While the Wikipedia article on Mad Max says:

The film opens "a few years from now" in Australia, in a dystopian future where law & order has begun to break down at the end of the 'Oil Age'.

My memories and my visual scanning of the script does not indicate that there is really anything that is dystopian or apocalyptic. While there is a gang terrorizing an area of Australia, there is nothing to indicate that this is not a common contemporary action/gang crime story. I think that people merely assume that Mad Max takes place in a post-apocalyptic future simply because the sequel The Road Warrior does.

Therefore, I contend that the Wikipedia article is in error.

Is there any evidence that I'm missing that Mad Max actually takes place in a post-apocalyptic future?

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    A dystopia can just mean society gone wrong, so it doesn't have to relate to a post-apocalypse world, so while the question seems fair I don't see why the Wikipedia description is wrong.
    – tonylo
    Commented Mar 19, 2011 at 18:29
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    @tonylo: I believe that the Wikipedia description is wrong because you can have crime without a dysptopia, crime alone does not make a dystopia IMHO. There is no direct reference to politics or social structures in Mad Max that I know of. The characters appear to have normal contemporary lives, outside of occasionally running people off the road, of course. By the looser criteria for a dystopia that you mention, it would seem like 'Lethal Weapon' is a dystopia, but we can all agree it is not. Commented Mar 19, 2011 at 18:30
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    If you think the Wikipedia entry is wrong why not just edit it?
    – user11295
    Commented Feb 9, 2013 at 10:27
  • @APaleShadow - I think you just volunteered, if it is as simple as you say. When I asked the question I wasn't sure if I was right or wrong, even now it's not totally clear what the filmmakers intended. To get anything changed in Wikipedia you often have to fight whatever nut or special interest is protecting a particular page. I have less time in my day to fight with people, so I often bow out of those kinds of fights. Commented Feb 9, 2013 at 15:52
  • @tonylo - Actually on reflection it is a good point about dtstopian vs. post-apocaltpse. Though it still seems more like general crime and poverty than dystopia. Commented Aug 8, 2014 at 0:44

9 Answers 9


I think it's pretty clear from the visual differences between the movies that things have gotten substantially worse between Mad Max and The Road Warrior.

Society is definitely starting to break down in MM, with gang violence out of control, but Max and his family live in a more-or-less normal town. By the time we catch up with Max again in RW, people are building forts out in the desert to keep the gangs out.

Then there's this, from the opening narration to The Road Warrior:

To understand who he was, you have to go back to another time when the world was powered by the black fuel and the deserts sprouted great cities of pipe and steel. Gone now swept away. For reasons long forgotten, two mighty warrior tribes went to war and touched off a blaze which engulfed them all.

That's a pretty clear reference to an apocalyptic war between two superpowers, which had the side effect of destroying (most of) the world's oil supply.

In Beyond Thunderdome, Auntie says:

Do you know who I was?


Except on the day after, I was still alive.

That means that the war happened during Auntie's (and presumably Max's) lifetime, so presumably that explains some of the difference in setting between Mad Max and the following movies.

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    'The Day After' also being the title of a well-known story about Nuclear Holocaust. Given that it was from 1983, I doubt Auntie's use of that specific phrase in your quote from Thunderdome (1985) was an accident.
    – K-H-W
    Commented May 15, 2012 at 17:12
  • @K-H-W yup. In the eighties, the fear of nuclear apocalypse was a constant elephant in the room -- referred to obliquely with great frequency. You didn't need to spell it out; people KNEW what you meant. The bit about the "two warrior tribes.. touched off a blaze that engulfed them all" and "the day after" would have been seen as an unequivocal, non-subtle and unmistakable reference to nuclear war at the time. Commented May 17, 2015 at 19:27
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    (It's strange to see people today arguing about whether certain things were intended to refer to nuclear war, when at the time, those same things seemed NOT like subtle or oblique references, but rather EXPLICIT, spell-it-out mentions of the threat of nuclear apocalypse.) Commented May 17, 2015 at 19:34
  • Act risk of being Captain Obvious, the "two tribes" would be the USA and the Soviet Union.
    – Golden Cuy
    Commented May 24, 2015 at 2:32

Obviously. the first Mad Max film is pre apocalyptic (apparently the back on the DVD says events of Mad Max 2/Road Warrior took place 3 years after the first movie). In the first film, we can see that there is obviously SEVERE economic difficulties:

  • Scarcity of fuel.
  • Run down police headquarters that are near ruins.
  • Lack of funding for cars and having to get a millionaire businessman to try and buy Max to stay in the police.

Yes, it is obvious the world is in a severe recession WORSE than the current one obviously! BUT in the second film, it is implied that while war and/or negotiations to avoid/halt it (quote: they talked and they talked ... ) are going on in the world, the events of Mad Max 1 are happening at the same time (quote: on the roads, it was a white line ...). So, the war between two superpowers (presumably, the US and USSR/Russia) was beginning or about to happen during Mad Max 1 (caused by a oil-related recession maybe triggered by a regional Mid East war). By Mad Max 2, the war was either over or in its last and fatal stages. In Mad Max 2, it is implied that there are still coastal areas of Australia that are okay but Max (after losing his wife) is not at all interested in this for HIMSELF but is helping others to go there. So, the wasteland Max lives in is the worst of the post-apocalypse world and one Max self-exiled himself to even as early as the first movie when he is seen driving away. Petrol/oil is still in evidence as are cars and motorcycles. There is NO mention either here of NUCLEAR conflict. Maybe, the war is on and has ruined nations and the economy of the world but has YET to go nuclear?

The Iran-Iraq war and the potential entering in of superpowers to back up these two countries seems to have inspired the film. Also, the reference to the word Ayatollah in the film by the biker gangs seems to imply their memory of Middle Eastern and in particular Iraqi and Iranian issues!

By Mad Mad Beyond Thunderdome, it is obvious that ALL oil based fuel is gone. And that NUCLEAR war has happened. The fallout detector Max has to test the water from the salesman shows the water to be radioactive. Also, the Atomic Cafe! By now, the war that may have started out as an oil related conflict in Iraq or Iran for example has turned into a world war with superpowers suck in and one that ended up global and nuclear. Clearly, this has happened LONG before the events of the third Mad Max movie as the children in it were born after the events. Also, Max looks a LOT older and his clothes too!

We see ruins of a deserted Sydney and tales of an air crash where people attempted to get away from a city (presumably Sydney) so it is clear that ALL the former world civilisation has ended. Still though there are safer areas near the coasts as in the second movie and Max once again gets his friends there while he himself prefers to remain in the wasteland. It is implied a new civilisation is started by Max's friends in what was Sydney.


The authors have apparently cheated on the continuity between Mad Max II and Beyond Thunderdome.

In Mad Max 1 and 2 there was no mention of a nuclear holocaust. It's something that was added in so that Beyond Thunderdome would make sense to viewers unfamiliar with the first two movies.

Surely the narrator at the begining of Mad Max II didn't forget to say - oh yeah, I almost forgot, there was also a nuclear war. It's clear that although there was a war it probably wasn't nuclear as it didn't destroy society, it just stopped the flow of oil. The lack of oil is what caused society to really deteriorate.

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    As Patrick's answer demonstrates, there's no reason to presume a lack of continuity: the war happens, and escalates, off-screen in the time between the movies. In Mad Max, war is brewing but hasn't really happened yet; by Road Warrior something has happened but it hasn't gone nuclear yet; and sometime after Road Warrior but before Thunderdome, some idiot has hit the big red button.
    – Martha
    Commented Jul 18, 2013 at 13:51

The post-apocalyptic references in the first film always struck me as being very sparse, though not 100 percent absent. It is stated that the time is "a few years from now," indicating SOMETHING has changed. Cops in this future time wear leather rather than police uniforms. Biker gangs steal fuel directly out of moving gas trucks (yes, this happens in the FIRST film). There is a highway called "Anarchy Road." Within the parking structure of the police headquarters you hear a continual recording playing on a PA system which seems to be laying out the clauses of some sort of permanent emergency code (that is a highly speculative guess on my part; it is hard to hear what the PA is saying. Maybe subtitles would indicate?).

The indications I notice in the second film suggestive of the apocalypse being nuclear are 1) The introductory voice-over's asserting that "the cities exploded." Maybe just a figure of speech, as in rioting and so forth, or maybe literal as in warheads detonated over the cities. The presumed reason the narrator does not directly reference nuclear weapons is because he is the Ferrel Kid (as we learn at the end of the film) and so was born after the apocalypse and so does not really understand or know how to convey the technical details of it (he refers to the superpowers involved as "mighty warrior tribes" for instance). 2) A camera shot of the back of the Lord Humongus's head when he is delivering his ultimatum to the compounders in which you see that his hair appears to have partially fallen out and a vein visibly pulses. Makes one think of radiation poisoning, and even Wikipedia picks up on this. (One wonders what sort of face the hockey mask is hiding...)

My own theory has always been similar to another commentator's in this thread. The movies gained larger budgets as time went on and the directors fleshed out the back story more and more. That tends to be what writers do. The exact events leading to the Mad Max world were probably just as vague to George Miller in the 1st film as they are to us, much as we hate to think so.


I think I heard George Miller say in an interview once that Mad Max 1 was set in a Post-Apocalyptic world, but they simply didn't have enough money to make everything look like a desolate wasteland so they kept the trees and water and what not, but with The Road Warrior they did have enough money and they could make it a desolate wasteland. I mean when I first saw Mad Max 1 I hadn't seen any other Mad Max movie in my life and I thought it was Post Apocalyptic.

However, I think we will have to wait until the Prequel; Mad Max Fury Road to fully answer this question, for all the people that go "Unless something makes something canon, it is not canon".

  • I'd be interested in this interview, if you can find a link or something. Commented May 25, 2015 at 15:52

In several scenes in Mad Max 1, he drives past "poison" signposts, which seem to suggest radioactive areas.

  • This does not provide an answer to the question. To critique or request clarification from an author, leave a comment below their post - you can always comment on your own posts, and once you have sufficient reputation you will be able to comment on any post.
    – HorusKol
    Commented Jul 1, 2013 at 7:33
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    @HorusKol - sorry, I disagree. The fact that there are radioactive areas can lead one to plausibly believe that there was an apocalypse (namely, nuclear or somesuch catastrophe). Commented Jul 1, 2013 at 8:38
  • Huh, does anyone have any screenshots of the signposts? I can't really recall them, but it would certainly be possible. Also how do we know it's not for some other environmental concern? I guess fallout is as good a guess as any, this raises a lot of possibilities. Commented Jul 1, 2013 at 13:57
  • hmm... oh-kay - that auto-comment is stronger than I would've worded it (and when did that start happening?) - I agree it does go someway to being an answer, but it really is still more of a comment or stub
    – HorusKol
    Commented Jul 1, 2013 at 21:38

I just watched this movie again after a long time. I don't think there is, or ever will be, a definitive answer to this question. Having said that I think the film hints at a dystopian future. Some folks have already mentioned the "Poison" signs that say restricted area. You can also the state of the police barracks. The bits they show of it are run down and a total mess. No well funded, government run facility would be in this shape. This hints at the breaking down of society. One other thing with the station, the name on top of the building, it appears all rusted and one of the letters is falling off. They flash to this several times in the movie and I think this may be another subtle hint that Max lives in a society on the verge of becoming a dystopia. There are a few other environmental ques throughout the film and considering the low budget and era the film was made in I bet they would have had a hard time making it look fully dystopian on the scales that we are used to seeing by today's standards.


There is a signpost with a skull saying forbidden area or something like that in the last 10-15 mins of the movie. Also, when Max asks a mechanic where is the gang he says they are looking for fuel which might suggest indeed an issue with fuel.

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    fuel issues and forbidden areas don't necessarily mean an apocalypse though.
    – Monty129
    Commented Jul 18, 2013 at 0:44

With the first trailer of Mad Max 4 posted I once again began to consider the whole premise again after all these years. I think the best way to sum it all up is to say that society in the first movie was pre-nuclear but was rapidly breaking down and on the verge of nuclear war. As infrastructure deteriorated and with fuel becoming increasingly scarce & the hunt for it more and more desperate, the situation created an explosion in gangs & gang violence. That's the world - at least to me, that we are introduced to in the first movie.

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