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How Mad Max Pioneered the Post-Apocalyptic Worlds We Love, From Twisted Metal to Fallout

From Twisted Metal to wastelands way beyond, the genre foundations were laid in Mel Gibson’s 1979 movie breakthrough.

By Benjamin Bullard
Max Rockatanksy (Mel Gibson) attacks a kneeling Toecutter (Hugh Keays-Byrne) in Mad Max (1979).

Just as the Mad Max Saga enjoys a renaissance, the original Mel Gibson movie that started it all (watch it here!) is streaming on Peacock.  A full 45 years on from its 1979 release, it’s a great reminder that the Mad Max franchise might just be the reason for the many ways, these days, that fans can actually enjoy their hellish stroll through the post-apocalypse. 

Surviving and thriving through the world’s decline has of course been a part of film culture for far longer than even Mad Max has been around. From the sci-fi disaster of 1933’s Deluge to the post-nuclear drama of 1959’s On the Beach to Charlton Heston’s iconic 1968 Planet of the Apes outing, the movies have been fasciated for decades with how life carries on once the societal you-know-what finally hits the fan. 

For more post-apocalypse: 

Twisted Metal Boss Reveals Season 2 Plans For Peacock Series: "It's Gonna Be Wild"
How We'll Avoid the Dystopian Eco-Nightmare of Mad Max
Long Before Furiosa, Mad Max Established George Miller as a Visionary in the Making

The original Mad Max: Still inspiring our apocalyptic obsession

But whether it’s a sign of the late-‘70s times or simply some compelling secret formula embedded in the Mad Max DNA, it was Gibson and director George Miller (in collaboration with Byron Kennedy, Miller’s producer and fellow writer) who managed to ignite pop culture’s imaginative spark for building a whole franchise around murderous speed demons who patrol the Wasteland wilds. 

Though the original 1979 Mad Max showed society during, and not after, a big cataclysmic event, it introduced essential tropes that would come to define both the franchise itself as well as other creators’ ideas of what a post-collapse world ought to look like — at least, that is, if it wants to be entertaining. 

Deranged-brained psychos roving the lawless open road? Check. Enforcer-goons with souped-up rides who don’t look all that different from the criminals they chase? Double-Check! Wide-open spaces littered with shabby buildings only a hair’s breadth away from total decay? 

Double-check again — and yep, it’s all there right from the beginning in the original Mad Max. Gibson’s iconic first portrayal of MFP cop Max Rockatansky even comes with its own thesis statement of sorts; a declaration that, at least in present-day hindsight, captures the main-character appeal of much of the post-Mad Max (and post-apocalyptic, of course) entertainment landscape — whether it’s Anthony Mackie’s John Doe in Twisted Metal (stream the series here on Peacock!) or the solo vault dweller in the franchise-expanding Fallout video game universe. 

“It’s that rat circus out there — I’m beginning to enjoy it,” Max says, right after his partner “Goose” Rains (Steve Bisley) has just punched his Wastelander’s ticket to eternity. “Any longer out 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.”

A gang of bikers follow a red car on the road in Mad Max (1979).

It’s a remarkably noir-ish thing for a hero character to say… but then again, Mad Max was all about skirting the same moral grey areas that had long beleaguered the conflicted heroes of other movie genres — especially those in film noir and westerns. Perhaps that’s the original film’s most enduring legacy: Audiences respond to characters who’re forced to improvise their futures in the face of impossible odds — and Mad Max gifted the world with a veritable blueprint for the type of sci-fi setting where impossible odds are really the only odds there are. 

It’s truly tough stuff to be an apocalyptic hero in the entertainment mini-genre that Mad Max has since inspired. In the fallen and lawless Wasteland, after all, even the best choice you’ve got will probably always still be a bad one. 

Stream Mad Max on Peacock here, as well as the first season of Twisted Metal here.