By Lauren Bliss

In George Miller’s early film Violence in the Cinema Part 1 (1971), the teacher falls victim to his own lesson. A pseudo-educational documentary, it is led by a psychologist lecturing us on the effects of violent movies on the human psyche. His lecture is repeatedly interrupted by a spate of axe murderers, maniacal killers, etc., who take to maiming his body. Even as limbs are hacked off, the lecture continues until a final gory sequence in which the psychologist is run over by a car. Violence in the Cinema Part 1 is a parody of the human encounter with the violent image. It brings to the foreground an immaterial space between, what Miller terms to be, what we celebrate and what we viscerally experience when we watch a violent movie[1].

In Mad Max (1979) it is the car – rather than pure violence – that takes centre stage. The drivers, like the psychologist, the happy casualties of what they portend to distance themselves from. In their eminent reviews of the film series, (Mad Max is, of course, followed by two sequels) Meaghan Morris and Adrian Martin both note that the car is the agent of ‘action’ in Mad Max, at the centre of a “conflict between a society and an environment” which are of course “mutually entailed”[2]. Mad Max is not a moralistic film, but is a simultaneous celebration of and nightmare for the body’s encounter with the car.

The road movie (and the accompanying car crash) has an important place in the history of cinema. The epitome of this genre is obviously David Cronenberg’s twisted Crash (1996), based on the novel by JG Ballard, in which an LA based subculture find sexual pleasure in deliberately crashing their cars; but the seven-and-a-half minute tracking-shot in Godard’s Weekend (1967) is another famous example of film penetrating the lived, and interminable, space between the body and car. This tracking shot, which addressed an increase in car accidents on French roads, induces distress and unease as it follows an absurdly long traffic jam from start to finish. At its end a terrible accident is unveiled, the bloodied bodies of adults and children shown to be scattered across the road.

Before becoming a filmmaker, Miller was trained as a doctor and worked in the emergency room of a Sydney hospital. Witnessing an untold number of car accident victims led Miller to abandon the emergency room and take to the camera. Ballard also left behind a career in medicine to take to the pen, and the polemical theme of Crash is how doctors are as embroiled in the culture of car accidents as their patients – all actors in the “unrehearsed theatre of technology”. Of course, the Max (Mel Gibson) of Mad Max is not a doctor but a policeman, another kind of actor in the play to dam the tide of road accidents with only a “bronze badge”, rather than a scalpel, to divide him from the “terminal crazies” behind the wheel.

Mad Max is a dystopian road movie. Set in the open, dull plains of rural Victoria in southern Australia Max is a member of a special police force “Main Force Patrol” employed to stop out of control feral gangs that have taken the highway hostage. At war against the pursuit of the police, the ferals set their sights on Max’s idyllic wife and baby son. The gang find their revenge and tragedy strikes for Max: his wife and son are killed when run over by the motor-bike gang. His life now sacrificed to the road, mad Max methodically hunts down the destroyers of his family.

Mad Max foregrounds the violence of the road by granting the car paradoxical agency over the body. Mad Max has typically been read in an antipodean context, related to a colonial Australia where the settler battles against the all-engulfing land. It certainly can be read as belonging to a set of films such as Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), Wake in Fright (1971), Long Weekend (1978), Wolf Creek (2005) where the land rises up and turns against its inhabitants, either causing insanity or death. In Mad Max, as in many other ‘white panic’ films, the seeming safety of the happy white people “is invaded by an outsider/other and turns into a trap, or is itself revealed to be a prison that accelerates the community’s tendency to degenerate from within”[3]. Morris notes that this “white panic” of Mad Max is a symptom of the guilt of white settlement and dispossession of land.

But I would argue that Mad Max is not guilty of the antipodean anxiety from the colonisation of Australia, rather it is a film about how the car has colonised the body. The hostile gaze in Mad Max is found in the driverless trucks that haunt the highway. The film features many deadly, spectacular collisions with heavy trucks that – too big to move out of the way – lock in the fate of the on-coming vehicle. The truck is an all-engulfing spectre, emphasised by the fact that we never see a driver behind the wheel. Mad Max has been labelled part of the ‘car-crash’ genre that is also read in terms of Australian national identity and cultural reliance on roads[4]. It has been situated alongside other films like Peter Weir’s The Cars that Ate Paris (1974), where cars rise up and revolt against residents of rural Australian town ‘Paris’, and Richard Franklin’s Road Games (1981), where a truck driver finds himself the inverted object of a serial killer’s desire when young female hitch-hikers are used as bait to lure the truck driver into the killer’s web. The ‘crazy’ theme of the car-crash genre can also be found outside cinema, such as the famous commercial of the 1990s by the Traffic Accident Commission (TAC) that warned people against turning into ‘bloody idiots’ from drunk driving. Margaret Dodd’s This Woman is Not a Car (1979), which mirages images of a car onto a nude female body, could also be said to extend this genre by bleeding the hallucinatory into the real through morphing the female body into the car.

In the sequence where he prepares to return to fight the feral gang, Max’s body is dissolved as he marches forward. The effect is that the car, luminous and ready for battle, is brought out of the background and into the centre of the frame – illuminating that the body is the object of the moving machine, and mad Max is its symptom. I would suggest, in this way, that the “hostile gaze” of Mad Max is not located in the colonisation of the Australian land but in the violence of the car and, perhaps, the violence of the cinema itself. Just as in Violence in the Cinema Part 1, Miller sculpts a dystopian vision of the space between body and machine where both are ceaselessly meshed together, the space only ruptured when the machine turns the body into its hapless prey.


[1] “George Miller interview with Paul Byrnes”

[2] Meaghan Morris, “Fate and the Family Sedan,” East West Film Journal 4 (1) (1989): 113-134; Adrian Martin, “Adrian Martin, The Mad Max movies (Sydney: Currency Press. 2003).

[3] Meaghan Morris, “White Panic: Mad Max and the Sublime” Identity Anecdotes: Translation and Media Culture (London: Sage Publications, 2006): 88.

[4] Elizabeth Jacka and Susan Dermody, The Screening of Australia (Sydney: Currency Press, 1988)