Brief History is a column that tells you all you need to know about your favorite — and not so favorite — pop culture topics.
When George Miller unleashed Mad Max on audiences back in 1979, he had no idea that the film and its subsequent sequels would have an everlasting effect on pop culture. Miller’s high octane dystopian actioners have wowed audiences with their mind-blowing stunts and enthralling set-pieces for over forty years, shaping action cinema in the process. Furthermore, their interpretation of a futuristic society has been adopted by countless movies, shows, books, comics, and video games that base their own stories in a post-apocalyptic wasteland.
Throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s, a whole wave of films emerged that essentially copied Max Max’s interpretation of a world gone wild. These flicks depict futures in which society has collapsed and turned human beings into barbarians and savages. In these futures, people drive muscular vehicles, have a badass fashion sense, and engage in gladiatorial combat to pass the time. These futures also tend to be barren, desert wastelands.
Low-budget Italian filmmakers were particularly fond of making Mad Max clones during the trend’s boom period. They also spiced things up by incorporating elements of other post-apocalyptic yarns into their narratives in an effort to create maximum carnage. The rest of the world got in on the action as well, but the best Mad Max imitators were helmed by Italian mavericks who knew how to stretch a buck and have a good time.
With this in mind, let’s look back at the history of this niche subgenre with a selection of movies that represent it at its very best. While the majority of these films are low-budget oddities, I’ve also included a couple of lavish Hollywood productions to show that the Mad Max franchise has been imitated at the top as well.
Also known as Warlords of the 21st Century, Battletruck is New Zealand’s take on The Road Warrior, but it throws in some Seven Samurai for good measure. The story takes place in a ravaged society following the destructive Oil Wars, which have left the world in a lawless state.
The story centers around a group of raiders, led by General Straker (James Wainwright), who have taken over a peaceful community and are terrorizing the residents. It is then up to the motorcycle-riding good guy, Hunter (Michael Beck), to help the locals ward off the savage bandits. That’s not easy, though, as Straker commands a giant truck and it’s a force to be reckoned with.
Interestingly, director Harley Cokliss has claimed that Battletruck isn’t a Road Warrior ripoff. In the commentary track for the film’s DVD release, he says that it was made at the same time as Miller’s film, citing the oil crisis of the ‘70s as the inspiration for the movie. Maybe that’s true, but the similarities between both films are unquestionable.
1990: The Bronx Warriors (1982), Escape from the Bronx (1983), and The New Barbarians (1983)
There were three specific films that informed Italian genre cinema in the ’80s: Mad Max, The Warriors, and Escape from New York. While quite different from each other, all three depict a future when society has eroded and chaos reigns supreme. This aspect makes them fitting bedfellows, and Enzo G. Castellari took elements from all three flicks — among others — to create his Bronx Warriors Trilogy.
1990: The Bronx Warriors and Escape from the Bronx are similar to Mad Max in the sense that they take place in a future society that’s populated with savage goons. But with their urban settings, these movies are more in the vein of Escape from New York, The Warriors, Death Wish, and The Exterminator than they are Miller’s action classics.
The New Barbarians, on the other hand, is a departure from the style of the first two movies as it leans into the trilogy’s Mad Max influences more prominently. In this one, Scorpion (Giancarlo Prete) — the Max-esque loner — teams with Nadir (Fred Williamson) to battle a gruesome gang that wants to put an end to the human race in the wake of nuclear holocaust. The New Barbarians is probably the least interesting of the three films, but it’s still entertaining viewing thanks to some enthusiastic performances and Castellari’s brand of action-packed mayhem.
Metalstorm: The Destruction of Jared-Syn (1983)
Charles Band is no stranger to exploiting popular trends, but his movies have a unique style and personality that elevates them above simple knockoff status. Even his most obvious copycat movies are inventive, and that’s because he’s a filmmaker who plucks ideas from all over the place and combines them in a way that’s odd, entertaining, and full of heart. Some of his movies are terrible, but Metalstorm: The Destruction of Jared-Syn is a gem.
The best way to describe this movie is Star Wars meets The Road Warrior, with some sword-and-sorcery elements thrown in for good measure. The titular villain is even played by Michael Preston, who also appears as a baddie in the first Mad Max sequel. Band wasn’t trying to disguise his nods to the Mad Max franchise when he made this one at all.
The story centers around a hero who must venture to a desert planet to defeat Jared-Syn, but before he can get to the big bad, he must help some miners defeat the alien mutants that populate the sandy terrains. Metalstorm actually does a lot with its small budget, especially in regards to the costume designs.
Stryker (1984), Wheels of Fire (1985), Future Hunters (1986), Equalizer 2000 (1987), and Dune Warriors (1991)
Cirio H. Santiago might not be a familiar name in the West, but his contributions to disreputable post-apocalyptic movies are legendary. He made many films that owe a considerable debt to the Mad Max saga, but for this exercise, I wholeheartedly recommend the five I feel are his masterworks.
Going into Santiago’s movies, you can expect some crossover elements: car chases, recycled stock footage, explosions, bazookas, goons, lone-wolf warriors, etc. You could call them derivative of each other, but Santiago mixes it up by changing the settings and adding some bonkers elements to the adventures.
Future Hunters, for example, is a Mad Max clone and a time-travel movie. Equalizer 2000 takes place in Alaska, but there isn’t any snow in sight. Stryker features Amazonian warrior women instead of the usual post-apocalyptic biker gangs, and Dune Warriors is like the cheap, mutant cousin of The Magnificent Seven. Wheels of Fire is a live-action cartoon that features psychics and dwarves in addition to a gang of evil highway bikers. All in all, these movies make for a trashy good time.
Hell Comes to Frogtown (1987)
Whenever a film franchise becomes popular, you can bet money on the spoofs arriving eventually. Hell Comes to Frogtown is the gold standard when it comes to post-apocalyptic comedies.
In this one, Roddy Piper plays Sam Hell, one of the last fertile men on the planet. The human race is dying, and the government needs his super sperm to save the species. So, they strap an explosive device to his genitals and send him on a rescue mission to Frogtown. His mission: save some human women from the mutant humanoid frogs who have kidnapped them.
Hell Comes to Frogtown is a silly movie. But a charismatic performance from Piper, some goofy monster designs, and self-aware humor adds a charm to the proceedings that’s impossible to resist.
The Salute of the Jugger (1989)
This delightful flick, which was written/directed by David Webb Peoples and stars Rutger Hauer, takes a different approach to the Mad Max knockoff genre. It’s basically a sports movie that takes place in a futuristic wasteland, in which the inhabitants participate in a gruesome game that involves teams of armored combatants trying to knock a dog skull into the opposition’s goal. Whenever they aren’t trying to score points, they attack each other with steel chains. It’s fun.
The Salute of the Jugger isn’t one of the most well-known cult flicks of its era, but it does have its own diehard legion of fans who play the film’s bloodsport in real life. Granted, the real-life version of the game isn’t that brutal, but it’s great to know that an ‘80s B-movie inspired viewers to become athletes.
Waterworld is easily the most famous Mad Max imitator as it was given the full Hollywood treatment with the intention of making the biggest blockbuster ever made. For a short time, it even set the record for being the most expensive film ever produced, until it was surpassed by James Cameron’s Titanic two years later.
Starring Kevin Costner in the loner hero role, Waterworld is essentially Mad Max set on the water. The sandy vistas of Miller’s franchise are replaced with oceans, while boats and jet skis make up for the lack of tanker trucks, buggies, and muscle cars. Otherwise, it’s just another post-apocalyptic tale of survivors teaming up to overthrow a despot.
However, Waterworld is also a much better film than its reputation suggests. The movie was regarded as a flop before finding an audience over time, but that stench of failure still seems to follow it around. Waterworld is a solid action movie with some impressive sets and a worthwhile environmental message. Plus, any movie with Costner and Dennis Hopper on the same bill is always going to contain memorable performances.
Neil Marshall’s Doomsday is a love letter to the movies the director grew up loving, and it wears its Mad Max influences on its sleeve with pride. This is particularly notable in the final third, which features an epic car chase sequence that would make Miller himself proud.
The story, however, is Escape from New York set in Britain. Rhona Mitra leads a team of specialists into a wasteland quarantine zone to retrieve a cure for a virus. But it doesn’t take long for them to get into some fights with barbaric punks, cannibals, and Arthurian knights. Some scenes will remind you of The Omega Man, while others are clear nods to Excalibur.
Doomsday is the ultimate tribute to some of the finest genre movies of all time, and Marshall doesn’t hold back when it comes to unleashing the gore. And if you’ve ever wanted to see Sean Pertwee get burned alive — look no further.
Mad Sheila (2016)
This Chinese TV movie is essentially a knockoff of Mad Max: Fury Road. The film’s plot centers around a female bounty hunter who must navigate the desert wasteland to rescue a group of virgins from warlords, so the similarities are hardly disguised.
Mad Sheila is basically a gender-swapped remake/parody of Fury Road, and it may be the closest thing audiences get to a Furiosa movie until Miller decides to get a move on with his planned spinoff prequel movie.