Images are like mental footprints; they tend to last a little longer than the ephemeral whisper or incidental sensation. It makes one wonder if society’s entire perception of days gone by is only a mural of movements and zeitgeists that equals less than the sum of its cultural parts. Philosophical waxing aside – though it’s an appropriate topic for such – see if you remember this one…
In 1979, former medical doctor-turned-director George Miller, along with filmmaker Byron Kennedy, and screenwriter James McClausland, made a movie for 400,000 dollar-y-doos (Australian for “dollars”) called Mad Max. This movie did three significant things. It launched the arrival of Australian New Wave cinema, a notable film force of the 80s and 90s in its own right. It catapulted the career of then-unknown lead actor Mel Gibson. But most importantly (for the purposes of this article), it heralded the exorbitantly popular early-80s trend of post-apocalyptic sci-fi films.
It should come as little surprise that the post-apocalyptic sub-genre found such universal appeal in the 80s. Aside from the fact the Mad Max was an astounding success (it went on to gross over $100,000,000 worldwide, earning one of the highest budget-to-profit ratios in film history) and duplicates were sure to follow, the emotional climate was set for this onslaught of moribund movie tales of deserted highways and broken societies. While the idea of desolate wastelands ruled by dehumanized marauders may seem absurd in today’s cyber-saturated culture, it was not so far from reality at a time when the world’s foremost superpowers perennially brandished the threat of nuclear annihilation. Regardless of which corner of the planted you dwelt in, it was on your mind.
Thus the boom began in earnest. Three countries lead the way: Australia – if with nothing else to offer than the pinnacle Mad Max trilogy, usual standby North America, and Italy, the latter of which made a number of low-budget post-apocalyptic flicks based in dystopian New York City. Although the criteria for what makes a post-apocalyptic sci-fi film is rather self-explanatory (first, there needs to have been an apocalypse…), there is often much dispute over classic films that seem to reside on a gray line of inclusion. So, for the sake of a list, here is a brief overview of the most noteworthy entries in the post-apocalyptic film canon (with Retrobacktive’s obligatory two-cents).
5.) Warrior of the Lost World – On the surface, it’s an obvious rip-off of Mad Max, only now our good guy is on the motorcycle and the bad guys drive the trucks. Upon closer examination, WLW is fairly ambitious, layered with an evolving storyline and twist ending. The problem is you need to examine the film more closely… which is pretty painful because it is not that good. An “ambitious” film is not always a good film, especially when it’s a low-budget Italian bandwagon piece. It nonetheless warrants inclusion on this list as it’s become a cult staple within the genre. Probably for no other reason than it is often laughably bad. Admittedly, this is for fans of the genre only, but even on those terms, you’ll get a bigger kick out of the Mystery Science Theater 3000 season 5 episode which features the film.
4.) 1990: The Bronx Warriors – Despite the deluge of cheap knockoffs, the Italians made at least one decent contribution to the dystopian dustland category. Though laughable by today’s standards, the action is plentiful in 1990: The Bronx Warriors. The plot veers away from anything overly cerebral, as well. It’s a story laced in heavy machismo; a young girl runs away from her rich-but-scrupulous family and finds herself lost in the no man’s land of the Bronx, which is now ruled by vicious gangs. She is fortunately protected by the tough-as-nails bike leader, Trash. That is until Daddy sends a psychotic mercenary after his daughter, and all hell brakes loose. There’s a heavy helping of cheese here, but 1990: The Bronx Warriors still tops the list of Italian post-apocalyptic movies based in New York (a bigger genre than you’d think). Chalk it up to authenticity; they brought real Hell’s Angels in as extras.
3.) The Running Man – Surprisingly, this isn’t a film that gets tossed around the post-apocalyptic movie discussion table that often. It does, however, meet all the requirements. In the future, the United States economy has collapsed. A military state controls people, and things are bleak for the majority of a marginalized class. The only source of entertainment – and means for ensuring complacency – is a sadistic television where prisoners are forced to survive for 24 hours while evading a band of ruthless “stalkers.” The film is based on a short story by Stephen King, and stars Arnold Schwarzenegger at the height of his action-hero era. Possibly why it misses inclusion in other post-apocalyptic lists is the presence of at least one demographic continuing to exist in affluence. But considering the sequence of events takes place after a clearly noted global catastrophe, there doesn’t appear to be a whole lot of room for argument. And it’s another Schwarzenegger/Jesse ‘The Body’ Ventura mash up; just enjoy.
2.) Escape From New York – No one seemed to appreciate this concept more than the Italians, who made about 800 similar films based around the idea. But credit director John Carpenter who really made a statement with his dismal, futuristic look at the Big Apple. After the crime rate in America increases 400 percent, Manhattan island is turned into the country’s only maximum security prison. But instead of cell blocks and guards, convicts are merely thrown onto the island to fend for themselves. Any attempt to escape is thwarted by a police unit that patrols the bridges and walls surrounding Manhattan. When Air Force One is hijacked by domestic terrorists, the President’s escape pod lands on the island. The only person who can save him is Snake Plissken, a former war hero turned rogue criminal who barters his way out of incarceration by agreeing to save the President and return him before an important summit meeting between the world’s power nations. One could certainly make the argument this film ought to be omitted based on the fact there is no truly apocalyptic event to speak of. It does, though, bring up an aforementioned point of relevance. The plot is based on a 400 percent increase in crime, which isn’t necessarily apocalyptic but does reflect the majority of people’s sentiment towards New York City in 1981. At the time, New York was a dangerous, crime-ridden, and arguably decaying metropolis that seemed on the verge of implosion. As a social commentary, Escape From New York is an insular response to growing dissolution that mirrors the global interpretation exhibited in other dystopian movies. And it’s got a cool synth soundtrack.
1.) Mad Max 2 (aka The Road Warrior) – Let’s get something clear: the entire Mad Max trilogy owns the number one spot on any post-apocalyptic sci-fi movie list. Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome and Mad Max own the number three and two spots, respectively. But in the interest of variety and comprehension, the decision was made to include only one film from the franchise here, that being the film most representative of the genre’s legacy and the trilogy’s influence. This is the movie that established it all. Barren, desolate wastelands. Mohawked nomads clad in leather armor. The “Ayatollah of Rock ‘n’ Rolla” mercilessly encroaching upon the last remnant of humanity clinging to life in an isolated outpost. Enter Max Rockatansky. Having spent a long five years on the road in the wake of events that conspired in the first movie, little now separates Max from the marauding gangs he swore revenge against. When a chance meeting with a “Gyro Captain” leads Max to a refinery nearly overrun by the Lord Humungous, a battle ensues to finally drive away the looters and salvage whatever oil can be saved.
If this whole topic has been as foreign to you as cream cheese on pancakes, you’ll want to start here, at least before George Miller’s re-boot of the series hits theaters next year. Mad Max 2 works on a number of levels, but its two most enticing components are 1.) Max’s lack of redemption – there’s no sentimentality or self-discovery here. Max agrees to help the members of the outpost for no other reason than his own sense of general revenge. This lent the film its dark, realistic tone. And 2.) the chase at the end with the truck and armored convoy… words cannot do it justice. If you don’t enjoy it, you don’t like action cinema. Case closed.
So there’s your basic introduction to the world of post-apocalyptic cinema. If you’re already a fan, I’ve probably told you nothing new. But for those of you novice to the genre, you’ll now be well prepared for Mad Max: Fury Road… whenever it finally digs itself out of development hell (rumor has it this time next year).
And now what we’ve all been waiting for: more pics of the V8 Pursuit Special Interceptor!