When former doctor turned director George Miller released his first full-length feature film, Mad Max, in 1979, he wasn’t to know he had created what would become one of Australia’s greatest celluloid exports. Mad Max spawned a number of imitators and knockoffs internationally and had a profound impact on the Australian film industry. It resulted in two sequels in the 80s and a third, Mad Max: Fury Road (2015), which received rave reviews internationally.
Australia’s sheer size and relatively concentrated population means much of its cinema has either taken the form of road movies or contains aspects of the road film genre. Australian road movies encompass comedy (The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, 1994), romance (Japanese Story, 2003) and drama (Last Ride, 2009). Unless the characters have money for a plane ticket, any plot that involves leaving a major urban centre is going to necessitate a large amount of road travel.
But Mad Max has origins in and, in turn, profoundly influenced a particular strand of Australian film, which combines dystopian and noir themes with the destructive power of cars and the country’s harsh, sparsely populated land mass. Some of the factors that influenced these films have a resonance beyond Australia, such as masculine car culture and fears of societal breakdown, particularly during the energy crisis in the 70s and early 80s. Others are Australian-specific, including fear of the outback and its vast, isolated spaces. Many of these films have similar aesthetic elements, as well as character and plot tropes. Many also share cast members, vividly illustrated by the presence of Hugh Keays-Byrne, the central villain known as the Toe Cutter, in the original Mad Max, who also stars as Immortan Joe in Mad Max: Fury Road.
Here are 10 important films in the body of local dystopian and noir-influenced Australian road movies.
The Cars That Ate Paris (1974)
Director: Peter Weir
Peter Weir’s first full-length film is a horror story about a small country town called Paris that survives by deliberately causing road accidents and salvaging the remains, both mechanical and human. Survivors are experimented on in the town’s hospital. The film is particularly notable for the bizarrely souped-up ransacked cars driven by Paris’s young male population. The most famous of these is the spiked Volkswagen that adorned the movie’s original promotional poster, a version of which is visible among the vehicles in Mad Max: Fury Road.
Originally envisaged by Weir as a comedy, the film mixes flashes of gallows humour with its dark plot, aspects of which are similar in style to The Wicker Man (1973). The Cars That Ate Paris struggled to find an audience in Australia, but did well internationally. It is recognised as the first Australian road movie and, despite its relatively poor local performance, was a significant milestone in the 70s revival of Australian cinema.
Director: Sandy Harbutt
Stone is Australia’s entrant into the considerable canon of low-budget biker movies, popular in the 60s and early 70s. It’s hard to categorise: an exploitation movie, but one with elements of pseudo-documentary and political conspiracy thriller. While tripping on acid, a member of a satanic outlaw biker gang called the Gravediggers accidentally witnesses the assassination of an anti-pollution campaigner. After members of the gang start being killed off to cover up the crime, the Gravediggers reluctantly allow a policeman, Stone, to travel undercover with them in an attempt to find out who is behind the killings.
The only feature film directed by Sandy Harbutt, Stone contains some impressive stunts and, for added authenticity, real-life bikers were cast as a rival biker club. It was released in the UK eight years after its Australian debut to cash in on the popularity of Mad Max.
Mad Max (1979)
Director: George Miller
Mad Max depicts a world on the edge of chaos due to an energy shortage. Ruthless gangs rove the nation’s highways, barely kept in check by a special police group called Main Force Patrol. The patrol’s most effective officer, Max Rockatansky (a young Mel Gibson), has grown weary of the horrific events he witnesses on a daily basis and wants out. This changes when his wife (Joanne Samuel) and infant child are slain by a biker gang in revenge for Max’s part in the death of one of their members.
George Miller’s debut was made in 12 weeks, for approximately $450,000. Ironically, given the film’s subject matter, Miller helped raise the funding by working as an emergency room doctor. The film’s extreme violence divided critics, but it was a massive hit, grossing nearly $6m locally and £100m worldwide. The shoestring production budget imbues Mad Max with a rough and ready-made feel, but the director also delivers an undeniable energy and authenticity. Real bikers were recruited for many of the roles and damaged vehicles were patched up and re-used.
The Chain Reaction (1980)
Director: Ian Barry
Billed as ‘Mad Max meets The China Syndrome’, The Chain Reaction begins with an earthquake in a remote rural area that houses a nuclear waste disposal site. The quake causes a radiation leak that contaminates the surrounding groundwater. A scientist from the facility, badly contaminated in the accident, escapes into the bush and stumbles upon a holidaying couple, Vietnam veteran and mechanic Larry (Steve Bisley, who got the role off the back of his performance as one of the patrol cops in Mad Max) and his wife, Carmel (Arna-Maria Winchester). The secretive American owners of the waste disposal site dispatch a pair of hired killers to locate and eliminate the scientist and anyone he has had contact with.
The Chain Reaction combines some terrific stunt work, with an innovative soundtrack that includes the use of barely audible radio broadcasts in the background to create an unsettling sense of surveillance and events spiralling out of control. The remote bush setting, which included an eerie, supposedly haunted, disused shale mine, adds to the sense of menace.
Mad Max 2 (aka The Road Warrior) (1981)
Director: George Miller
Mad Max 2 had 10 times the budget of the original and at the time was the most expensive film ever made in Australia. The social collapse prefigured in the first instalment is complete, and Max is a damaged drifter roaming the desert wasteland in his Ford XB Falcon Coupe (a limited edition car sold in Australia in the 70s). Coming across a community of survivors who have their own supply of much coveted petrol, he is brought into conflict with a gang of leather-clad bikers under the command of the masked Humungus, who want the fuel.
The characterisation and dialogue in Mad Max 2 are minimal. The main focus is the stunts, many of which are simply jaw-dropping, even by today’s standards. Interestingly, the homoerotic punk aesthetic vaguely present in the first film – the leather, eye shadow and exotic hairstyles – is in overdrive. It works here, whereas in the third instalment, Mad Max beyond Thunderdome (1985), this element just comes across as silly.
Dead-end Drive-in (1986)
Director: Brian Trenchard-Smith
Directed by Brian Trenchard-Smith, Dead-end Drive-In envisages a future Australia in which law and order has broken down, forcing the government to evoke emergency powers, including turning drive-in theatres into detention centres for undesirables. Crabs (Ned Manning) and his girlfriend find themselves imprisoned in one of these, along with a collection of goths, punks and other assorted youth subcultures prevalent in 80s Australia. There they are fed a diet of junk food, new wave music, drugs and movies (mainly consisting of the director’s own efforts, snippets of which are visible in the background throughout).
In one of several homages to Mad Max, leather-clad cops help oversee the inmates. Another influence, mentioned by Trenchard-Smith himself, is Luis Bunuel’s The Exterminating Angel (1962), about a group of upper-class guests who find themselves mysteriously unable to leave a dinner party. Now considered an Ozploitation classic, Dead-end Drive-In bombed upon release. The movie’s ultra-sleazy exploitation feel is all the more interesting given it was based on a short story by two-time Booker prize-winning author Peter Carey.
Metal Skin (1994)
Director: Geoffrey Wright
The urban setting of Metal Skin makes it a unique Australian road movie. The location is a working-class suburb in Melbourne’s west, only just emerging from the recession Australia experienced in the early 90s. The plot focuses on the four-way relationship between Joe, a wannabe street racer; the narcissistic and unfaithful Dazey; Dazey’s girlfriend Roslyn, who was horrifically burnt in a car accident; and Savina, a Satan-worshiping young migrant woman desperate to escape the clutches of her possessive mother.
Metal Skin sits in the shadow of writer-director Geoffrey Wright’s 1992 film about Nazi skinheads, Romper Stomper, which garnered considerable attention and condemnation from many quarters. This is a pity because Metal Skin has much to recommend it. The bleak urban environment is convincingly rendered. Parents are rarely seen, or – in Joe and Savina’s case – have been destroyed by the harshness of the migrant experience, leaving their offspring to fend for themselves. The portrayal of the police as an occupying power further emphasises the film’s nihilistic feel.
Kiss or Kill (1997)
Director: Bill Bennett
Kiss or Kill is a film noir grafted onto an Australian road movie. Femme fatale Nikki (Frances O’Connor) and her boyfriend Al (Matt Day) are two small-time scammers who flee after their latest victim accidentally dies on them, leaving in their possession a video of a powerful sporting personality having sex with a young boy. Nearly everyone they meet as they cross the Nullarbor Plain from Adelaide to Perth ends up horribly murdered and each begin to suspect the other is responsible.
This is one of a handful of feature films directed by Bill Bennett (he also helmed the critically well-received In a Savage Land, 1999). Much of the film is improvised, giving it a scrappy, intense feeling that well suits the subject matter. Bennett also does a good job contrasting the beautiful locations with the tense, paranoid feeling of mistrust between Nikki and Al, a quality further emphasised by the complete absence of any soundtrack.
The Goddess of 1967 (2000)
Director: Clara Law
Chinese-born Australian director Clara Law’s film is a surrealistic fusion of road movie and rape revenge tale. The ‘goddess’ in the title is the French word for ‘Déesse’, the nickname given to the Citroen DS, produced in France in the 1950s, a much sought-after collector’s item. Alienated Japanese computer hacker J.M. (Rikiya Kurokawa) travels to Australia to take possession of a pink Citroen DS he has negotiated online to buy. Upon arrival he finds the owner and his wife have killed themselves, presumably in a quarrel over the proceeds of the sale, and their house is occupied by B.G. (Rose Byrne), a blind red-headed woman. They embark on a road journey over the course of which both reveal deep secrets.
Law skilfully utilises flashbacks to give the film an unsettling, at times almost dreamlike atmosphere in which reality and imagination blur. This works well with the film’s settings – Lightning Ridge in remote north-central New South Wales and the dark, anonymous confines of Tokyo.
The Rover (2014)
Director: David Michôd
Australian director David Michôd’s follow-up to his first film, crime drama Animal Kingdom (2010), The Rover is set in the outback 10 years after an unspecified global financial collapse. A lone, unnamed traveller (Guy Pearce) has his car stolen by three men fleeing the scene of a bloody heist. The traveller finds the fourth member of the crew (Robert Pattinson) left wounded at the scene of the heist and forces him to assist in tracking down men who have stolen his vehicle.
Beautifully shot and with an excellent performance by Pearce, The Rover is chilling precisely because aspects of its dystopian future are visible today. While other countries suffered during the global economic downturn, Australia survived by digging up minerals, mainly to feed China’s economic development. Michôd takes this, adds the financial distemper currently hanging over Australia, and fashions a future in which the only structures that have not broken down relate to mining. Heavily guarded freight trains lumber through the desert loaded with minerals. Everyone is armed and life is cheap.
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