unjustly forgotten nuggets the last few months. The other day we were treated to George Miller's MAD MAX (1979), a local Australian production which to my knowledge never has been broadcast here before. And it was a very good print too, obviously a recent digital transfer.
Although Miller and the Mad Max franchise would go on to Hollywood success in the 1980s, this first instalment carries its low-budget origins with pride. Taking a page or three from the Roger Corman school of production, Miller shrewdly makes his finances go along way, squeezing out tension and valuable minutes of screen-time from sequences of smartly staged shots of cars and bikes zooming across the empty Australian prairie. In fact, already here you can see that Miller had a unique talent for shooting road action, something which became dazzlingly clear with the ROAD WARRIOR. A few different camera positions are utilized, some which clearly required special built side-cars and contraptions, and with a nicely paced editing the result is a more concentrated variant on the late '60s biker movies. Australians are known for their obsession with cars, something which colors Mad Max throughout--the only thing Mel Gibson's main character seems to be interested in except his young family is cars, and their advantages and problems. The bad guys all ride motorcycles, naturally.
The future Australia of Mad Max isn't quite as dystopic as that of the sequel, but you can see it getting there. In a sense the Road Warrior is as if Mad Max has left the coastal grassland of the first part and gone into the wilderness of the desert inland, where he finds a more primitive and deeper expression of the on-going collapse.
Mad Max is impressive in most respects, even without the Gibson and Miller aura, and its particular form of dystopia was ahead of its time in the late '70s. In addition to Corman there are traces of Straw Dogs and revenge movies in the Death Wish tradition, and there is clearly an exploitative aspect. Yet Miller takes care to deal with needed scenes of romance and hanging out, and gracefully handles the peripeti (turning point) scene that could have ruined the whole movie. Gibson's acting is somewhat unsteady and he also has to handle some bad dialogue (a persistent weakness of the script), but it's interesting to note some of the trademark expressions and body language that he later would use to define his acting style (in Lethal Weapon more than the Road Warrior).
Unfortunately Miller chose to present the evil opponents as a bunch of crazy hippies which strips the movie from some of it emotional charge, even more so since the acting among these thugs is fairly weak across the board. It's possible that the Manson Family spectre still loomed over the murder gang image at this point (along the lines of the Dirty Harry The Enforcer movie), but alas these bikers lack the Family's sinister presence. This, along with the uninspired dialogue, betrays Mad Max' B-movie origins and keeps it from being a full-blown indie classic, but it's still a skilfully done and fairly original work. 6/10