Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (also known as Mad Max 3) is a 1985 Australian post-apocalyptic action film directed by George Miller and George Ogilvie, distributed by Warner Bros., and written by Miller and Terry Hayes. In this sequel to Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior, Max (Mel Gibson) is exiled into the desert by the corrupt ruler of Bartertown, Aunty Entity (Tina Turner), and there encounters an isolated cargo cult centred on a crashed Boeing 747 and its deceased captain. The film is the third installment in the Mad Max film series and the last with Gibson as Max Rockatansky. The series was later given a fourth installment in 2015 with Mad Max: Fury Road, starring Tom Hardy in the title role.
In post-apocalyptic Australia, Max Rockatansky crosses the desert in a camel-drawn wagon when he is attacked by a pilot named Jedediah and his son in a Transavia PL-12 Airtruk, stealing his wagon and belongings. Continuing on foot, Max follows their trail to the seedy community of Bartertown. Initially refused entry because he has nothing to trade, Max is brought before the founder and ruler of Bartertown, the ruthless Aunty Entity. She offers to resupply his vehicle and equipment if he completes a task for her.
Aunty explains that Bartertown depends on a crude methane refinery powered by pig feces, which is run by a dwarf called Master and his giant bodyguard Blaster. “Master Blaster” holds an uneasy truce with Aunty for control of Bartertown; however, Master has begun to challenge Aunty’s leadership. Aunty instructs Max to provoke a confrontation with Blaster in Thunderdome, a gladiatorial arena where conflicts are resolved by a duel to the death. Max enters the subterranean Underworld refinery area to size up Master Blaster and befriends Pig Killer, a convict sentenced to work for slaughtering a pig to feed his family. Max finds his stolen vehicle in Master/Blaster’s possession and is forced to disarm his own booby-trapped engine. Here he discovers that although Blaster is exceptionally strong, he is hypersensitive to high-pitched noises, which severely disorient and incapacitate him.
Accusing Master of the theft of his vehicle, Max provokes him into demanding justice for the insult by entering Blaster into a Thunderdome duel with Max. Blaster dominates the duel until Max is able to retrieve his whistle to gain the upper hand. Poised to kill Blaster, he refrains after discovering that Blaster has Downs Syndrome and is mentally disabled. Max refuses to kill Blaster and confronts Aunty for deceiving him ,thus exposing her plot. Master, previously unaware of this arrangement to kill Blaster, is furious and vows to shut down the refinery and, by extension, Bartertown. Aunty has Blaster killed, Master imprisoned, and Max exiled. He is bound on a horse and sent off in a random direction through the wasteland. When his mount perishes in a sinkhole, Max frees himself and presses on.
Near death, Max is found by a desert dweller named Savannah Nix, who hauls him back to her home, “Planet Erf”, a primitive community of children and teenagers who live in an oasis. The children, survivors of a crashed Boeing 747, were left by their parents who went to find civilization. They believe Max to be the flight captain, G. L. Walker, returned to fix the aeroplane and fly them to civilization. Max denies this and insists that they remain in the relative safety of the oasis, knowing that the only “civilization” within reach is Bartertown.
Some of the children, led by Savannah, leave anyway, determined to find the prophesied “Tomorrow-morrow Land.” Max stops them by force, but another tribe member, Scrooloose, sets them free during the night and leaves with them. Their leader, Slake M’Thirst, asks Max to go after them, and he agrees, taking a few of the children with him to help. They find Savannah’s group in danger but are unable to save one of the children from a sinkhole. With no supplies left, they are forced to head for Bartertown.
The group sneak in via an underground entrance, and, with Pig Killer’s help, free Master and escape in a train-truck, destroying Bartertown’s methane refinery in the process. Aunty leads the Imperial Guards in pursuit, running their weird postmodern cars, catching up to the train. Max’s group slows them down while Scrooloose hijacks one of the pursuing vehicles, which happens to be Max’s stolen vehicle. The group comes across Jedediah and his son, and Max coerces Jedediah into helping his group escape with their aeroplane. Max uses his vehicle to clear a path through Aunty’s men, allowing the aeroplane to take off and escape, leaving him at Aunty’s mercy. Aunty spares his life, having come to respect him, and departs to presumably make good on her vow to rebuild Bartertown.
Jedediah flies the children to the coast, where they discover the nuclear-devastated ruins of Sydney. Years later, the children have established a small society of themselves and other lost wanderers in the ruins. Savannah, now leader of the group, recites a nightly story of their journey and the man who saved them, as Max, still alive in the desert, wanders on to places unknown.
- Mel Gibson as “Mad” Max Rockatansky, a former MFP officer and lone warrior. Max roves the desert aimlessly, his existence entirely based around self-survival.
- Tina Turner as Aunty Entity, the ruthless, determined ruler of Bartertown. Entity is a glamorous, Amazon-like figure who recognises a strength of character in Max, and hopes to exploit him to gain sole control of Bartertown from Master. Despite her brutality and Bartertown’s chaos, Entity is an intelligent, cultured woman, who holds a hope of one day rebuilding society to its former glory. In regard of the character, Miller said, “We needed someone whose vitality and intelligence would make her control over Bartertown credible. She had to be a positive character rather than a conventional evil ‘bad guy.’ We had worked on the script with [Turner] in mind. But we had no idea if she’d be interested.”
- Bruce Spence as Jedediah the Pilot, a marauding pilot who trades stolen goods in Bartertown. Spence previously played the Gyro Captain in Mad Max 2. “They were well into the shoot when they offered me a part described as ‘not the Gyro Captain but kind of like the Gyro Captain!'” said Spence. “They said there’s kind of a reflection of him and that they were having difficulty casting the role so they thought to themselves, ‘Why not Bruce!'”
- Adam Cockburn as Jedediah Jr., Jedediah’s son, who often helps his father steal supplies, flying his father’s aeroplane while Jedediah procures the goods.
- Frank Thring as The Collector, head of Bartertown’s trade and exchange network.
- Angelo Rossitto as Master, a diminutive former engineer, who parlays his technical expertise into building the methane extractor responsible for Bartertown’s electricity. When the film begins, Master has grown power-crazed under the protection of Blaster, and the reverence he receives from the people of Bartertown. He frequently humiliates Entity into acknowledging his power over her. When Blaster is killed however, Master becomes a far more subdued, humble character, and eventually escapes with the help of Max, Pig Killer, and the children.
- Paul Larsson as Blaster, Master’s silent, mentally-impaired bodyguard.
- Angry Anderson as Ironbar Bassey, head of Bartertown’s security and Aunty Entity’s Number One Henchman. Despite his short height he is a fierce warrior figure, wearing a doll’s head standard on his back, who comes to dislike Max more and more as the film proceeds. After several near-death incidents where his survival becomes more and more unlikely, he is presumably killed in the film’s climactic chase, last seen giving the middle finger to the escaping heroes.
- Robert Grubb as Pig Killer, a convict in Bartertown sentenced to work in the methane refinery, shovelling pig feces. He befriends Max, and when Max and the children return to rescue Master, Pig Killer escapes to help them.
- Helen Buday as Savannah Nix, leader of a tribe of child survivors (or the children of those survivors) from a crashed 747. Savannah is the one who ensures the tribe remembers its past through the “tells” and acts as a surrogate mother figure to many of them. She is also the partner of Slake.
- Tom Jennings as Slake M’Thirst, the male leader of the child tribe.
- Edwin Hodgeman as Dr. Dealgood, the flamboyant Master of Ceremonies and chief auctioneer of Bartertown.
- Rod Zuanic as Scrooloose. The misfit child able to copy everyone else’s abilities and manners.
- George Spartels as Blackfinge
Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome was the first Mad Max film made without producer Byron Kennedy, who was killed in a helicopter crash in 1983 while location scouting for the film. While the film was in development before Kennedy’s death, director George Miller was hesitant to continue without his producing partner. “I was reluctant to go ahead,” said Miller. “And then there was a sort of need to – let’s do something just to get over the shock and grief of all of that.” A title card at the end of film reads: “…For Byron”.
Miller ended up co-directing the film with George Ogilvie, with whom he had worked on the 1983 miniseries The Dismissal. “I had a lot on my plate,” said Miller. “I asked my friend George Ogilvie, who was working on the mini-series, ‘Could you come and help me?’ But I don’t remember the experience because I was doing it to just… You know, I was grieving.” Together, Miller and Ogilvie used a group workshopping rehearsal technique that they had developed.
Exterior location filming took place primarily in the mining town of Coober Pedy, with the set for Bartertown built at an old brickworks (the Brickpit) at Homebush Bay in Sydney’s western suburbs and the children’s camp shot at the Blue Mountains. “Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome proved far more challenging than The Road Warrior,” said cinematographer Dean Semler. “We were dealing with more varied environments than before and it was essential that each of the worlds created for the film have a distinctly different look.”
The musical score for Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome was composed by Maurice Jarre, replacing Brian May, who composed the music for the previous two films. The film also contains two songs performed by Tina Turner, “We Don’t Need Another Hero (Thunderdome)” and “One of the Living“, with the latter replacing Jarre’s opening titles music. A soundtrack album was originally released by Capitol Records in 1985. It includes Turner’s “We Don’t Need Another Hero (Thunderdome)”, which reached #1 in Canada, #2 in the US and #3 in the British single charts; it plays over the end credits. “One of the Living” was rerecorded for single release, and reached #15 in both Canada and the US, but only #55 in Britain. The song also won a Grammy for Best Rock Vocal. A double CD containing only Jarre’s original music was issued in 2010 on Tadlow Music/Silva Screen Records.
Although the film’s budget was more extravagant than its predecessors’, its box office yield was only moderate in comparison. Beyond Thunderdome grossed A$4,272,802 at the box office in Australia.
Critical reaction to the film was generally positive, although reviewers disagreed as to whether they considered the film the highest or lowest point of the Mad Max trilogy. Most of the criticism focused on the children in the second half of the film, whom many found too similar to the Lost Boys from the story of Peter Pan. Robert C. Cumbow of Slant Magazineidentifies “whole ideas, themes and characterizations” adopted from Riddley Walker, a 1980 post-apocalyptic novel by Russell Hoban. On the other hand, critics praised the Thunderdome scene in particular; film critic Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times called the Thunderdome “the first really original movie idea about how to stage a fight since we got the first karate movies” and praised the fight between Max and Blaster as “one of the great creative action scenes in the movies”. Ebert awarded the film 4 stars out of 4 and later placed the film on his list of the 10 best pictures of 1985. Variety wrote that the film “opens strong” and has good acting from Gibson, Turner, and the children.
Despite mostly positive reviews from critics, some fans of the series have criticised the film for being “Hollywood-ized” and having a lighter tone than its predecessors.
The film holds an 80% rating on Rotten Tomatoes based on 49 reviews with an average rating of 6.4/10. The website’s consensus reads, “Beyond Thunderdome deepens the Mad Max character without sacrificing the amazing vehicle choreography and stunts that made the originals memorable”.
As with the previous installments of the Mad Max series, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome has influenced popular culture in various regards. The term “thunderdome” is now used in various contexts in which its meaning is similar to the sense in which it appears in the film. That is, a contest where the loser suffers a great hardship, though it has also come to mean, more generically, the state of the world following a nuclear apocalypse, or any place where chaos is the norm. Filmmaker Chris Weitz has cited the film as an influence.