Release Date(s)1980 (May 5, 2015)
Studio(s)American International Pictures/MGM (Shout!/Scream Factory)
- Film/Program Grade: A
- Video Grade: B
- Audio Grade: B+
- Extras Grade: A-
Few films of the last several decades have had as much as impact on sci-fi/action cinema as Mad Max and The Road Warrior have. They defined a particular look, style and atmosphere we’ve seen repeatedly since: desolate wastelands filled with lunatics; some out for danger, some out for vengeance. And while dystopian films weren’t a new concept at the time (Death Race 2000 springs to mind), Mad Max is one of the few that was just as entertaining as it was well made.
Mad Max takes place in a depressing future where the outlaws are plenty and the heroes are few. Max Rockatanksy (Gibson) is a cop who rides the edge of the law without ever stepping over it, until an unstoppable biker gang, led by the Toecutter, brings its destructive force too close to home. Max then becomes a one-man army, hell-bent on ending the gang’s brutal rampage across the Australian outback.
It’s easy to take Mad Max for granted now, considering the many clones that came after it, but when the film originally rocketed onto movie screens in the U.S., it launched the careers of quite a few folks, not the least of which are Mel Gibson and director George Miller. Shot on an ultra-low budget and cut together in record time, Mad Max’s not too subtle take on the western genre is also what helped give it its staying power. The film has a universally accepted structure that audiences have always responded to well. It’s a somewhat simple and (now) clichéd tale of revenge, but it still manages to feel fresh as it crashes through its 93-minute narrative at high velocity, while never forgetting to build suspense. Miller proved that an outsider could contend with not only big budget Hollywood action films, but also their grindhouse equivalents. Mad Max also contains some of the most impressive stunt work ever caught on film; beautifully-shot and cut together with an often-frenetic pace. Hardly any successful films at the time had been given this much scrutiny and style in the editing room.
Unfortunately, Mad Max wasn’t seen in its complete original version until many years after its first U.S. release. To make sure that the film reached the strongest audience possible, distributor International Pictures brought in American actors to overdub all of the dialogue, removing much of the film’s perceived “Aussie” characteristics. It wasn’t until the film was released on DVD that fans of the film were finally given the option of hearing the actors’ original performances. Despite this sordid aural history, Mad Max was still a huge success. There were few films like it at the time, so it had a major impact on the audience’s psyche.
Scream Factory’s Blu-ray transfer of Mad Max features a strong, organic presentation. The only problematical issues are the occasional editing transitions, which can look much softer than the rest of the presentation. However, this doesn’t reflect the presentation as a whole. Detail has improved remarkably over the DVD release of the film, especially concerning skin textures. During the film’s final scene, Gibson’s face always looked particularly smooth and waxy to me, but that’s thankfully not an issue in this presentation. Grain is handled well. The color palette is vivid and strong, again with skin tones looking much improved. The vast, open landscapes are stark, but many of the more colorful moments (such as the scene in the woods) are rich with color. Black detail, as well as contrast and brightness ratios, have also been given the attention they deserve. Some fans online seem to prefer the image quality of MGM’s previous Blu-ray release over this one, but I would say the differences between the two are fairly marginal – a case of six of one, a half dozen of the other. This image might be a little softer and brighter on the whole, but color seems a little better. In any case, you can always keep that original Blu-ray too. Just pop it in a paper sleeve and slip it into the Scream case if need be. The Scream disc is just $14 on Amazon and with its new extras (more on those in a minute), the slight differences aren’t worth complaining about.
As for the audio selection, we’re treated to three tracks: the original Australian soundtracks in English 5.1 and 2.0 DTS-HD, and the original U.S. theatrical English mono track via DTS-HD as well. Despite my initial feeling that a 5.1 presentation probably wouldn’t do much to bolster the film’s low budget origins, I was happily proven wrong. The 2.0 track is definitely a contender, but the 5.1 track just blows it out of the water. Dialogue is mostly clean and clear at all times (save for a couple of moments when the score overtakes it a bit) and the sound effects have all of the heft they need to propel the soundtrack into the surrounding speakers. And the score, whether during a bombastic moment or an intimate one, benefits greatly with lots of room to breathe in this new environment. There’s also, as to be expected, plenty of LFE, as well as lots of ambient activity, particularly in the latter half of the film when Jessie is alone in the woods. It helps build the tension perfectly, which leads me to the conclusion that the 5.1 track is actually a benefit to the film. And even though I hadn’t heard the U.S. audio in quite some time, it’s amazing how different the film comes across without its original (and superior) performances. That track is probably the roughest around the edges, and not just because of the obvious overdubbing. Hiss is much more prevalent, and the sound effects just don’t have quite the punch that the Australian tracks have. For my money, the 5.1 track is the way to go, but the 2.0 track is a nice substitute. There are also subtitles available in English for those who might need them.
It’s worth noting that the extras from the film’s previous Blu-ray and DVD releases have nearly all carried over for this release. There’s an audio commentary with art director John Dowding, cinematographer David Eggby, special effects artist Chris Murray, and film historian Tim Ridge; a brand new interview segment featuring Mel Gibson, actress Joanne Samuel, and David Eggby; the Mel Gibson: Birth of a Superstar featurette; the Mad Max: The Film Phenomenon featurette; the film’s two U.S. theatrical trailers; five TV spots from the film’s re-release (or perhaps its television premiere, I’m not quite sure); and a set of photo galleries. The only thing missing is from the original MGM Special Edition DVD, which included a “Road Rants” trivia subtitle track. Not a major deletion, but worth a mention. Unfortunately, George Miller isn’t represented in any of this material, which is a bummer.
With Mad Max: Fury Road set to tear its way into theaters in the coming weeks, the original Mad Max is a terrific primer. Scream Factory’s Blu-ray presentation is quite good, with a fine set of extras. This is definitely a nice upgrade and a release you’ll want to pick up.
- Tim Salmons