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Mad Max: Fury Road (2015). Courtesy PictureLux / The Hollywood Archive / Alamy
Stories & Ideas

Thu 08 Oct 2020

Mad Max’s enduring pop culture power

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Maria Lewis
Maria Lewis

Writer & Editor, ACMI

Maria Lewis explores the influence and impact of George Miller’s groundbreaking Mad Max film series on popular culture.

Few Australian films have had as far reaching and enduring pop cultural effect than Mad Max. George Miller’s post-Apocalyptic film franchise became a cult sensation when it debuted in 1979, both the pinnacle of the Australian New Wave and Ozploitation cinema. Over more than 40 years later, it has endured through sequels Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981), Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome (1985) and Mad Max: Fury Road (2015), which were all critically acclaimed and commercially successful to varying degrees. Yet perhaps one of the most essential elements to maintaining its prime real estate in the pop cultural consciousness has been the tributes, both overt and covert. From music videos and animated shows, to blockbuster movies and rip-offs, Mad Max hasn’t stopped being relevant since it first made a splash in the 70s.

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Mad Max (Warner Bros., 1979)

Animation apocalypse

Given the intense themes of the source material and graphic nature of the violence, it’s a little surprising that one of Disney’s biggest family friendly hits features a scene that winks directly to Miller’s brainchild. Moana (2016) came out just one year after Mad Max: Fury Road surprised everyone, reinvigorating the franchise and winning six Academy Awards. Its aesthetic was immediately seminal, not just for recreating iconography from the first three films but reimagining some of the key dystopian concepts as well. The War Boys were a standout, with their emancipated bodies, white faces, darkened eyes, and silver mouths invoking the skeletons they resembled. During the adventures of Disney’s first Polynesian princess, Moana and the demigod Maui come into contact with the Kakamora who – in the words of the filmmakers themselves– are a direct reference to the War Boys.

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This scene from Moana (Disney, 2016) also recalls the chase scene featured in the header of this article.

“That was a little Fury Road,” said John Musker, who co-directed and co-wrote the film with his creative partner Ron Clements. “That was our little homage to George Miller and what he did with that movie, but with coconuts.” Clements – who said they both “loved that movie so much” – added: “Yes, with coconuts instead of the Doof Warrior.” The scene has the army of vengeful coconuts recreating key poses from the War Boys, while a pulsing drum beat mimics the film’s score. Even the stacked nature of the ships draws a visual parallel to the vehicular mash-ups of Fury Road.

The animated world is particularly rich with Mad Max homages. In season three of Rick and Morty, the entire second episode – 'Rickmancing The Stone' (2017) – is a tribute to all of the films in the Australian franchise; from the actual existence of a Thunderdome to full scenes racing across a desert wasteland pursued by “mohawk guys”.

“Hey, you guys ever use that Thunderdome or do you just put it up for decoration?” asks the mad scientist Rick at one point. “Uh, you mean the Bloodome?” replies a lackey, before Rick retorts. “Save it for the Semanticsdome, E.B. White.”

In this “post-Apocalyptic version of Earth” Rick, Morty, and Summer navigate characters like Hemorrhage who – for all intents and purposes – is Humungus from Road Warrior. There’s a Fury Road scene that’s recreated, with Summer using a weapon to shoot down incoming foes travelling towards them on a vehicle a la Furiosa. There are parodies of everyone from Hugh Keays-Byrne’s Immortan Joe to the language of the franchise, as explained in an intentional info-dump by Hemorrhage: “After the Boom Boom, some adapted to the New Truth and some chose to huddle near the Boomey Holes, clinging to the lie of the Before-fore Time.”

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The character Hemorrhage is basically Humungus from Road Warrior. Image from Rick & Morty (Warner Bros. Television Distribution, (2013)

Animated properties like Ben 10: Omniverse (2012–14), Rugrats (1991–2004), South Park (1997–present) and The Lego Movie 2 (2019) are just a handful of others that have paid homage to Miller’s creation one way or the other. The Simpsons (1989–present) has consistently referenced the franchise throughout its 30-plus years on air: not just on more than 13 episodes but also in tie-in comic books and videogames. Beginning with the 1996 episode 'Bart vs. Australia' in season six and spanning right up until 'The Clown Stays In The Picture' from season 30 in 2019, the influence and love of the material has spanned generations of The Simpsons creatives.

Music video wasteland

Given the striking visuals and unique aesthetic, it’s not surprising Mad Max has been recreated in music videos almost immediately after the first movie’s release. The second half of Phil Collins’ Don’t Lose My Number (1985) features a sequence plucked straight from The Road Warrior, complete with dusty mohawks, dog sidekick, and dirt bike pursuit. Nineties hip hop banger California Love (1995) from 2Pac and Dr Dre looks like it was shot entirely on the set of Thunderdome, with the two rappers performing inside it at various points and racing across a wasteland in vehicles.

The Spice Girls mirrored this just two years later for their song Too Much (1997), with Mel B’s segment drawing heavily on the same production elements. Puretone’s Addicted to Bass (2001) video clip even had a Pursuit Special (V8 Interceptor) driven for a chase sequence nodding to the first movie, while fast-forwarding to the year of Mad Max: Fury Road’s release and Tyler The Creator’s Fucking Young (2015) sees the rapper pursued across a desert in a go-cart while coloured flares explode above.

Feral kids and flops

In novels too, the surge of dystopian Young Adult literature – like The Hunger Games and Divergent series – owes a lot to the Mad Max universe, with the author of the Mortal Engines trilogy Philip Reeve openly citing that as a key reference. The 1980s British comic book series Tank Girl is also heavily inspired by the world, with creators Jamie Hewlett and Alan Martin calling it “Mad Max designed by Vivienne Westwood” in an interview for the book Fashion Talks: Undressing The Power Of Style.

Doing so in live action may be a cursed endeavour, with Waterworld (1995) attempting to do just that… and becoming one of the most historic flops of all time. There was the low-budget rip-off Wheels Of Fire (1985), which attempted to copy and paste Mad Max in a way that was neither enjoyable, memorable or profitable. It was just one of many imitators including Stryker (1983), The Sisterhood (1988) and Raiders of the Sun (1992). Scottish film Doomsday (2008) adapted core story elements into an original setting with varied success. Although not a critical or commercial hit at the time of release, a cult fanbase for the genre movie has grown over the past decade.

Meanwhile Netflix original series Daybreak (2019) mixed key Mad Maxian post-apocalyptic ingredients with a coming-of-age teen drama (and zombies!), for a different take on the genre remix. For Nathan Jones, who played Rictus Erectus in Mad Max: Fury Road, it’s entirely unsurprising how much Mad Max has endured given its creator. “You can just see from all the movies that George (Miller) has made, that he respects the intelligence of his audience,” he said. “It’s in every aspect of his filmmaking craft and moviemaking... he’s a perfectionist.”

It has clearly paid off, speaking directly to leagues of other perfectionists creating their own art over the last four decades. Regardless of the medium or generation of filmmaker, Mad Max has had staying power in the pop cultural landscape meaning the franchise’s legacy remains both shiny and chrome.

– Maria Lewis

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