Noteworthy elements of the film include cinematographer Dean Semler's widescreen photography of Australia's vast desert landscapes (primarily the Mundi Mundi Plain in Silverton, New South Wales); the sparing use of dialogue throughout the film (which is almost non-existent during the opening and closing scenes); costume designer Norma Moriceau's punk mohawked, leather-bondage-gear wearing bikers; and its fast-paced, tightly-edited, and violent battle and chase scenes.
The film's comic-book post-apocalyptic/punk style popularized the post-apocalyptic genre in film and fiction writing. The film eventually became a cult classic: fan clubs and "road warrior"-themed activities still occur in the 2000s. The film was followed by Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome in 1985. A fourth entry in the series, Mad Max 4: Fury Road, remains as of April, 2008 in pre-production.
The film begins as Max clashes with a team of marauders, led by biker warrior Wez (Vernon Wells). After driving off the gang, Max collects the gasoline from one of their wrecked vehicles and continues on. As Max continues to comb the desert wastelands, he comes upon a seemingly abandoned autogyro and investigates. The autogyro's pilot (actor Bruce Spence) has in fact set a trap with a poisonous snake; but Max and his dog outwit and overpower the gyro captain. To stay alive, the pilot tells Max about a small working oil refinery nearby in the wasteland.
Encamped on a cliff overlooking the oil refinery, Max watches as a gang of marauders piloting a motley collection of cars and motorbikes besiege the compound. They are led by the grim, charismatic masked warrior called "Lord Humungous" (Kjell Nilsson)—a large, muscular man with a hockey mask over his disfigured face. Lord Humungous commands a vicious mob of mohawked degenerates. Although he leads a rag-tag band of biker-berserkers, Humungous' speeches to the settlers exhorting them to surrender are articulate and convincing; he uses his eloquence as psychological warfare, and a number of the settlers fall for it.
The next morning four settlers' vehicles roar out of the refinery, they are chased down by the marauders and the people are raped and murdered. After the Gyro Captain and Max witness the brutal treatment, Max goes down to the wrecked vehicles and slays one rapist-biker. One of the settlers is still clinging to life, and Max strikes a bargain with the man: he will return the critically-wounded man to the refinery compound in exchange for petrol. However, the deal falls through when the man dies following Max's entry into the compound.
The marauders return and Lord Humungous uses a public address system to offer the settlers and their leader Papagallo (Michael Preston) safe passage out of the wastelands if they leave the facility undamaged. Max has an alternative bargain for Papagallo: he will retrieve the abandoned Mack semi-truck he came across earlier in return for petrol and his freedom. This vehicle would be sufficient to haul their tanker-load of fuel out of the wastelands. The besieged settlers accept Max's proposal, but retain his car. Max sneaks out of the compound at night, carrying fuel for the battered truck and the autogyro.
Max returns to the abandoned Mack truck and drives it back to the compound, despite the efforts of the Humungous and his men to stop the vehicle, in part due to help from air by the Gyro Captain. The settlers invite Max to escape with the group, but the psychologically-scarred Max opts to collect his petrol and leave. As Max tries to break through the siege and is chased down by Wez in the Humongous' nitrous oxide-equipped car, his car is wrecked and he is badly injured -- narrowly escaping some marauders. His loyal dog is killed by a crossbowman, much to Max's anger, who can only look on from behind a rock. The marauders do not have it all their way though and they trigger an explosive booby-trap, blowing up his car and discouraging them from searching further. The semi-conscious Max is rescued by the Gyro Captain, who flies him back to the refinery, where the settlers are making hasty preparations to leave.
Despite his injuries, Max insists on driving the freshly-repaired Mack truck with the fuel tanker. He roars out of the compound in the now heavily-armored truck, and he is pursued by the warriors on their cars and motorbikes. Several settlers are in armored positions on the tanker, and Pappagallo drives a powerful escort vehicle. After a prolonged and violent chase, all the settlers on the tanker are killed, as is Pappagallo. Max kills Humungous and his lieutenant Wez by crashing head-on into their vehicle, causing a massive wreck.
The tanker is driven off the road, tips, and sand spills from the overturned tank. The Mack truck and its tanker trailer were a decoy allowing the bulk of the settlers to escape with their precious fuel in oil drums inside their vehicles. (Earlier, back at the refinery but intercut with the tanker pursuit, a handful of marauders seize the empty compound, and discover to their misfortune that the refinery is rigged to explode.) With Papagallo dead, the Gyro Captain leads the settlers to the coast, where they establish the Great Northern Tribe. Max remains in the desert, once again becoming a drifter, alone in the wasteland but remembered by the narrator who is in fact the adult feral kid.
The film depicts Max as a "desolate man" who has buried his feelings and his humanity after his wife and infant son are murdered in the first film. At first Max, a former police officer, refuses to help the settlers in their fight against Humungous, preferring to continue his life as a drifter on the wasteland. Eventually, though, Max and the settlers forge a respect for one another. Although Max turns down the offer to become a member of the settlement, he decides to risk his life to help them escape.
Max may also be regaining a little humanity when he befriends The Feral Kid, a feral child who lives in the wasteland near the refinery settlement. The Feral Kid growls in place of human speech, wears animal hides, and hunts and defends himself with a metal boomerang. The Feral Kid eventually becomes the leader of the Great Northern Tribe. At the end of the film, the film's narrator reveals himself to be the now adult Feral Kid. See also: Feral children in mythology and fiction
Another theme in the movie is personal loss, because several characters have lost their family members or loved ones. Max has become a "shell of a man" after gang members killed his wife and baby and severely disfigured his friend "Goose" in the first Mad Max film. Personal loss is also depicted for several of the gang members. After Wez becomes distraught over the death of his male friend (the "golden youth") in a battle, Humungous tries to calm him by telling him "...we have all lost someone we loved." Humungous may also have faced personal loss, because when he takes his special gun (a Smith and Wesson Model 29) out from its padded case, a picture of two people is pinned to the inside, which may be his family.
Within the settler community characters, as well as the nomads, there are nods towards female independence (in an apparently male-dominated environment) and also positive portrayals of disability: even though the settler's mechanic cannot use his legs, the film shows that he is very capable of maneuvering around the engines of cars and even large trucks, as well as fighting from a kind of counterweighted sling.
Some scenes in the film imply that some of the marauders are bi- or homosexual, such as Wez' blonde-haired, young male friend who rides with him on his motorcycle, which the script refers to as a "strikingly beautiful" "golden boy." Further allusion to this is made through barely audible lines spoken in the movie (plainly displayed in the subtitles) which refer to two "squads" under the Humungus' control as being the "smegma crazies" and the "gayboy berserkers". A reviewer from the New York Times noted that Humungus' beserk lieutenant Wez "rides around on his bike, snarling psychotically, with his pretty blond boyfriend hanging onto his waist."
The film's depiction of a post-apocalyptic future was widely copied by other filmmakers and in science fiction novels, to the point that its gritty "...junkyard society of the future look...is almost taken for granted in the modern sf action film. The Encyclopedia Of Science Fiction says that Mad Max 2, "...with all its comic-strip energy and vividness...is exploitation cinema at its most inventive." Reviewer Roger Ebert calls Mad Max 2 "skillful filmmaking," "...a film of pure action, of kinetic energy", which is "...one of the most relentlessly aggressive movies ever made". While Ebert points out that the movie does not develop its "...vision of a violent future world...with characters and dialogue", and uses only the "...barest possible bones of a plot," he praises its action sequences. Ebert calls the climactic chase sequence "...unbelievably well-sustained" and states that the "...special effects and stunts...are spectacular", creating a "...frightening, sometimes disgusting, and (if the truth be told) exhilarating" effect.
Reviewer Pauline Kael called Mad Max 2 a "mutant" film that was "...sprung from virtually all action genres," creating "...one continuous spurt of energy" by using "...jangly, fast editing." However, Kael criticized director George Miller's "...attempt to tap into the universal concept of the hero", stating that this attempt "...makes the film joyless", "sappy", and "sentimental."
Richard Scheib calls Mad Max 2, "...one of the few occasions where a sequel makes a dramatic improvement in quality over its predecessor." He calls it a "kinetic comic-book of a film," an "... exhilarating non-stop rollercoaster ride of a film that contains some of the most exciting stunts and car crashes ever put on screen." Scheib states that the film transforms the "...post-holocaust landscape into the equivalent of a Western frontier," such that "...Mel Gibson's Max could just as easily be Clint Eastwood's tight-lipped Man With No Name" helping "...decent frightened folk" from the marauding Indians.
Critics praised the stuntwork and mobile camera techniques, particularly during the final chase and showdown. The use of fender-mounted cameras at high speeds was similar to the Frankenheimer race film Grand Prix and the staccato editing style helped give the illusion of very fast speeds, although other critics were concerned about the shocking violence in the film, which included rape, torture and brutal murders at the hands of the marauding biker gang. As of 2008, the movie has 35 reviews & a rare 100% fresh rating at the movie review website rottentomatoes.com.
Max's powerful black-painted muscle car is a modified Pursuit Special, a Ford Falcon XB GT coupe with a V8 engine ("the last of the mighty Interceptors") that the police forces customized for use as a police Pursuit Special in the first Mad Max film. The car is depicted with a supercharger protruding through the hood which can be toggled on and off, and its black body is scarred and scratched from Max's journeys in the wasteland. The precious contents of the Pursuit Special's petrol tanks are protected from thieves with an explosive "booby trap" and a sheathed knife is hidden on the underbody of the vehicle.
The large Mack truck used to pull the oil tanker is a 1970s Mack R-600 with a "coolpower" engine setup (the coolpower setup uses an aftercooler on the cylinder head and a tip turbine fan) and a twin-stick transmission. The Mack has a massive cowcatcher mounted on the front to protect the vehicle from crash impacts, armoured plates welded in front of the radiator (with air slits for cooling ventilation), and armoured cages around the wheels. The trailer is protected with fortified, spike-encrusted turrets and barbed wire strung up along the sides of the tanker.
Humungus' bizarre vehicle is a heavily modified Ford F-100 Ute, which is depicted with a custom-made Nitrous Oxide booster system. The marauders use an early 1970s red F-100 with a cobra painted on the doors, and a cut-down boat-style windshield during the final chase scenes. Humungus's lieutenant Wez drives an early 1980s model Suzuki GSX1000 motorbike in the film, and later is seen riding on a Yamaha XS1100E motorbike with a sidecar. Most of the dune buggies used in the film were VW-based modified "sandrail" kitcars, with single-axle drive train and suspension.
The settler leader Pappagallo's vehicle, which was captured from the marauders in an earlier battle, has two Ford 351 engines, one on the front, and one on the back. Other vehicles used in the movie include a variety of Australian muscle cars, including a 1974 ZG Fairlane, with LTD front guards; a custom-made vehicle with open engine bay and half of its roof chopped out, and a 6/71 supercharger; a Holden Monaro with a custom front and a roof opening; an LC/LJ Holden Torana which has been custom-modified into a Speedway car; a Ford XA Falcon, a Valiant VH coupe; a VW Kombi; a Ford Landau; and various Valiant Chargers.
The main gate of the settlement is a Commer School Bus with jury-rigged plate metal armour. This bus is also the main escape vehicle for the settlers at the end of the film. Several of the besieging warriors' vehicles appear to be of the same type as seen used as police pursuit cars in the first Mad Max film. While the depiction of gang members using similar vehicles and even wearing police biker helmets and jackets has led some fans on chat websites to speculate that some of the gang members are police officers-gone bad, there is no support for this theory from the script.
Higher resolution Google Earth images updated 2006-08
The soundtrack begins with the music for the "Montage/Main Title" sequence, which gives the backstory to the descent into war and chaos. The next selections accompany the action-packed sequences as Max and the settlers battle with the gang ("Confrontation"; "Marauder's Massacre", "Max Enters Compound"; "Gyro Saves Max"; and "Break Out"). The final tracks include the "Finale and Largo" and the "End Title" music, which is used while the narrator describes the settler's escape to the coast to start a new life. The recording also includes a suite of special effects sounds, such as The Feral Kid's "Boomerang Attack"; "Gyro Flight";"The Big Rig Starts";"Breakout"; and the climactic effects for "The Refinery Explodes", when the booby-trapped oil refinery turns into fireball.
Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers made a Road Warrior-influenced video for their 1982 song "You Got Lucky", which had the band traveling a post-apocalyptic wasteland in a futuristic car and a motorcycle with sidecar. LL Cool J appeared in a video influenced by the Mad Max theme in "The Boomin System". Phil Collins' music video for the song "Don't Lose My Number" included a parody of the movie, with Collins as Wez. The music video for Tupac Shakur's "California Love" featuring Dr. Dre and Roger Troutman has a Mad Max 2 motif and has been named in many top 100 video lists. Brazilian thrash metal band Violator uses Humungus quote "Look around you! This is the valley of death!" in the beginning of their song "Toxic Death"
A TV commercial by NASCAR's Dale Earnhardt, Jr. shows his car being chased down a desolate highway in a desert setting by a gang. In the novel Warriors of Ultrimar, the leader of a group of refuges in erebus city is led by an old man named Papa Gallo. The film has also influenced the professional wrestling tag team The Road Warriors, which are named after the film. The Lord Humungus character was used in professional wrestlers such as Sid Eudy (who went by the stage name Sid Vicious).
In the "Bart vs. Australia" episode of The Simpsons, the Simpson family is chased by an angry mob and a biker. The episode "Beyond Blunderdome" has references to and parodies of this film and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. In the "Proper Condom Use" episode of South Park, the confrontation between the boys and girls depicts Butters wearing a Lord Humungus-style mask and speaking his line, "Just walk away", and Kenny is killed by a boomerang. In the episode "The Passion of the Jew" an animated Mel Gibson is seen driving one of the Mad Max vehicles in a recreation of the Mack truck chase scene, climaxing with him blowing up a movie theater. In an episode of the Internet series Red vs. Blue, Tucker refers to the series when he argues that [Hollywood] tends to depict the cause of an apocalypse as hinging on a single element," like in Road Warrior it was gas".
In the CGI animation TV show ReBoot, a game was played in the Mad Max universe, which included vehicles and the Humungus. Jeremy Clarkson referenced the film in an episode of Top Gear, a BBC television series about cars with a quirky, humorous style. The series depicted a rebuilt Lancia Beta Coupe with a roof-mounted megaphone. The two-part episode "Movie Madness" from Power Rangers: Time Force included a reference to the film in a section, in which Vernon Wells played the role of Time Force's main villain.