On July 10, 1985, Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome opened in theaters, and from the opening credits, filmgoers knew they were in for something brutal. Names of characters like Pig Killer, Mr. Dealgood, Ironbar, Blackfinger, Mr Skyfish and Scrooloose flashed across the screen—and then, suddenly a plane was dropping bombs on a herd of camels pulling a broken down car through the Outback.
We can debate until the apocalypse comes whether Thunderdome or 1982's The Road Warrior is the best of the Mad Max trilogy. The Road Warrior was certainly darker, and Thunderdome definitely a bit cartoonish, but the final installment was also the most imaginative and emotional.
It's the details that make Thunderdome a treasure a quarter of a century later, from casting Tina Turner to the vintage plane that carries the good guys (except for Max) to "Tomorrow-Morrow Land." Here are eight reasons (out of hundreds) why we still think there's nothing beyond Beyond Thunderdome 25 years later.
The Thunderdome battle
"Listen on! Listen on! This is the truth of it. Fighting leads to killing, and killing gets to warring, and that was damn near the death of us all. ... Now when men get to fighting, it happens here. And it finishes here. Two men enter, one man leaves."
-- Dr. Dealgood
It's the fight scene that's so awesome the film had to be named after it. It's got a huge mallet, a glaive, a spiked club, a chainsaw and a whistle ... all employed while the fighters—a raggedy nomad and a helmeted colossus—slingshot themselves around a wicker dome. Back in 1985, Roger Ebert called it "the first really original movie idea about how to stage a fight since we got the first karate movies." But it's also cage match as social commentary; bloodlust is all good and dandy until you look your victim in the eyes. Seeing that Blaster is merely an exploited giant with a developmental disability, Max refuses to strike the killing blow (not that it does either of them any good).
When the nuclear apocalypse comes, two things will survive: Cockroaches and Tina Turner's legs. In all seriousness, as Aunty, the harsh but fair founder of Bartertown, Turner delivers one of the all-time best pop-star roles (and haircuts) in science fiction: Better than Ice-T in Tank Girl, Sting in Dune and Kylie Minogue in Doctor Who. And let's not forget her hit single, "We Don't Need Another Hero," which is still the only sci-fi theme song you're likely to hear in a doctor's waiting room.
There was a time when Mel Gibson wasn't entrenched in controversy. Yes, there was a time when he wasn't producing violently religious films in lost languages or spewing offensive sentiments to police officers and answering machines. Even with a mullet, Gibson was at his best back when he was channeling Clint Eastwood in Australia. We'll go ahead and say it: Max would totally take Riggs in a fight. No question, mate. It's not just the single shoulder pad or the tufts of white hair, but the fact that he's still using his accent.
Watching it 25 years later, you half-expect Serenity to land any moment in Bartertown.
In many ways, Bartertown is a libertarian's dream come true: A society without currency, without governance beyond the simple rule that you never renege on a deal and you settle all disputes with a fair fight to the death. Sure, it's a brutal and barbaric way to do business (particularly the wheel of fate that forces Max to ride into the desert bound, backward and wearing a silly oversized mask over his head), but it's still better than living forever under siege by the likes of Lord Humungus.
What makes Bartertown even more cool is how it's powered: The "Underground" is a fully functioning methane factory using pig excrement—a concept that doesn't sound half-bad these days.
Perhaps it's a stretch to think that, when the nuclear winter arrives, the survivors will give a crap about fashion and, if they do, that they'll gravitate to the leather-punk side of the spectrum. We don't really care, because as a result of the Mad Max trilogy, mohawks are synonymous with the end of civilization. Australian costume designer Norma Morceau (also responsible for the Sex Pistols' Great Rock and Roll Swindle, as well as Paul Hogan in Crocodile Dundee) came up with the gear in this one, and while she improves on The Road Warrior's punks by adding a Japanese flair, the sun-dried tribal costumes she designed for the children are just as impressive. We wish we could show you a montage, but in its place, here's an instructional video on designing your very own Mad Max shoulder pad.
When a genius with dwarfism (Master) joins a giant with Down Syndrome (Blaster) they become one being greater than the sum of their parts. And a total a-hole who smells like pig shi-t ... errr ... we mean "energy." As a concept, Master Blaster still fascinates viewers, since this kind of symbiosis is the only way these two would survive (and thrive) in the dog-eat-dog world of the Australian wasteland. The tragedy is, only when they're separated do the bullies of Underworld become sympathetic characters. (By the way, where the heck did Master get that suit in the train scene? Wasn't he just sleeping in a pen filled with pig poo?)
Writing this, we know we're going to ruffle someone's feathers. Obviously, many were disappointed when the second half of Beyond Thunderdome turned into Peter Pan. We prefer to see it as a variation on Lord of the Flies, and a damned good one at that. A lot of thought went into crafting a new dialect for the children forced to raise themselves, and there's certain poignancy in the way they turn their memories of television into an elaborate storytelling style. The children hoot, holler, hum as one and are just overall damned cute.
Just as the children believe Max is the "Captain Walker" of myth, we too choose to erroneously believe that the little raccoon-eyed kid with the Bugs Bunny doll is a young Adrien Brody.
The Train Chase
OK, this sequence isn't all that different from the climax of Road Warrior with a train instead of a gasoline truck. But, again, it's the details that really make it; in this case, it's a frakking car made of cowskin, dwarf tug-o-war and a tender, comic moment with a French lesson.