This low-budget film's story of social breakdown, murder, and vengeance became the top-grossing Australian film, and has been credited for opening up the global market to Australian films. The movie was also notable for being the first Australian film to be shot with a widescreen anamorphic lens.
Mad Max was followed by two sequels, Mad Max 2 (aka The Road Warrior) in 1981 and Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome in 1985. As of April, 2008, a third sequel, Mad Max 4: Fury Road, remains "in pre-production".
Nightrider's (unnamed) gang - which is led by "the Toecutter" (Hugh Keays-Byrne) and his lieutenant Bubba Zanetti (Geoff Parry) - is running roughshod over the Outback, vandalizing property, stealing fuel, and terrorizing the citizenry. Max and his fellow officer Jim Goose are able to arrest the Toecutter's young protegé, Johnny the Boy (Tim Burns), when Johnny lingers at the scene of one of the gang’s crimes. However, when no witnesses show for his trial, the courts declare "no contest" for the case, and Johnny is released. A shocked Goose attacks Johnny and must be physically restrained; both Goose and Johnny shout threats of revenge at each other.
Shortly thereafter, Johnny sabotages Goose's MFP motorcycle; the motorcycle locks up at high speed the next day, throwing Goose from the bike, but Goose survives without even suffering "road rash". Goose borrows a ute to haul his bike back to civilization. However, Johnny causes Goose to run off the road and then burns him alive in the wreckage of the ute. Goose survives, but after seeing his charred body in the hospital's burn ward, Max becomes angry and disillusioned with the police force and resigns from the MFP with no intention of returning.
While on holiday at the coast, Max's wife, Jessie, (Joanne Samuel) runs into Toecutter's gang, who attempt to molest her. She escapes, but the gang manages to track her to the remote home where she and Max are staying. While attempting to escape, Jessie and her son are run down and run over by the gang; their crushed bodies are left in the middle of the road. Max arrives too late to intervene.
Filled with obsessive rage, Max dons his police leathers and steals a supercharged black Pursuit Special to pursue the gang. After torturing a mechanic for information on the gang, Max methodically hunts down and kills the gang members: several gang members are forced off a bridge at high speed; Max shoots and kills Bubba at point blank range with his shotgun; the Toecutter is forced into the path of a speeding tractor trailer and crushed. When Max finds Johnny the Boy taking the boots off a dead driver at the scene of a crash, he handcuffs Johnny's ankle to the wrecked vehicle and sets a crude time-delay fuse. Throwing Johnny a hacksaw, Max leaves him the choice of sawing through either the handcuffs (which will take 10 minutes) or his ankle (which will take 5 minutes). As Max drives away, the vehicle explodes; Max drives on without turning back.
George Miller was a medical doctor in Australia, working in a hospital emergency room, where he saw many injuries and deaths of the types depicted in the movie. While in residency at a Melbourne hospital, he met amateur film maker Byron Kennedy at a summer film school in 1971. The duo produced the short film Violence in the Cinema, Part 1, which was screened at a number of film festivals and won several awards. Eight years later, the duo created Mad Max, with the assistance of first time screenwriter James McCausland (who appears in the film as the bearded man in an apron in front of the diner).
Miller believed that audiences would find his violent story to be more believable if set in a bleak, dystopic future. The film was shot over a period of twelve weeks in Australia, between December 1978 and February 1979, just outside Melbourne. Many of the car-chase scenes for the original Mad Max were filmed near the town of Lara, just north of Geelong (Victoria, Australia). The movie was shot with a widescreen anamorphic lens, the first Australian film to use one.
In a 2006 newspaper commentary on peak oil, James McCausland wrote the following in relation to Mad Max:
"In 1973, the Arab oil-producing nations convulsed most of the world by tightening the spigots on their wells and sharply reducing production. Corporations, and nations including Japan, went into crisis mode and many started to think of ways to lessen their reliance on petroleum products.
As the after-shock waves began to subside and black gold started to flow again, most enterprises kicked petroleum replacement well down the agenda.
Yet there were further signs of the desperate measures individuals would take to ensure mobility. A couple of oil strikes that hit many pumps revealed the ferocity with which Australians would defend their right to fill a tank. Long queues formed at the stations with petrol – and anyone who tried to sneak ahead in the queue met raw violence."
George and I wrote the script based on the thesis that people would do almost anything to keep vehicles moving and the assumption that nations would not consider the huge costs of providing infrastructure for alternative energy until it was too late.
Mel Gibson, a complete unknown at this point, went to auditions with his friend and classmate Bisley (who would later land the part of Jim Goose). Gibson went to auditions in poor shape, as the night before he had gotten into a drunken brawl with three men at a party, resulting in a swollen nose, a broken jawline, and various other bruises. Mel showed up at the audition the next day looking like a "black and blue pumpkin" (his own words). Mel did not expect to get the role and only went to accompany his friend. However, the casting agent liked the look and told Mel to come back in two weeks, telling him "we need freaks." When Gibson returned, he was not recognized because his wounds had healed almost completely; he received the part anyway.
Due to the film's low budget, only Mel Gibson was given a jacket and pants made from real leather. All the other actors playing police officers wore vinyl outfits. The police cars were repeatedly repainted to give the illusion that more cars were used; often they were driven with the paint still wet. The film's post-production was done in Kennedy's house, with Wilson and Byron editing the film in Byron's bedroom on a home-built editing machine that Byron's father, an engineer, had designed for them. The duo also edited the sound in Kennedy's house.
Though the film had a limited run in the United States and earned only $8 million there, it did very well elsewhere around the world and went on to earn $100 million worldwide. Since it was independently financed with a reported budget of just $300,000 AUD, it was a major financial success. For twenty years, the movie held a record in Guinness Book of Records as the highest profit-to-cost ratio of a motion picture, conceding the record only in 2000 to The Blair Witch Project. The film was awarded three Australian Film Institute Awards in 1979 (for editing, sound, and musical score).
The original Australian dialogue track was finally released in the U.S. in 2000 in a limited theatrical reissue by MGM, the film's current rights holders (it has since been released in the U.S. on DVD with both the US and Australian soundtracks on separate tracks). Both New Zealand and Sweden initially banned the film.
Two sequels followed, Mad Max 2 (known in North America as The Road Warrior), and Mad Max 3 (known in North America as Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome) while a fourth movie, Mad Max 4: Fury Road, is in pre-production.
The most memorable car, Max's black Pursuit Special, more commonly referred to as the Interceptor, was a limited GT351 version of a 1973 Ford XB Falcon Coupe (sold in Australia from December 1973 to August 1976) which was primarily modified by Murray Smith, Peter Arcadipane and Ray Beckerley. After filming was over, this Interceptor was bought and restored by Bob Forsenko, and is currently on display in the Cars of the Stars Motor Museum in Cumbria, England .
The car driven by the civilian couple that is destroyed by the bikers is a 1959 Chevrolet Impala sedan.
Of the motorcycles that appear in the film, 14 were donated by Kawasaki and were driven by a local Victorian motorcycle gang, the Vigilantes, who appeared as members of Toecutter's gang. By the end of filming, fourteen vehicles had been destroyed in the chase and crash scenes, including the director's personal Mazda Bongo (the small, blue van that spins uncontrollably after being struck by the Big Bopper in the film's opening chase).