Writer-director George Miller has called the shots on plenty of hits over the years, but none of his work has had anything like the popular impact of the franchise on which he made his name: Mad Max. The Australian filmmaker made his debut on the 1979 original, which unexpectedly became a global phenomenon. This paved the way for sequels which had an even greater impact on 80s cinema – Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome.
By accident or design, the Mad Max movies created the post-apocalyptic action movie as we know it today. The format also proved irresistible to other filmmakers, not least because it offered the chance to present an epic spectacle on (in most instances) a modest budget. Countless rip-offs emerged in the years following the initial Mad Max movies, and their influence can be still be felt today; of course, the release of 2015’s belated sequel Mad Max: Fury Road has a role to play there as well.
It should go without saying, of course, that not all these films which ‘pay homage’ to the Mad Max series are in the same league as the movies that inspired them. Many of them are, in fact, pretty terrible, but some have a charm all of their own. Here are some of the best of them – and some of the worst.
One of the best: Waterworld
It’s long been noted that the first producer to be pitched Waterworld turned the project down, stating there was no way they could make it for less than $5 million. This proved a pretty hilarious footnote on a film which, for a short time, wound up the most expensive film ever made, with a reported budget of $175 million. Actor-producer Kevin Costner and director Kevin Reynolds’ grossly over-ambitious blockbuster braved massive behind-the-scenes difficulties and a veritable tsunami of bad press before making it to screens in July 1995, to only modest box office success.
However, while the making of Waterworld may stand as a cautionary tale for Hollywood filmmakers, the film itself is actually a very enjoyable action-adventure, with its flooded world offering a distinctive take on the post-apocalyptic format. Waterworld also wears its Mad Max 2 influences on its sleeve: they even hired the same director of photography, Dean Semler.
One of the worst: Solarbabies
The main thing that can be said in favour of 1986’s Solarbabies (also known as Solarwarriors) is that, while the Mad Max influence is obvious, it strays from the formula in some unique ways. For one, this post-apocalyptic adventure centres on teenagers; secondly, rather than racing around in cars and/or motorcycles, these desert wasteland warriors get around on roller skates. Which of course makes sense, as you’ll know if you’ve ever tried skating on sand.
This borderline-incoherent mish-mash of hard-edged sci-fi and family-friendly schmaltz is so misconceived, it’s hard to believe it got made at all, let alone on a budget of $25 million (quite a lot back then). A box office bomb, Solarbabies is most notable for being the first collaboration of actors Jason Patric and Jami Gertz, who would reunite to far greater success in The Lost Boys.
One of the best: Cyborg
One of Jean-Claude Van Damme‘s earliest star vehicles, 1989’s Cyborg gives the post-apocalyptic warrior format a welcome injection of martial arts action. The Muscles from Brussels is a loner tasked with protecting an advanced female cyborg whose memory banks store data that might cure the plague that has wiped out most of humanity. However, this turns into a quest for revenge when the cyborg is abducted by a vicious gang of pirates, with whom our hero has a serious score to settle.
By all rights, Cyborg shouldn’t work. Its paper-thin premise is massively derivative, not only of the Mad Max movies but also The Terminator, and what little plot there is only serves to string the fight scenes together. However, with Van Damme at the peak of his high-kicking prowess and a sinister turn from Vincent Klyn as the bad guy, Cyborg ticks all the boxes for a great bit of midnight movie fun.
One of the worst: The New Barbarians
If anyone could ever be declared an auteur of cheap rip-off movies, it’s Italian director Enzo G. Castellari. His 1983 film The New Barbarians (also known as Warriors of the Wasteland) shows an already ravaged Earth under further threat from a marauding gang named the Templars, who are determined to wipe out what little remains of humanity. Only a few extravagantly dressed warriors with gadget-laden cars stand in their way.
Like a lot of cut-price Italian productions of the time, The New Barbarians is not without its entertainment value. It also deserves credit for some genuinely unexpected developments, not least how much further it goes with the sexual undertones of Mad Max 2. Overall though, it’s so silly and poorly executed that all but the most die-hard bad movie aficionados will struggle to keep watching to the end.
One of the best: Doomsday
This 2008 British production from writer-director Neil Marshall (Dog Soldiers, The Descent) explores a dystopian future in which Scotland has been walled off from the rest of the UK in the hopes of containing a deadly virus. Decades later, the virus suddenly re-emerges in London, but when it emerges that there are still survivors in Scotland, Major Eden Sinclair (Rhona Mitra) leads a military unit over the wall on a mission to find the cure.
Doomsday makes no bones about its obvious debt not only to the Mad Max movies, but also Escape from New York and The Warriors, and it got its share of flak from critics on this basis. However, if you can put such concerns to one side the movie is so much fun to watch, with fast-moving action, colourful characters and a sly undertone of dark humour throughout.
One of the worst: Steel Dawn
This particular bargain basement Mad Max rip-off would probably be forgotten completely if not for its two leading stars: Patrick Swayze, and his truly eye-popping mullet. Released in the wake of the actor’s star-making turn in Dirty Dancing, Steel Dawn casts Swayze as a nomad named, uh, Nomad, who wanders the radioactive wastelands in search of his master’s killer.
Steel Dawn has an advantage over many films on this list thanks to its charismatic leading man, but the writing and direction are so pedestrian that even Swayze at his peak can’t save it. Still, Swayze fans will doubtless appreciate that it’s one of the sadly missed actor’s few collaborations with his real-life wife Lisa Niemi.
One of the best: Turbo Kid
This 2015 Canadian production from writer-director trio François Simard, Anouk Whissell and Yoann-Karl Whissell has its tongue firmly pressed in its cheek throughout, but its heart is always in the right place. Presented as a lost film from the glory days of VHS, Turbo Kid is set in an alternate 1997 in which a young BMX-riding scavenger (Munro Chambers) discovers a super-powered weapon, with which he must defend both himself and his robot girlfriend (Laurence Laboeuf) against the rampaging thugs who rule the wasteland.
Blending elements of Mad Max with BMX Bandits, contemporary indie comedy and gory horror, Turbo Kid might be a bit too self-consciously quirky for some tastes, but it’s so good-natured and filled with enthusiasm for 80s cinema that it’s hard not to have a good time regardless.
One of the worst: Future World
Even before James Franco’s career was derailed by allegations of sexual misconduct, he didn’t do himself any favours professionally by co-directing and starring in this thoroughly sub-par direct-to-DVD schlockfest. Franco plays a post-apocalyptic biker gang leader who seizes a high-tech robot (Suki Waterhouse) to serve as both his sex slave and hit-woman, whilst across the wasteland a good-hearted young man (Jeffrey Wahlberg, nephew of Mark and Donnie) sets out to find a wonder drug in hopes of saving his dying mother (Lucy Liu).
Despite a surprisingly starry ensemble which also includes Milla Jovovich and Snoop Dogg, Future World is staggering in its mediocrity, and leaves you wondering quite why so many well-established figures agreed to be part of it. There’s also an overwhelming sexism on display which only leaves a worse taste in the mouth given what has since come to light about Franco.
One of the best: Wyrmwood: Road of the Dead
It’s worth noting that there’s often a bit of an overlap between Mad Max-style end-of-the-world movies, and the zombie apocalypse format originating in Dawn of the Dead. One movie which merges these formats to crowd-pleasing effect is 2015’s Wyrmwood: Road of the Dead. This low budget Australian film sees a meteor shower turn much of the world’s population into the walking dead, prompting a mismatched group of survivors to band together and combat the zombie threat with the help of makeshift armour, weaponry and an armoured truck.
The feature debut of director Kiah Roache-Turner, Wyrmwood: Road of the Dead is another movie that knows very well that it’s retreading familiar territory, but it does so with such fervour that you can’t help but enjoy it. The high-octane action sequences are also very impressive considering the filmmakers were reportedly working with a budget of only $160,000.
One of the worst: The Bad Batch
The main thing that can be said about most post-apocalyptic survivalist movies is that, as bizarre as they might get, they’re very rarely boring. One clear exception to this rule is 2016’s The Bad Batch. Set in an unspecified future when America has established a no man’s land for people deemed unfit to live as US citizens, the film follows new arrival Arlen (Suki Waterhouse – yes, her again) as she fends for her life against a cannibal tribe, before being accepted by a seemingly more civilised settlement. Later, some strange twists of fate see her cross paths with Miami Man (Jason Momoa), one of the cannibal people, with whom she develops an unexpected kinship.
With its intriguing concept and supporting turns from Keanu Reeves and Jim Carrey, the potential was there for The Bad Batch to be genuinely compelling. Unfortunately, writer-director Ana Lily Amirpour drags out the story at a snail’s pace, with minimal dialogue but an excess of ostentatious flourishes, and the whole thing winds up little more than a tedious exercise in pseudo-artistic self-indulgence.