What Happened to Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome?

mad max beyond thunder dome
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Nailing the final entry of a classic cinematic trilogy is always the most difficult to get right. Tasked with sticking the landing and tying the narrative strands across three movies together requires a precise amount of pre-planning that must be executed in ways that both trump its predecessors and satisfy fans at once with a compelling conclusion. Every once in a while, we get perfect trilogy-enders like The Good, the Bad and The Ugly, The Return of the King, or The Last Crusade. But more often than not, we get limp and lackluster results like The Godfather Part III, Jaws 3D, Terminator: Rise of the Machines, Alien 3, Back to the Future 3, Men in Black III, and countless other movies that fail to live up to the first two instalments. That begs the question, where does Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome register on the scale of all-time good or bad final chapters in movie trilogies? 

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Released four years after The Road Warrior, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome was made much differently than the first two films. For instance, Beyond Thunderdome is the first Mad Max movie made without instrumental producer Byron Kennedy, who tragically died in a 1983 helicopter crash. It’s also the only franchise entry to be co-directed by someone other than Miller. In this case, Miller hired his friend and previous collaborator, George Ogilvie, to helm the sequel. While there are plenty more cool tidbits and trivial factoids about the making of the movie, it’s hard to overstate the absence of Byron and the split directorial duties that led to what many believe is the worst Mad Max movie thus far. “Ladies and Gentleman, boys and girls, Dyin’ time is here” as we lift the hood and find out What Happened to Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome!

Mad Max meets Lord of the Flies?

The first thing to know about Beyond Thunderdome is that it was not initially conceived as a Mad Max movie. Miller always felt that Max Rockatansky’s story ended with The Road Warrior and set out to make an apocalyptic Lord of the Flies type of movie as a follow-up. Yet, once Miller got the idea to have an adult find the feral children in the wild and lead them toward salvation, the idea for Beyond Thunderdome was born. Unfortunately, producer Byron Kennedy, whose invaluable contributions to the first two films live in infamy, could not work on Beyond Thunderdome. On July 17, 1983, Byron died when a helicopter he was piloting crashed at Warragamba Dam in New South Wales, Australia. He was only 33 when he died. That Byron produced the first two Mad Max movies at age 29 and 31 is truly special and should not be understated. As one might imagine, Byron’s death deeply affected Miller, who thought he could no longer continue the franchise without him. According to Miller: 

“I was reluctant to go ahead. 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.”

To compensate for the sudden absence of his longtime producing partner, Miller hired the late George Ogilvie to co-direct Beyond Thunderdome. Miller and Ogilvie worked together on the 1983 Australian miniseries The Dismissal. About the decision to co-direct the film, Miller stated:

“I had a lot on my plate. 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.”

Part of the collaboration process between Miller and Ogilvie included a rehearsal workshop period before filming occurred. This was most invaluable for the child actors, who spent two months training how to hunt, climb, and wield makeshift weapons. Oddly enough, Miller was attached to direct the movie Contact but was granted the rights to The Road Warrior and Beyond Thunderdome in exchange for walking away from the sci-fi spectacle ultimately directed by Robert Zemeckis. 

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What Happened to Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome?

Written by Miller and Terry Hayes, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome takes place 20 years after events depicted in the original Mad Max. Partially inspired by the sobering historical documentary The Atomic Cafe, Beyond Thunderdome was the most expensive Australian movie made up to then, breaking a record previously held by The Road Warrior. The original Mad Max cost roughly $400,000, The Road Warrior cost $4.5 million, and Beyond Thunderdome boasted a budget of $10 million. 

MTV meets the apocalypse

One of the reasons Miller cast American pop star Tina Turner was because Beyond Thunderdome was the first film to receive funding from the U.S. Of course, Turner’s rousing anthem “We Don’t Need Another Hero” became an international radio charting hit. The role of Aunty Entity was written specifically for Turner before she was asked to play the part. When Turner arrived on set, she was surprised to learn that the production vehicles had manual transmissions. Turner could not drive a stick and was given a custom-made car with an automatic engine for her to drive in the film. Meanwhile, the kick-ass hairdo she sports in the movie is a wig. Turner had to shave her head before filming to fit in the wig, which she was more than willing to do. 

Miller also had to coax Mel Gibson to play Max again after the actor had sworn off the part after The Road Warrior. Yet, one of the strangest bits of casting involves Bruce Spence, who played the Gyro Captain in The Road Warrior. Spence plays the flying bandit Jedidiah in Beyond Thunderdome, a similar but different character than the Gyro Captain. Rather than the Gyrocopter, Jedediah flies a Transavia PL-12 “Airtruk”, a single-motor biplane first flown in 1965 for agricultural use. At the time, only 120 “Airtruk” models were produced. 

According to Spence about his casting:

“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!’… 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!’”

Armed with a $10 million budget, principal photography on Beyond Thunderdome began on September 10, 1984. To keep the project secret, the film’s working title was Desert World. Director of Photography Dean Semler returned for duty following his work on The Road Warrior, who claimed Beyond Thunderdome was much harder to film than its predecessor. The main reason for the increased difficulty came from the varied locations throughout Australia and to create unique visual aesthetics for each distinct environment Max encounters. For instance, most of the exterior scenes were filmed in the mining town of Coober Pedy, South Australia. Meanwhile, the children’s campground was filmed in Mermaid’s Cave in the Blue Mountains in South New Wales. The bustling Bartertown was filmed on a set built in an abandoned brick factory called The Brickpit in Homebush Bay in Western Sydney. 

mel gibson beyond thunderdome
What Happened to Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome?

Speaking of Bartertown, for the scene in which a grumpy-ass iguana hisses at Max, real-life herpetologist Graham Gow was just off-screen pulling at the iguana’s tail to make the reptile audibly react. Gow was the owner of Graham Gow’s Reptile World in Humpty Doo and would go on to work on the Crocodile Dundee movies and others. Throughout his dangerous career, Gow was bitten by snakes over 140 times and eventually died of cancer in 2005 after sustaining an adder bite. Gow told reporters that the background extras in Bartertown were not actors, and their Goth/punk appearances and attitudes were authentic. 

A tough shoot

Although rumors persisted that Miller only directed the action scenes, leaving the rest of the film to be done by Ogilvie, Miller refuted such and blamed the confusion on a poorly worded press release. According to Miller, the only time he and Ogilvie split up while making Beyond Thunderdome involved the camel scenes. Otherwise, the two made the movie together every step of the way. 

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While the making of Beyond Thunderdome didn’t experience as many tragic fatalities or grave injuries as the first two films, at least one notable mishap occurred. For example, the train crashing into the car with Ironar Bassey onboard didn’t go as planned. The stunt was coordinated by Dennis Williams, the same performer who flipped the Mack Truck in The Road Warrior. After delaying the stunt to accommodate the passing of an operational train, Williams performed the crash, sustained burns on his left arm and shoulder, and had to be taken to a nearby hospital to treat his wounds. 

One of the movie’s most memorable moments comes at the end when Max helps the children flee as a sandstorm savages the land. Like most of Mad Max’s timeless sequences, the sandstorm was 100% real. In addition to the camera plane deliberately flying into the storm to capture raw footage, the crewmembers had to brave the storm by hiding in cars taking safe cover nearby. Unlike the CGI-heavy 21st-century Mad Max films, the tactical and practical stunts and FX work are why the film remains so durable 40 years later. Nowadays, CGI pigs would be used for the Underworld scene. When making Beyond Thunderdome, 600 real pigs were rented from a nearby farm and used for the sequence. The pigs were rented because purchasing such a large amount would have affected the local pork market. 

Of course, as the third franchise entry, there are several overt and covert callbacks to the first two films that fans may have missed. For instance, when Max first meets Aunty Entity, one of her men plays the saxophone, a subtle nod to Max’s wife Jessie in the first film. Another example includes Max’s mangled left eye, which has a more dilated pupil than his right eye. This was a callback to The Road Warrior when Wez threw Max off the road, rolled his V8 Pursuit Special, and suffered an injury. Similarly, after sustaining a gunshot wound to his leg from Bubba Zanetti in the original film, Max sports a noticeable limp and leg brace in The Road Warrior and a residual bandage on his knee in Beyond Thunderdome

mad max beyond thunderdome
What Happened to Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome?

When Max wanders through Bartertown and relinquishes his weapons, eagle-eyed fans can spot Wez’s wrist-held crossbow from The Road Warrior, which Max must have stripped from Wez’s corpse after he was smashed by a truck. Max also gives up a Mauser C96 handgun, which many believe he pulled from old Bubba after he lethally shot him in the original film. These small details add up and give the franchise’s world-building a connective continuity that bolsters Max’s character and ties each movie together. However, there is one confusing aspect relating to Blaster’s fate. Some fans have claimed that Max spares Blaster in the film because he reminds him of Benno, the autistic rancher living with May Swaisey in the original Mad Max. Others believe Benno and Blaster could be the same character despite being played by different actors. 

As for other obscure character connections in Beyond Thunderdome, Savannah Nix cries in horror when Finn Coo is lethally sunken by quicksand because she is his mother, a detail revealed in the movie’s novelization by Joan D. Vinge. 

Deleted scenes and music

Regarding discontinuity, one of the biggest changes Beyond Thunderdome made from the first two films was the music composer. The music for Mad Max and The Road Warrior was scored by Australian musician Brian May (no, not the Queen guitarist). For Beyond Thunderdome, Miller hired Oscar-winning composer Maurice Jarre fresh off his Academy Award victory for David Lean’s A Passage to India. Hiring Jarre led to an increase in the musical budget for the film, resulting in an epic score featuring a full orchestra and over 100 musicians. Jarre turned in a massive 87-minute score, including the 25-minute “Big Chase!” finale as Max escorts the children across the desert away from Aunty. May was understandably devastated to learn Jarre replaced him, as he looked forward to sonically concluding the trilogy. 

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The grand irony is that Jarre’s score would not be released in its entirety until 2010 due to a rights mix-up. When Miller gave up directing Contact, he was granted the rights to the entire Mad Max franchise, unwittingly including the musical score. Part of Jarre’s unused score for Beyond Thunderdome can be heard in Wolfgang Petersen’s Enemy Mine, released in December 1985. Meanwhile, Tina Turner’s hit Thunderdome theme song “We Don’t Need Another Hero” reached #1 in Canada, #2 in the U.S., and #3 on the UK single charts. 

Another fascinating aspect of Beyond Thunderdome relates to the deleted scenes. To shorten the runtime, at least two scenes were cut. The first involved Max waking from a nightmare about his murdered wife Jessie and son Sprog. As he cries in agony, Max realizes that he is becoming like the feral marauders he pursued as a police enforcer and vows to re-instill his humanity. Although the footage no longer exists, the novelization detailed the scene further.  

The other deleted scene involved Max taking Gekko to the top of a dune at night, spotting the lights of Bartertown in the distance, and declaring they’d reached Tomorrow-Morrow Land. A few snippets from this deleted scene are featured in the music video for “We Don’t Need Another Hero.” 

Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome was released in July 1985, marking Mel Gibson’s final time portraying the title character. Although the film drew mostly positive reviews, it failed to reach the critical apex of The Road Warrior. Beyond Thunderdome grossed $36 million worldwide when factoring in rental sales, the same amount as The Road Warrior. The difference is, that Beyond Thunderdome was more than twice as expensive as its predecessor, making it harder to justify the franchise’s continuation on the big screen. As such, Miller considered adapting the franchise to the small screen in 1986, a factoid that may have eluded fans. 

mad max beyond thunder dome
What Happened to Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome?

In 1986, Miller considered making a Mad Max TV show starring Australian actor Jon Blake in the title role. Unfortunately, in December 1986, Blake suffered severe brain damage during a car accident he suffered one day after filming a movie called The Lighthorsemen. Blake remained paralyzed in a locked-in state until he died in 2011. While far less important, the Mad Max TV show was scrapped after Blake was injured. 

Of course, the lasting legacy of Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome is still felt today. “Thunderdome” has entered the pop lexicon to denote a chaotic royal rumble-style death match where the loser faces a harsh penalty. Thunderdome’s apocalyptic iconography has been adopted by pro wrestling and recycled in such popular music videos as 2Pac and Dr. Dre’s California Love. The Fallout videogame franchise has cited the Mad Max franchise as a major influence, and shows like Eastbound & Down and Rick and Morty have overtly parodied Beyond Thunderdome. After the movie’s release, the vehicles featured in Beyond Thunderdome toured various car shows in Australia in 1985. 

While the writers considered killing Max Rockatansky in Beyond Thunderdome, the character’s spirit died a bit when Mel Gibson portrayed the character for the final time. Meanwhile, Aunty Entity is the only female antagonist in the Mad Max franchise thus far, and the only villain to survive the original trilogy. The gender reversal has paved the way for Fury Road and Furiosa to expand the franchise’s horizons. Fury Road proved to be a monumental event and marked the rousing return of Miller to his most iconic cinematic contributions. Sadly, Furiosa crashed and flamed at the box office in 2024, raising serious doubts about the future of Mad Max and the next planned installment, The Wasteland. But that’s for another day.

Until then, it’s best to slam on the brakes and say – yup, That’s What Happened to Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome

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