The highways are all empty, save for the occasional brave soul and plenty of burning wreckage. The cities teeter on the brink of collapse, and the countryside has emptied out save for the occasional deliberately isolated homestead. Most people are just trying to get by, but some have decided to go ahead on and embrace brutality. The economy is an open question mark on its best days. The rule of law still exists in theory, but in practice the police are overstretched to the point of uselessness, increasingly unjust and brutal, or just plain apathetic. The rest of the world is just as precarious, and there’s a feeling in the air like something massive is about to give way. When it does? Who knows what will happen.
But for now? It’s not the end of the world. Not yet anyway. You’ve still got a day job. It just happens to involve an armored car and/or five-day-long shifts. You can still get ice cream, or go for some quick fast food. It’s just that the person behind you in the ice cream line might be the Toecutter, and the fast food might be the official chow of your internment camp. You can still take a family vacation, or go on a date to the drive-in. But there’s no guarantee you’ll ever come back home. Welcome to the worlds of George Miller’s Mad Max and Brian Trenchard-Smith’s Dead-End Drive-In. Welcome to the pre-apocalypse. It’s not as frequent a setting or mode of storytelling as its post-apocalyptic cousin, but it’s one well worth exploring, particularly through these two fantastic Ozploitation pictures.
The defining trait of pre-apocalyptic storytelling, at least in Mad Max and Dead-End Drive-In, is the constant presence of anxiety. After its credits, Mad Max opens on a shot of an abandoned highway emblazoned with the ominous text “A FEW YEARS FROM NOW…” text that lingers in the emptiness until the introduction of the psychopathic Nightrider (Vincent Gil), his similarly vicious girlfriend (Lulu Pinkus) and the men in pursuit of them - Max Rockatansky (Mel Gibson)’s incompetent peers Roop (Steve Millichamp) and Charlie (John Ley). Dead-End Drive-In opts to be more specific, introducing a series of global crises ranging from a second great Wall Street crash (this was 1986) to genocide in South Africa. With the dire straits of the larger world established, Trenchard-Smith cuts to his hero, health nut teen Jimmy, also called Crabs (Ned Manning), on an evening jog through a city filled with gangs, wrecked cars and random acts of cruelty towards people, animals and inanimate objects alike. The immediate status quo of both pictures is one of uncertainty and chaos. And, as the audience will come to learn, there is no real reprieve from these worlds – only more and more chances for people to be pushed to their breaking points.
The few opportunities to relax and release the tension that comes with living in a world on a wire in Mad Max or Dead-End Drive-In end badly. Partway through Mad Max, our hero, disturbed by both the loss of his partner and his own increasingly violent tendencies, tries to quit the police. His superior, the fantastically named FiFi Macaffee (Roger Ward) offers him some extended time off in place of an outright resignation. Despite some early moments of joy and happiness, Max and his family spend the trip dogged by the vengeful Toecutter (Hugh Keays-Byrne). The biker and his gang menace the family every chance they get, until they finally succeed in maiming Jessie Rockatansky (Joanne Samuel) and killing Max’s young son. With his family and support system destroyed, and nowhere to seek solace, Max snaps and succumbs to bloodlust and sadism, just as he had feared.
Mad Max sees the constant stress of a world on the brink eat away at a good man until he becomes a monster. Dead-End Drive-In follows a society that does everything it can to ignore its problems even as they grow more and more monstrous. When Jimmy takes his girlfriend Carmen (Natalie McCurry) to the Star Drive-In and buys tickets at a discounted rate for unemployed people, the police steal the wheels of his car and imprison the two within the drive-in. The theater is in fact a gigantic trap, an internment camp designed to lure in problematic youth and keep them away from the rest of society in a doomed attempt to pretend there is nothing wrong with the rest of the world. The prisoners are supplied with B-movies, music, fast food and drugs – pop culture becomes a tool the fascistic government uses to convince their prisoners that their imprisonment is in fact a benefit. They have their own little world all to themselves; all they have to do is never, ever try to leave. The drive-in’s prisoners are all too happy to accept this status quo, to Jimmy’s dismay. They even found their own white nationalist movement when Asian and South Asian refugees are imprisoned alongside them (no less one led by a pompous, blond, badly dressed windbag with an affection for bullying). In attempting to hide the world’s problems away, and in insisting upon an impossible status quo even as the drive-in’s culture grows more and more brutal, the government in Dead-End Drive-In only succeeds in making its problems worse.
In addition to the constant anxiety brought on by the ever-worsening condition of their worlds, the pre-apocalypses of Mad Max and Dead-End Drive-In are defined by dissonance. The infrastructures of their worlds may be irrevocably crumbling, but for the time being they are still intact to some extent. Thus, the new reality is able to intrude on the old status quo, generating both more anxiety and a distinct sense of wrongness. In terms of literal filmmaking, this means we get to see the Toecutter, a wild-haired biker in leather and pelts, aggressively lick an ice cream cone held by Jessie Rockatansky, a young Australian housewife circa the late 1970s. In Dead-End Drive-In, Jimmy has a conversation with the drive-in’s grandpa sweater-clad owner/warden Thompson (Peter Whitford) about the drive-in’s being a prison camp while the later performs routine maintenance on a movie projector. The apocalypse may not have hit yet, but it is already becoming normal within the worlds of the films. It’s magnificently unsettling.
The anxiety of the pre-apocalyptic storytelling in both movies also ties into their uncertain endings. Despite their vast differences in tone and style (Mad Max is a full-blown tragedy, Dead-End Drive-In a dark comedy), both pictures end on a shot of the road. Max has avenged his family, but in so doing destroyed his soul. He drives into oblivion, because he has nowhere else to go. Jimmy escapes from the Star, but has similarly had his worldview demolished – Carmen has chosen to stay behind and his family does not know what has happened to him. He is relieved to be free, but his fate is an open question. And all the while the world keeps crumbling. The three subsequent Mad Max pictures dive into the world after Australia gives way to the Wasteland, offering both a glimpse into this new world and the possibility of rebirth. Dead-End Drive-In never received a sequel, but the film's last act does not give any indication that the human race will patch itself up and fix things. It isn’t as hopeless as Mad Max, but it remains decidedly bleak.
So, given that the pre-apocalypse is such an anxious, downbeat mode of storytelling, why explore it? Beyond the pure pleasure of Mad Max and Dead-End Drive-In’s craft they offer a chance to engage with the worst parts of humanity on both a micro and macro scale. They, and other films that share their sub-genre, take the fears that come with paying attention to the goings-on in the world and create a context through which we as an audience can say “Yes, I worry about this; this scares me.” And with that context, we have a way to recognize that our fears are real, and that simultaneously they are but one part of the larger experience of being human. Anxiety and dissonance and despair are all understandable reactions to the world sometimes, particularly in a year as rough as 2016 has been. Pre-apocalyptic storytelling, when done well, as is the case with Mad Max and to a lesser extent Dead-End Drive-In, gives its audience a chance for the catharsis that comes with recognizing that you are not alone in your fears, that they are recognized and understood, and that other people are grappling with them too. In other words, it’s empathy, as expressed through stories with awesome car chases and Hugh Keays-Byrne.