Critics have little love for horror, but after such rave reviews for It Follows and The Babadook recently, the genre isn’t dead to them. They’re looking for films that nudge genre–any genre–forward. Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) accomplished this. Mad Max is considered a post-apocalyptic action franchise. I’m not going to reclaim it for horror, but on its genealogical tree, horror is definitely there, that great aunt everyone pretends is dead. Of course, then she would haunt you just to be spiteful, so invite her to your wedding already!
Anyway, the original Mad Max (1979) feels like a grindhouse film, especially The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), a movie I love to love. A grindhouse film is considered an exploitation film, which shows excessively violent, pornographic, or perverse/taboo material. They were also typically low budget and received well only by a cult following. Most of them are horror, or at least lean that way, as Mad Max does, because the emphasize the gross-out and the horror in Stephen King’s definition, rather than subtle terror. So let’s stack it up:
Low budget? George Miller and Byron Kennedy fundraised between $350,000 and $400,000 for the film. Since Miller was an ER doc, they even raised money through medical house calls with amateur filmmaker Kennedy as driver. It held the highest profit-to-cost ratio until The Blair Witch Project was released in 1999.
Critical reception? One Australian critic, Phillip Adams, said that it had “all the emotional uplift of Mein Kampf” and would be “a special favourite of rapists, sadists, child murderers and incipient [Charles] Mansons.” However, it did win some American Film Institute awards.
Violence? The film is inspired by the injuries and deaths Miller saw in the ER. For example, in the film, someone is dragged behind a vehicle. My favorite for horror is a scene where the gang hacks its way into a car with axes, breaking the psyches of the people trapped inside. We can’t count this one in gallons of blood, but it’s still hard to watch.
Pornography? The movie opens with a man watching two people have sex. There are also several instances of implied rape–even one with a mannequin. The female protagonist is also chased through the woods (and trips and falls in classic horror fashion). It’s not as grindy as other films, but grindy enough. While violence against women is rampant, there is sometimes a feminist undertone in grindhouse films. In Mad Max, an old woman with a gun stands up to the gang, and even the female protagonist puts up a pretty good fight. In pre-Bechdel test film-making, this rates as better than average. Some claim that grindhouse films actually critique violence against women by portraying it on the screen, to show both female resilience and the sadism infecting our society.
All this is sewn together with the perverted costuming and cars, the world gone wrong, and the inherent evil of mankind (a common horror theme). The original was inspired by the 1973 oil crisis and how people attacked each other just to get gas for their cars. Like many horror filmmakers, Miller and Kennedy held up the mirror to show us who we really are when our resources are threatened.
In 2015, that message is as relevant as ever.
Miller and Kennedy teamed up to make the latest installment, Mad Max: Fury Road. At this point, some grindhouse features fall to the wayside. It’s no longer low budget, and with that, the film’s capabilities are opened so that the team can take a grindhouse origin and make it move, developing their thesis even further. Still, someone made this super-cool grindhouse trailer as an homage to the original:
Critical reception? With a 98% approval rating, this is a film that makes strides. The critical consensus on Rotten Tomatoes states, “With exhilarating action and a surprising amount of narrative heft, Mad Max: Fury Road brings George Miller’s post-apocalyptic franchise roaring vigorously back to life.”
Violence? The action sequences are a dance of pacing to create a narrative sequence more likely to produce thrills than chills. For a better analysis of how Miller does this, check out Scott Collura’s article.
Pornography? The perverse world and patriarchal rule still exist, but like the exploitative violence, the pornography diminishes to suggest our world may be a lot like Max’s. While the patriarchies in the film (and in our world) battle for water, gas, and bullets, a fourth resource war rages over female reproductive rights. In our world, many places have laws protecting these rights and because people aren’t scarce, reproduction is not viewed as a resource, but we’re missing the point: Reproduction shouldn’t be THE feminine resource–women themselves are the resource. The film passes the Bechdel test, featuring well-rounded female characters fighting for themselves against injustice, both with the help of men and on their own. The female characters and their stories are important beyond their ability to reproduce, as suggested by the fact that no one, not even Charlize Theron and Tom Hardy, have sex (or implied sex) during the film. The only implied sexual acts are committed by the disgusting antagonist.
By emphasizing what should be done rather than what is done, which is the typical limitation of grindhouse films, Mad Max: Fury Road doesn’t just hold up the mirror to society’s ugliness. It supports Gandhi’s message: We must be the change we wish to see in the world.