Here's a quick question for all you younger readers out there. And by "younger," I mean anyone under 40.
Do you remember the Men's Adventure genre?
You know. Stories about tough guys doing tough guy things. Mack Bolan. The Executioner. Phoenix Force. William W. Johnstone's post apocalyptic Ashes series. Or his amazing standalone adventure, The Last of the Dog Team.
They always featured their alpha male heroes in exotic locations, getting into fist fights, knife fights, and gun fights. The women were always fast and dangerous. The bad guys were always powerful and ruthless. The covers usually depicted some hard case with a gun, striking a tough guy pose with a scantily clad woman nearby. Maybe she had a gun of her own, watching his six. Maybe she was just clutched onto the hero, begging his protection.
Politically incorrect? Maybe. But so what?
As anyone who's been following my recent post apocalyptic reviews can attest, I'm a believer that escapist entertainment doesn't have to make any apologies for what it is, or for what audience its trying to court.
One critic who shares that opinion is pulp sword and sorcery expert Morgan Holmes. In this interview with Legends of Men, he rightly points out that the sword and sorcery genre is a subset of Men's Adventure fiction, and that it's aimed primarily at an audience of young men.
Unsurprisingly, Morgan's opinion ruffled some feathers.
This lengthy response to Morgan's interview by scholar Jason Ray Carney makes the case that sword and sorcery is primarily a gender neutral genre, less concerned with action, adventure, and alpha-male archetypes than with depicting human frailty in the face of natural forces. It also contains this doozy of a quote:
"Gender aside, sword and sorcery dramatizes our gender-neutral, all-too-human fight against (and inevitable defeat by) time."
With all due respect to Mr. Carney, I couldn't come up with a less-exciting description for the sword and sorcery genre if you held a fucking gun to my head.
To give him some credit, Carney isn't entirely wrong. Sword and sorcery has always had a strong element of cosmic horror to it, and man's futile struggle against the universe—and time—is a big part of that.
But let's be real, folks.
Nobody is reading a story like Robert E. Howard's "The Queen of the Black Coast" because it "dramatizes our gender neutral, all-too-human fight against... time." We're reading it to see Conan get hot and heavy with Belit, raid and plunder the Black Coast as her pirate king, and finally take bloody vengeance on the unholy creatures that killed her.
We're reading it for the fantastic settings and the visceral action. We're reading it to vicariously experience thrills we can't in our day-to-day lives.
What's more, the people writing and marketing these stories understood that. Howard deliberately wrote scenes of scantily clad women in peril, knowing it would ensure a lurid cover illustrated by Weird Tales great, Margaret Brundage.
Sex and action are big sells, folks. They always have been. They always will be. And their expression is almost never "gender neutral."
Don't believe me? Check your grandmother's garage. You'll probably find a giant box of paperbacks in there, several of them featuring a shirtless Fabio on the cover as he passionately embraces the heroine.
I suppose if I tried, I could write an essay arguing that those books really aren't aimed at women at all, and in fact dramatize our gender-neutral, all-too-human struggle against loneliness. But nobody would buy that argument. Least of all not a bunch of lifelong romance novel fans.
I don't read sword and sorcery for what it has to say about my own crushing and inevitable defeat by the marches of time. I read it to experience the hot-blooded action of Howard's "Queen of the Black Coast," the weird and tantalizing thrills of Fritz Leiber's "While the Sea King's Away," or the lust-and-honor driven vengeance of Michael Moorcock's "The Dreaming City."
In other words, I read it to get the same thrills I get from the Men's Adventure genre, with the added layer of supernatural or cosmic horror on top. And I'd bet good money I'm not alone.
But then, according to Carney, I'm probably missing the point.
Welcome back, Wastelanders!
A little over a week ago, I took an in-depth look at a bona fide genre classic. As expected, Mad Max stood up well on The Rad Scale. This week, I'm applying those same standards to 1988's tongue-in-cheek "Rowdy" Roddy Piper vehicle, Hell Comes To Frogtown.
The results? Decidedly mixed.
A decade after a nuclear war, mankind is on the brink of extinction. 68% of the male population is dead. Fallout has rendered most of the survivors sterile. Birth rates are plummeting, even as both sides are struggling to rebuild and rearm.
"Rowdy" Roddy Piper is Sam Hell, a notorious criminal and serial woman-sexer.
Hell has left a string of pregnancies everywhere he's been, and according to the militarized fertility nurses at MedTech, he has the highest sperm count they've ever tested. MedTech's primary mission is, of course, to locate and impregnate fertile women in the blasted atomic wasteland.
And they're prepared to offer Sam Hell a full pardon for his crimes in exchange for his *ahem* services.
Hell, of course, agrees, reasoning that a life sexin' women is better than life in prison. He signs the papers, which include a clause declaring his manly parts "government property."
Before the ink is even dry, he's off on a rescue mission in the company of Nurse Spangle and her stoic, steely-eyed subordinate, Corporal Centinella. Their destination: Frogtown, a stronghold deep in mutant territory. According to intelligence sources, rebel "Greeners" originating in Frogtown have kidnapped a group fertile women and are holding them for ransom.
The Provisional Government wants Spangle to get the women out, and Hell to get the women pregnant.
And HOLY CRAP, I just now spotted the double entendre in the title!
Not even joking. I'm actually kind of embarrassed. I was 13 the first time I saw this movie. But somehow, that joke flew over my head until I was 40.
To prevent Sam Hell from running out on his duty, the Provisional Government has fitted him with a special chastity belt. It monitors his physiosexual condition. It transmits his location at all times. It can deliver electric shocks on command. If he wanders too far from Nurse Spangle, it explodes. And it will also explode if anyone but her tries to remove it.
With their weapons in order and their "equipment" properly secured, our heroes set out into the wasteland, traveling in a pink ambulance with an M-60 machine gun mounted on top. Because damn it if this movie isn't just awesome when it wants to be.
Unfortunately, after this zany and promising set up, the movie meanders a bit. For a movie taking place in a mutant-infested atomic desert, the road to Frogtown is surprisingly uneventful.
Sam Hell tries to escape, which earns him a lesson in how his electronic chastity belt works. At camp the first night, Spangle poses seductively for him to "keep the subject in an excited state." Corporal Centinella tries to sleep with him, but they're interrupted by an obviously jealous Spangle. There's some bickering, an attempt by Hell to renegotiate his contract, and an encounter with an escaped hostage from Frogtown, culminating in Spangle once again posing seductively to excite Hell enough to do his job.
The above scenes serve mainly to pad out the runtime, and to demonstrate the rising attraction between Spangle and Hell. Eventually, though, the trio arrives at Frogtown. They halt the ambulance just outside in the hills, leaving Centinella on guard duty. Spangle and Hell infiltrate the rest of the way on foot, with Spangle posing as Hell's prisoner.
Once inside, they encounter an old friend of Sam's, a prospector named Loonie. As it turns out, Loonie discovered a pocket of uranium beneath Frogtown, which the frogs have been mining for profit. They also encounter the double agent they're supposed to rendezvous with, frog burlesque dancer Arabella.
At first, everything is going according to plan. That changes with the arrival of Bull, chief lieutenant to the rebel Greeners' leader, Commander Toty. Soon both Hell and Spangle are in captivity, with Hell chained up in Bull's private workshop/torture chamber, and Spangle in the palace's Harem.
Bull sets to the task of removing Sam's explosive chastity belt. He manages to get it off without triggering the bomb. It does off in his hand as he's examining it, however. The blast is enough to knock him senseless, and it buys Arabella just enough time to sneak in and free Hell from his chains.
Meanwhile, Spangle is forced to perform a ritual called "The Dance of the Three Snakes" for commander Toty. As she dances to the music in the throne room, the frog commander becomes visibly aroused, declaring that she's successfully awakened the "three snakes."
And yes, it's exactly as weird as it sounds.
Thankfully, before Toty can force himself on her, Hell kicks in the door, wielding a shotgun in each hand. He delivers the proper action movie quip of "Eat lead, froggies," just before mowing down the guards. Toty narrowly escapes by leaping up onto the overhead scaffolding.
Spangle and Hell then make a beeline for the harem, where they free the hostages and make a break for Centinella's waiting ambulance. A brief shootout follows, but the heroes peel out and hit the open road. Toty and his warriors give chase, riding in an armored, camouflaged car that has some kind of recoilless rifle attached.
Hell and the others almost make it, but they end up trapped in the rocks with their vehicle destroyed. Sam Hell is forced to fight Toty alone, eventually prevailing and knocking him off the edge of a cliff face.
The threats finally over, Spangle and Hell get into another bickering, heated argument. The argument quickly turns into the passionate kiss that's been building up since the two of them met, but Spangle tells him to hold his horses before he gets too excited.
After all. He still has a job to do.
Violence - Surprisingly little, and most of it confined to the third act. We have a couple of brief fight scenes. We have an even briefer shootout in Toty's throne room. The final chase contains some explosions and gunfire, and we get a climactic fight between Toty and Piper out in the desert. That final fight is almost the kind of knock-down, drag-out brawl you'd expect with a pro wrestler as the lead. But not quite.
Sadly, Hell Comes to Frogtown disappoints on the violence front.
Man's Civilization Cast in Ruins - Fairly standard for the genre. That said, it's delivered with confidence and competence. Directors Donald G. Jackson and R. J. Kizer lean heavily on some of the time-tested tricks of the apocalyptic film trade, but they make them work.
Wide desert vistas, a lonely toll both, and a few hastily erected signs marking the edge of the "Hostile Mutant Zone" provide a quick shorthand for the atomic wasteland. The Kaiser Steel Mill in Fontana, California stands in for Frogtown itself.
There's also the requisite opening narration describing a great war, played over stock footage of an atomic bomb test. But Jackson and Kizer play with the formula here, adding a welcome bit of deadpan snark to the narration. Not to mention a funny sight gag that sends up the iconic ending of Planet of the Apes.
Dystopian Survivor Society - Look, citizen. The Provisional Government is trying to stave off a population disaster. And if that means forcing a man to sign over control of his own penis and testicles, wiring them with an explosive device so they don't fall into "enemy hands," and driving him into the heart of mutant territory to impregnate a bunch of fertile women against his will, then by God, it's a small price to pay.
Futuristic Bloodsports - None. But they would have been better off including some, considering how long this film takes to finally get to the action.
Barbarian Hordes - Nada. Mankind apparently managed to avoid a complete descent into savagery after World War III. Of course, with the plummeting birth rates threatening to wipe out the war's survivors in a few generations, that descent probably isn't far off.
Badass Warrior Women - Nurse Spangle, played by Conan the Barbarian alum Sandahl Bergman. Trained in both combat and the "arts of seduction," Spangle is the rescue mission's fearless leader. In addition to taking down Commander Toty with a series of kicks to each of his "three snakes," Spangle completely flattens the frog sentries in the hallway without breaking a sweat.
Secondary mention goes to Corporal Centinella, who spends most of the film manning the ambulance's M-60 machine gun.
Watch Thou For the Mutant - And fuckin' how! Hell Comes to Frogtown is hands' down the mutie-est mutant extravaganza ever to grace the apocalyptic screen. Where other movies try to pass off extras with dried oatmeal on their faces as mutants, this one goes whole hog... er, frog.
Thats right, Wastelanders. We've got full-on, giant, anthropomorphic human/frog hybrids.
Jackson and Kizer wisely chose to spend the majority of the film's budget here, and it shows. Sure, most of the background frogs stay covered in stereotypical wasteland garb like trench coats, goggles, and dust scarves. But the "star" frog suits—reserved for major characters like Commander Toty and Bull—have articulated eyes, pulsating necks, and working mouths. They're honestly more impressive than anything in the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles film, which would be made just a few years later for considerably more money.
I've gotta admit, "Roddy Piper Saves Humanity with His Dick," is a bold premise for a movie. The fact that Hell Comes to Frogtown works as well as it does is nothing short of miraculous.
With its central conceit of plunging fertility rates, weaponized sperm counts, and what amounts to forced stud work for central character Sam Hell, this film could have taken the obvious route of relying on gratuitous, graphic sex scenes to pad the run-time. The fact that there's only one scene of actual nudity, and that it's played mostly for laughs, speaks to the integrity of the filmmakers. They clearly wanted to make a post apocalyptic action romp, rather than a softcore sci-fi sex film, and they need to be applauded for sticking to their guns.
The unfortunate flip side is that the movie doesn't quite commit to the action aesthetic, either. In fact, there's shockingly little action on display. This was probably for budgetary reasons, and the filmmakers do deserve some credit for trying to turn each action scene into a set piece. But in the end it's just not enough.
So what's left? Aside from the humor, frustratingly little.
Since there wasn't enough budget for more action, and the filmmakers chose to eschew excessive sex, a big chunk of the movie's runtime is dedicated to Sam Hell and Nurse Spangle's budding romance. To their credit, Piper and Bergman do manage to keep these scenes from dragging the film down, thanks to their fun, over-the-top performances. But this shift in focus almost makes the movie feel like a quirky Romantic Comedy. One that just happens to have a tough-talkin,' mutant-killin,' and woman-sexin' subplot tacked on.
Side note: I would definitely watch more RomComs if they included the above elements. Also, if I ever find myself single and in the dating pool again, I plan to use this movie to justify a "yes" answer on the subject of liking RomComs.
Speaking of subplots, there is one about traitor humans selling the frogs guns in exchange for uranium. The traitor even turns out to be the same "bad cop" seen roughing up Hell at the beginning of the movie. But it's not really explored, and when the character pops up at the end just to lengthen the climax, it winds up feeling tacked on.
Likewise with the parts about Sam Hell's old mentor, Loony, and the hints about Hell's deceased wife and daughter. Loony's death during the climactic chase scene doesn't seem to affect Hell enough to warrant his inclusion in the movie at all. And the pendant that belonged to Hell's daughter makes no real appearance in the film until the last fifteen minutes. It seems to have been added solely for the purpose of giving him a tender moment with Centinella.
While the attempt at giving us deeper characterization and a more complex plot is appreciated, it ultimately falls flat. Sometimes the simplest answer is best, and the simplest answer here would have been to include more scenes of Roddy Piper kicking mutant ass.
The Rad Rating:
As much as I hate to admit it, Hell Comes to Frogtown comes painfully close to earning Two and a Half Rads. The slow beginning and the overall lack of violence hamper things badly. Admittedly, that's only two strikes, but they're big ones.
The film's primary redeeming quality—and the one area where it stands above practically all other movies in the genre—is its mutants. Hell Comes to Frogtown pulls out all the stops when it comes to the frogs, enough to bump it up to a full Three Rads.
Bottom line: Hell Comes to Frogtown is a flawed cult classic, frustrating mainly for what it could have been rather than what it is. It's still a fun and entertaining film at the end of the day. Recommended if you've got both an evening and a six-pack of beer to kill.
That does it for now, Wastelanders. Until next time!
Here's a short list of apocalyptic miscellanea that popped onto my radar lately:
Twitter — This short thread made some excellent points about the allure of post apocalyptic fiction.
Facebook — Wasteland Wanderers (Post-Apocalyptic Fiction Fans) is an active group dealing with all things apocalyptic, from books, to movies, to occasional survival tips. They've been around for a while, and they host regular spoiler-safe discussion threads for shows like The Walking Dead and The 100. Laid-back moderators and lively discussions.
Italian Post Apocalyptic Movies of the 1980's is a newer group, and it's a haven for b-movie connoisseurs. The main focus may be on Italy's numerous Mad Max imitators, but they're open for discussing the genre and genre-adjacent films from all over.
Kickstarter — As author Adam Lane Smith describes his upcoming series of post apocalyptic pulp adventures: "Holy knights in power armor slaughtering legions with each swing. Assassin nuns slitting the throats of evil rulers. Pulp fiction so brutal it requires its own heavy metal soundtrack."
If that doesn't get your blood pumping, folks, I don't even know what you're doing here.
The Kickstarter blew past its initial $1500.00 goal, and with 13 days to go, is sitting about $200.00 short of funding Book 3 as a stretch goal. Kick in and get some post apocalyptic action from the creator of Maxwell Cain: Burrito Avenger.
Tabletop RPG -- Ruinations: Post-Apocalyptic Roleplaying by Brent Ault began life as a post-apocalyptic re-skin of Lamentations of the Flame Princess. I've mentioned my fondness for that system before, and Ruinations is to Mutant Future what what LotFP is to Labyrinth Lord, a streamlined, elegant take on the B/X rules with some innovative house rules. You don't have to take my word for it. Ault has made it available for free via Google Drive.
Welcome back, Wastelanders!
For today's review, I'm dipping into one of the genre's greats: George Miller's 1979 proto-action epic, Mad Max.
While it's sometimes overshadowed by its sequels—especially the genre defining masterpiece The Road Warrior--Miller's original film is nonetheless an apocalyptic essential. Telling the focused, intimate story of a family man and police officer serving in the final days of a collapsing society, Miller manages to show us a different side of the apocalypse.
This isn't the rusted hulks and collapsed skyscrapers of the 'Pocky-clypse Past, Wastelanders. This is the impending doom of the 'Pocky-clypse Soon. And its every bit as harrowing as the aftermath.
The film opens hot, beginning "a few years from now," with the Australian Main Force Patrol in pursuit of a crazed cop killer calling himself the Nightrider. Vehicles crash, bones break, and glass shatters as the Nightrider outpaces the "Bronze," taunting them the entire way over the police band radio in his stolen V8 Interceptor.
He's set to get away, until Officer Max Rockatansky joins the action, intercepting him along a barren stretch of highway and driving straight for him. The Nightrider, at first cool and collected during the game of chicken, breaks first, swerving around Max in a panic.
Max spins his vehicle around to give pursuit, and a rattled Nightrider ends up plowing his nitro-charged vehicle into a stalled big rig, resulting in an explosion and fireball.
And that, folks, is how you open a fucking movie!
After this blistering, edge-of-the-seat nail biter, we're treated to a series of quieter moments between Max, his wife Jessie, and their toddler son Sprog. It's obvious Max doesn't completely relax at home, however. He's distant and detached as his loving wife tries to engage him.
The next morning, Max heads in to Main Force Patrol Headquarters, where his partner Jim Goose and the department's mechanic surprise him with a salvaged and rebuilt V8 Interceptor. "The last of the V8's" they call it. Max stares at it with genuine awe, displaying more interest and emotion than he did with his wife the night before.
It's here that we learn, via an upstairs conversation between Captain "Fifi" Macaffee and some department bean counter, that Max has been talking about leaving the force. The rebuilt Interceptor is apparently an expensive bid to keep Fifi's best officer on the job.
Later that night, at the bloody, twisted aftermath of yet another of Max's pursuits, Fifi pulls up to warn him about an ominous rumor. Nightrider apparently has friends, and they're out to get him. Max grins, saying he'll add it to his list of death threats.
He doesn't have long to wait. The next scene is the Toecutter's gang rolling into town to collect their friend's remains from the train station. While Toecutter sits silently by the coffin, the rest of the gang begins to have a little fun with the locals.
This being an apocalyptic biker movie, "fun" involves drinking, laughing, dragging a man to death behind a motorcycle, and running down and raping a young couple in a hot rod.
Some time later, Max and Goose are called to the scene. They find Johnny, one of Toecutter's men, alongside the brutalized girl. Johnny is whacked right out of his skull, and ranting and raving about the Nightrider. They bring him into custody, but the Main Force Officers are forced to release him on a technicality.
Johnny taunts Goose on the way out the station, and it quickly devolves into an all-out brawl in the parking lot, with other Main Force Officers having to pull Goose away. Johnny manages to get in a chilling last word.
"We remember the Nightrider, and we know who you are, Bronze."
True to their word, the bikers locate and tamper with Goose's motorcycle, causing the brakes to lock up and dump him on the side of the highway. He borrows a truck to scoop his bike off the road, and as he's driving back to civilization the bikers ambush him, throwing a rusted brake drum through his windshield and causing him to crash.
What follows is one of the film's most harrowing scenes.
Goose, trapped and covered in leaking gasoline, looks on helplessly as Johnny and Toecutter stride up. Toecutter instructs Johnny to light a match. Johnny hesitates, saying this isn't what he wanted. But Toecutter tells him this is a threshold moment, that the Bronze are keeping him from being proud. Johnny resists the Toecutter's increasingly frantic demands to throw the match until it physically burns him. He reflexively tosses it into the grass, causing the gas to ignite.
The scene then cuts away to Max arriving at the hospital. The other Main Force officers are gathered in the hall. Everyone tries to keep him out of the intensive care room, but Max goes in anyway. He sees the burned wreck of his partner and friend, and staggers out of the room, sick with shock. He can't accept it.
"That thing in there," he says. "That's not the Goose."
The next day, Max walks into Fifi's office and hands in his resignation. Fifi won't hear of it. He tells Max that he's top shelf. He's a winner. And he can't afford to lose him.
This exchange provides one of the series' most memorable lines:
"I'm scared Fifi. Do you know why? It's that rat circus out there. I'm beginning to enjoy it. Any longer out there on that road and I'm one of them, you know? A Terminal Crazy. Only I've got a Bronze Badge to say I'm one of the good guys."
Fifi agrees to give him a few weeks off, saying if he still feels the same way when he gets back, he can resign. Max assures him he won't, but Fifi says Max is hooked and that deep down, he knows it.
The film slows down considerably here, as Max goes off and attempts to enjoy his vacation. Fortunately for the viewer, it doesn't last. Before long the bikers are back, the family dog is dead, and Max is out hunting the bikers with a shotgun while his terrified wife huddles in the farmhouse with the elderly landlady.
Unfortunately, this is just what the bikers wanted. With Max running around in the woods, the bikers swoop in and get their hands on Sprog, leading to a tense and terrifying confrontation. It's only the fortunate arrival of the landlady and her shotgun that keeps the worst from happening, but even that turns out to be nothing but a short-term delay.
As the two women make their escape, the car fails, forcing Jessie to take Sprog and run.
It ends about as well as you'd imagine.
It's at this point Max finally caves. He dons his leathers, steals the V8 Interceptor from the Halls of Justice and sets out on the highway. The rest of the movie is exactly what we signed on for: a practically non-stop rampage of balls-out, high-octane violence and revenge.
We're treated to spectacular set pieces of Max stalking the bikers, running them down with his nitro V8, and shotgunning his way out of the bikers' attempted trap. Soon the only survivors are Johnny and Toecutter, who opt to break and run in opposite directions. Max gives chase, opting to follow Toecutter.
What follows is another edge of the seat, nail-biting chase sequence, and one of the film's absolute highlights.
Max doggedly pursues him, catching up inch by inch. The Toecutter, panicked, keeps looking behind him. He doesn't see the oncoming semi truck until the very last second, just long enough to register a moment of terror. Then the truck crushes him, rolling over his broken body even as the driver tries to stop.
The following morning, Max finally catches up to Johnny at the scene of yet another vehicle wreck. He cuffs the pleading biker's leg to the wreck at gunpoint. He then lights Johnny's zippo lighter and places it beneath the leaking gas tank. Handing Johnny a hacksaw, he says it will take him ten minutes to hack through the chain on the handcuffs. But if he's lucky, he can cut through his ankle in five.
He then leaves the begging, screaming Johnny to his own devices and drives out into the wastes. The film closes on Max's dead, icy expression as the wreck explodes into a huge fireball behind him.
Violence - Mad Max delivers here. Arguably more than any other film in the series. The individual scenes may not be as elaborately staged as those in the later movies, and there certainly aren't as many of them. But the ones we have are brutally effective and powerful.
Special mention has to go to the standout opening chase scene, which—40 years later—is still one of the greatest ever put to film. Even in the three subsequent Mad Max films, George Miller himself never quite topped it. It may not have the flash or the scope of the chase scenes in The Road Warrior or Fury Road. But in terms of nail-biting tension, stakes, and raw grittiness, it remains the series' high point.
Other highlights include the gang savagely running down Jessie and Sprog, the horrifying ambush and immolation of Jim Goose, and Max's violent rampage for the last ten minutes of the movie, culminating in his poetically appropriate torching of Johnny.
Man's Civilization Cast in Ruins - No ruins, but that's mainly because the world George Miller shows us in Mad Max isn't quite apocalyptic. Not yet. Rather, it's a world that's rapidly heading towards apocalypse, in the throes of economic depression, fuel shortages, and a general breakdown of order.
That said, the dilapidated Halls of Justice building, the general squalor of the city, and the occasional pile of wreckage alongside the highway do an admirable job of portraying a society going to rot.
Dystopian Survivor Society - In spades. Whatever body is governing the city is rapidly turning into a dictatorship, as they struggle to keep some stability and order in a world going to shit. There are distinctly Orwellian overtones to the radio dispatcher's messages throughout the movie. Furthermore, aside from some stand-up types like Goose, Fifi, and Max, the Main Force Patrol is made up of violent thugs no different from the gangs.
It's subtle by genre standards, but arguably all the more powerful for it.
Futuristic Bloodsports - None whatsoever. While the series would eventually go on to become synonymous with the most famous futuristic bloodsport this side of Rollerball, the first Mad Max is basically a near-future police drama.
And as cool as it would have been to see, a rousing game of Machete Rugby would have detracted from the story.
Barbarian Hordes - Scoot jockeys. Nomad trash. Whatever you want to call them, Toecutter's biker gang fits the bill. Right from the moment they ride into town they're seen raping, raiding, and looting everything in sight.
While they're a bit tame compared to some of the series' later villains, what really makes them effective is their audacity. They're not out there in the wastes preying on one another. They're riding up main street, preying on the film's stand-ins for the audience.
Lord Humungous might be the Warrior of the Wasteland, but Toecutter leads the barbarians at the gates. For a society trying to hold onto its last threads of civilization, that's far more terrifying.
Badass Warrior Women - Jessie spends a little too much time playing damsel in distress, but the film doesn't leave us hanging. I present the sweet, elderly landlady, May Swaisey.
May faces down over half a dozen bikers with nothing but a double barreled shotgun, showing all the grit of an Old West Marshal. After she fires off her warning shot, she knows damned well she's just got just one load of buckshot left before they can dog pile her. She still doesn't show the slightest bit of fear or hesitation. Rather, she menaces the bikers with her remaining shot, daring each of them to be the one that eats it as she corrals them into the barn.
I say this in all sincerity. Do NOT fuck with a grandma holding a shotgun. She's not playing games. Mess around, and she will end you.
Watch Thou For the Mutant - The Mad Max series has always been pretty lacking in this department, and Mad Max has the weakest showing of all. Not one mutant or abnormal creature shows up for the entire run time.
Its no accident that one of the very first shots in the film is the broken, run-down Hall of Justice. With just that one visual, Miller manages to convey a lot of background information to the viewer. We don't need a long narration over stock footage, or a silent title card explaining how the world got this way. That one shot tells us all we need to know, that we're in a world that's just barely holding on before the final slip into anarchy. It's elegantly simple, and one of the best examples of purely visual storytelling I can think of.
Likewise, the entire opening sequence does an incredible amount of heavy lifting, introducing not just the story world and several main characters, but effectively showing us who Max and Jim Goose are. Within minutes of the film's opening crawl, we know Goose is an easygoing joker, while Max is already teetering dangerously on the edge. And it manages to do this while simultaneously delivering a thrilling chase scene.
Arguably, that relationship between Goose and Max is the movie's most important one. Jim Goose has all the humanity and humor Max seems to be lacking. That said, he's not a one-note character. The most telling moment for Goose is his outburst in the Halls of Justice, as the Main Force patrol is forced to release Johnny.
The fact that no one showed for the hearing (not even Max) is what finally cracks Goose's cool, easygoing exterior. The Justice System is what he truly believes in, we realize. It's the one thing enabling him to put on that jolly, relaxed demeanor every day. Watching it collapse and fail before his very eyes is more than he can stand. The world—the real, failing world, the one out there in the Wastes—has suddenly become too real, too impossible to hide from. The mask slips, and for a brutally savage moment in the parking lot, Goose is no different than the bikers, pinning and beating Johnny until he's physically dragged away.
And it's Jim Goose's burning that provides Max's first and most important crisis moment. One that oddly mirrors that of another character in the film, biker and simpering Toecutter toady, Johnny.
Toecutter has a meaningful line in the previous scene, as the two bikers are standing over the helpless Goose. Toecutter tells Johnny he's at a threshold moment, and urges him to step through it by lighting the gasoline. Johnny, of course, hesitates, and it's unclear as to how willingly he tosses the match at the end.
Seeing Goose's burned body is Max's threshold moment. And like Johnny, he doesn't want to step through. He even tells Fifi he's going to quit the Main Force, over fear of becoming "one of them, a terminal crazy."
The main difference is that Max is partially successful in stepping away from that threshold. He still has some tiny bit of humanity left, something to hold onto. It's only after he loses his son and his wife is brutally injured that he crosses it, but when he does it's a much more deliberate and willing action than Johnny's.
This point is hammered home in the film's nihilistic final shot. Max simply drives out into the wasteland, not bothering to go back and check on his hospitalized wife. She, like the majority of humanity, will be dead soon.
And Max Rockatansky no longer cares.
The Rad Rating:
Mad Max can be forgiven for lacking some of the genre's Vitals. After all, the series is still in its embryonic stage at this point, and subsequent films will arguably go on to create or codify several of the items on the list. Nevertheless, where it lacks in one area it dramatically pays off in the others. The dearth of Mutants and Futuristic Bloodsports is more than balanced out by the Violence and the Dystopian Survivor Society.
The film's only real weaknesses occur in the sagging middle portion, where Max attempts to have a quiet vacation with Jessie. Several of the scenes here run overlong, and the plot sort of meanders a bit. There are also a few nonsensical character moments, the most jarring of which involves both Max and Jessie forgetting all about their son while the bikers are stalking them at the farmhouse.
However, these flaws are only occasionally glaring, and there are few enough of them on display to keep this film comfortably in the Four Rads category. Highly recommended.
Until next time, Wastelanders.
Welcome back, Wastelanders!
As I mentioned last week, I have a certain set of criteria that I judge post apocalyptic stories by. Yeah, musing on complex themes is great. Having something to say about human nature is good, too.
But let's be real. Nobody watches a movie like Hell Comes to Frogtown for its insights into the human condition. We watch it to see "Rowdy" Roddy Piper kick amphibian ass from one end of the wasteland to the other.
That same principle holds true for undisputed genre greats like Mad Max: Fury Road and Planet of the Apes. Sure, we might walk away pondering the deeper questions, but that's incidental. We walked in the door looking for car chases and monkey society gone amuck.
In short, the post apocalyptic genre is its own thing. And even the bona fide classics have to be good apocalyptic stories before they can be anything else.
With that in mind, here's my list of vital genre elements, followed by my numerical "Rad Scale."
Violence - Being serious for a moment, violence is where the post apocalyptic genre gains most of its thematic power. After all, nothing says "woe to the the hubris of man" like two guys finding a reason to kill each other in the aftermath of an atomic war.
But even if the cause of the apocalypse is something else, like an alien invasion or a cosmic event, violence is an essential part of the genre. It harkens back to our early days as a species, when fighting and killing for limited resources was a part of everyday life.
Bottom line, even the talkiest, most drawn out bomb-shelter soap opera needs violence—or at least the implied threat of it—to have any kind of tension.
Man's Civilization Cast in Ruins - Haunting, lyrical descriptions of the world gone by. Beautiful, panoramic vistas of silent cities. Gratuitous destruction porn.
This is at least half of what brings the audience to the table. In movies, it's everything from scenes of wholesale nuclear annihilation to old junk cars on the side of the road. In books, it can be in the physical setting descriptions, a blocky info dump, or even just implied in the dialogue.
However it appears, it needs to adequately convey the fall of the old world. And it needs to be good.
Dystopian Survivor Society - Some groups survive the end times by tenaciously clinging to the last shreds of civilization and decency. This is the other kind of group, the one that becomes a savage mini-dictatorship or a totalitarian hell hole. If human rights exist, they're probably on the menu right alongside the human lefts and the charred horse flanks. Pretty much always the bad guys.
Futuristic Bloodsports - Maybe they're a stand-in for war. Maybe they're bread and circuses for the post apocalyptic masses. Maybe they're even a commentary on our contemporary addiction to violent entertainment.
Let's just call this one what it is: a thinly-veiled pretext for our hero to take part in a deadly game of skill and ruthlessness. Don't overthink it. Story elements this awesome don't need any justification.
Barbarian Hordes - Sometimes they're biker gangs. Sometimes they're feral subway dwellers. Other times they're horseback riding neo-Mongols, armed with compound bows and assault rifles. Whatever form they take, these are the people who dealt with the collapse by rejecting civilization and embracing their inner pack hunter. Often—but not always—the bad guys.
Badass Warrior Women - Imperator Furiosa. Kushanna from Hayayo Miyazaki's Nausicaä. Nurse Spangle from Hell Comes to Frogtown. A good apocalypse is an equal opportunity hell hole. Nothing conveys this faster than some women kicking cannibal ass alongside the men.
Watch Thou For the Mutant - Human beings survived the end. But that doesn't mean they survived alone. Or unchanged. Anything from monstrously mutated plants and animals to humans with extra limbs and psychic powers.
The Rad Scale:
One Rad - Those Lost During the Fall. These are the apocalyptic stories that commit the genre's cardinal sin: they actually bore reader or viewer. Many of them contain no action or plot. Expect most of the genre's "deconstructions" and "fresh meditations" to fall right here.
Two Rads - The Chattel of the Aftermath. Usually plagued by muddy execution, dragging plots, and too much filler. That said, these stories will sometimes contain moments or concepts that bring them just shy of cult classic status. Mediocre to solidly entertaining. Most of the genre's missed opportunities fall here.
Three Rads - The Wasteland Wanderers. These stories form the backbone of the genre. Most will have moments of genuine brilliance, but fall just short of greatness. Cult classics and genre stalwarts usually land here.
Four Rads - Warlords of the End Times. Most of these films and books are genre-defining classics. Any others are forgotten masterpieces that deserve to be classics. The best of the best.
Five Rads - A Legend of the Wastes. These stories represent post apocalyptic perfection. Practically flawless. Also as rare as unmutated livestock.
So there you have it, Wastelanders. My personal criteria for judging apocalyptic books and films. My next post will jump right into it.
COMING UP NEXT:
George Miller's original 1979 classic, Mad Max.
I'm an award-winning science fiction and fantasy writer based out of North Carolina. This is where I scream into the digital void. I like cookies.