Despite multitudinous descriptions to the contrary, George Miller and Byron Kennedy's Mad Max (1979) is not actually a post-apocalyptic film.
As is the case with Craven or Hooper, the audience feels jeopardized in Miller's hands, as though it might end up seeing something that could truly do the psyche harm.
"Look, any longer out on that road and I'm one of them, a terminal psychotic, except that I've got this bronze badge that says that I'm one of the good guys. "
Unfortunately, Max's family almost immediately crosses paths with Johnny, Toecutter and the others, and pays the ultimate price. Max's wife and son are run down on the open road, and left dying.
As is the case with all works of art, this film arises from a very specific context.
Suddenly, we have punk criminals prowling the highways of Australia in souped-up super vehicles, vying for both the remaining oil supply and day-by-day, moment-to-moment domination. One scene in the film explicitly joins all contexts: Toecutter and his gang hijack a gas trunk on the road, and siphon precious gas from the storage tank. The underlying message is of a corrupt but rising youth movement leeching off and destroying a dying establishment.
The nihilism of the world, of "the terminal psychotics" seems to have bled the life out of public institutions in Mad Max, leaving them as rotting monuments to a previous golden age. Max realizes, appropriately, that Fifi's comments are "crap." What his world needs is not cowboy heroes, but a functioning infrastructure; one that funds the police, trains the police, and supports the police in the battle against crime.
As critic Keith Phipps astutely intimated, Mad Max is almost a character piece, a tale of a man trying to figure out where he belongs under the rules of the New World (Dis)Order:
I think that's just pandering to an ugly, ignoble impulse in human beings. In this case, however, I would argue that Mad Max does not glamorize revenge and, on the contrary, sends its wayward hero off into a form of societal banishment for his transgression. Max ends up in the wilderness/wasteland, seeking redemption for his voluntary break from the mores of an (admittedly crumbling) society (see: The Road Warrior). It takes him two more films, essentially, to reconnect with his more noble human nature.
This is a threshold moment...
While carefully noting what he believed was Mad Max's sense of amorality, Chicago Reader film critic Dave Kehr also accurately described the film as some "of the most determinedly formalist filmmaking this side of Michael Snow."
As the film's villain, Toecutter (Hugh Keays-Byrne) notes to an underling named Johnny (Tim Burns), an act of brutal murder can be considered a "threshold moment" in terms of the human soul. That's his philosophy of life. There's no future. There's no common good. There's just the shattering of boundaries, until everything -- and everyone -- is wrecked.
He is sponsoring and encouraging madness, psychosis and violence. Indeed, there seems to be a plague of madness and nihilism sweeping the world in this film, and Toecutter fosters it in his cohorts (such as Nightrider) and his protege (Johnny).