The Road Warrior, as it was released as in the United States, or Mad Max 2 as it was titled everywhere else, is not the first post-apocalyptic film, but it might as well be from the influence it has had on the genre. The costume design alone is responsible for the accepted fact that, after the apocalypse, all fashion sense goes out the window and it becomes perfectly acceptable to wear footballs pads with a ballet tutu. Shot against the wide open spaces of the desolate Australian Outback, The Road Warrior made it a requirement for all post-apocalyptic movies to occur in locales without a speck of greenery present, making them easy to shoot just outside of L.A. Without this requirement, the low-budget post-apocalyptic boom that followed The Road Warrior’s release in 1981 would probably never have happened. Luckily for the film makers’ responsible for such gems as Raiders of the Sun, Hell Comes to Frogtown, Cherry 2000, or Steel Dawn, the apocalypse looks surprisingly like Vasquez Rocks.
I’m assuming that all of my readers know the plot of The Road Warrior, but here’s a brief summary:
Since we last saw “Mad” Max Rockatansky avenging the death of his family and friends at the hands (and wheels) of the Toe Cutter’s gang of motorcycle outlaws, the world has really gone downhill. In the aftermath of a nuclear exchange followed by the breakdown of oil pipelines and refineries, society has collapsed and become a place where “only those mobile enough to scavenge, brutal enough to pillage would survive.” Max has become a loner in the world, driving the highways in “the last of the V8 Interceptors” with his unnamed dog on a constant hunt for “gazzahleen” to stay mobile. After he turns the tables on an ambushing Gyro Captain (played by Bruce Spence in a manner that I cannot picture him as anything else to this day), Max discovers that there is one last community still pumping and refining oil. This settlement is under constant siege by that Ayatollah of Rock ‘n Rolla, The Humungous (a disfigured giant with a colander on his face) and his cadre of “Smegma crazies and gayboy berserkers”. Although initially just looking to get some fuel from the refiners and disappear back into the wasteland, events conspire against Max to drag him into the conflict. He ultimately redeems himself by becoming the unwitting patsy in the refiners’ escape from the wasteland.
Like many kids in the ‘80s, this film became the baseline for me against which all post-apocalyptic films would be measured. This is largely due to the fact that it is not only an excellent movie in its own right, but because the film loomed large in our imaginations before we even saw it. Being an adolescent in the ‘80s was to live in the shadow of the Bomb. A dim shadow perhaps when compared to those who experienced the Cuban Missile Crisis, but a noticeable one in any regard. Some days it almost seemed as if World War III was inevitable and we were just passing time until the sirens went off.
I remember hearing about The Road Warrior around the lunch table long before I actually saw it. Some of my friends had either seen it on cable or VHS, and those of us who hadn’t due to having parents who actually paid attention to movie ratings listened in amazement to their recitations of the film’s plot and events. By the time I actually saw the movie for myself, I had already built up quite a preconceived notion as to what the film would be. It’s a sign of the movie’s quality that, although it didn’t match what I had envisioned, it still was an impressive film-viewing experience.
The Road Warrior has had a constant albeit subtle influence on me over the years, affecting everything from playing with action figures to fashion choice during my punk rock years to scenarios for role-playing games. I remember my brother and I playing with our Star Wars and G.I. Joe figures in a game we called “Warriors of the Wasteland,” wherein the figures prowled the concrete floor of our basement searching out fuel in the form of Lite-Brite pegs and dealing with a mutated cockroach named “Cookie” who ran the only remaining diner left on the wasted Earth. Later years saw me using the same plot and events from The Road Warrior in a Star Frontiers game when the PC’s ship had to ditch on the charred cinder of a world.
Now that I’m creating a radioactive sandbox, it’s time to see what I can use from the film for that purpose. The most obvious choice would be the idea of fuel as wealth, but there’s a slight problem with that in Gamma World. As you might know, the usual power sources on Gamma Terra are various energy cells left over from the Shadow Years. These aren’t the type of thing a wasteland community is going to be able to produce on their own, although it might be possible for them to be in possession of a stockpile of energy cells somehow. However, the idea of the Red Death encamped outside the walls and demanding the villagers “give up the cells” just doesn’t do it for me. It must be gazzahleen or nothing. (Sorry, but do to the pronunciation of “gasoline” with an Aussie twang in The Road Warrior, the fuel of Gamma World has officially become gazzahleen.)
Further reading of the Gamma World rulebook indicates this isn’t as unthinkable as it would appear. Under the descriptions for the Civilian Ground Car and Military Ground Car, both are alcohol-powered rather than cell-powered. I’ll assume that’s a matter of convenience rather than design, having those vehicles converted over to alcohol power after gazzahleen became extremely rare. I suspect that with a little tinkering I might be able to bolt the rules for gas and alcohol powered vehicles from Twilight 2000 into a Gamma World-friendly format, opening up the possibility of trading gaz for all sorts of supplies and using it as intended to outrace mutants in the badlands.
Less obvious but still cool to steal concepts would include the razor-edged boomerang employed by the Feral Kid, the wrist crossbow used by Wez, and explosive booby traps and knives hidden under particularly choice vehicles. And what would the apocalypse be without an evil leader known by an adjective. Perhaps the PCs will cross vibroblades with The Ferocious?
Of the Mad Max trilogy, The Road Warrior remains my favorite. I readily admit that it lacks the depth of Mad Max, but it does a good job of recasting Max in the role of the Western drifter hero and giving the viewer a films powered by a potent mix of gasoline, nitrous oxide, and testosterone. A much better job than the sequel, Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome does, a film that proves the film law which states if you want to screw up a successful film franchise, just add children to the cast (I’m looking at you guys, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, The Mummy Returns, and Star Wars: The Phantom Menace) at any length.
In revisiting the film for inspiration, I admit that the movie has lost some of its impact, but if this is due to familiarity with the film or simply a maturation of taste, I’m not 100% sure. The plot did seem more straightforward than I remembered it to be, for instance, and I’m certain that if it was done nowadays, we’d see an even more emotionally detached Max to begin with so as to make his ultimate re-humanization that more poignant. The film does deliver in one regard by reminding us how much fun it was to have Mel Gibson star in a movie before he began engaging in his recent objectionable antics.