1. DESERT SETTING
The Road Warrior immediately distinguished itself from Mad Max by setting itself in a desert rather than a city or town (even a dying one).
Though several imitator films have episodes in a forest or jungle, most are at least partly based in a desert wasteland. Deserts give a sense of deprivation, which is our next feature.
Most imitators feature factions warring for a scarce resource such as gas in The Road Warrior, water in Stryker or Exterminators of the Year 3000 or Steel Dawn, uranium in A Man Called Rage, the unnamed refined resource from 2020 Texas Gladiators, or gunpowder in Raiders of the Sun.
Clothes, food, and supplies are likewise scarce. Most characters wear ragged or ripped clothes, and most appear soiled and unkempt.
3. RAGTAG GANGS
This goes with the deprivation. Unlike Mad Max which suggested some remnant of authority, The Road Warrior suggested a wasteland with no central government, legitimate or otherwise. There is a sense of chaos and danger.
In a few films, such as Endgame, a faction is able to control a single city. Usually, neither the good factions nor the evil ones control more than a bunker-like headquarters or fenced-in farm.
Yet amidst the ragtag deprivation, many gang members manage to exhibit a quasi-punk style: fancy leather straps, decorated hats, clips, feathers, makeup, or something stylized and funky.
4. DECKED OUT ARMORED CARS
An obvious feature of a Road Warrior imitator is a combo car chase/car battle with the cars themselves modified to look tough and stylized on screen.
Even the cheapest of the imitators (like A Man Called Rage, Mad Warrior, or The Sisterhood) show some attempt to modify a car with armor or spikes or some kind of unusual decoration.
But this staple – the road action – is usually underplayed in the films, probably because everyone knew it would be impossible to match The Road Warrior at this level. Indeed, 35+ years later, only Mad Max: Fury Road might beat it.
5. SINGLE NAMES
Like Humongous from The Road Warrior, the bad guys have names like Scourge from Wheels of Fire, Prossor from Warrior of the Lost World, Rex from Mad Warrior, Slash from A Man Called Rage, Slater from Land of Doom, Trapper from Warriors of the Apocalypse, or Boarhead from Raiders of the Sun.
The good guys have single names like Stryker, Alien, Rush, Rage, Trace, Halakron, Nomad, or Slade.
Speaking of good guys…
6. TRAGIC LONER HEROES
Genre films (especially Westerns) have long featured tragic loner heroes. But in Road Warrior imitators, the loners are a special type: like Max Rockatansky they wear black leather to connote their inner darkness, and like Max they are forever haunted by the murders of family members or loved ones.
In very rare cases a hero has a relative (like Stryker’s brother from Stryker or Trace’s sister from Wheels of Fire) but even then the heroes spend most of the movie alone.
In virtually every single imitator, the hero rides off alone at the end, even when a loving woman or a welcoming society implores him to stay.
The Mad Max movies don’t feel misogynistic, so I’m not sure where this came from, but in all the first Road Warrior imitators, women are little more than objects to be brutalized or raped. In DefCon-4 they are traded like commodities.
By the mid 80s, after Beyond Thunderdome, several movies featured women who could fight… but the fighting women are usually killed (as in Rush, Wheels of Fire, or Dune Warriors).
Some imitators featured women who could hold their own ground, but even then most were sexualized on screen (2020 Texas Gladiators, Exterminators of the Year 3000, A Man Called Rage, Land of Doom, Phoenix the Warrior, Raiders of the Sun, The Sisterhood).
8. INNOCENT PRIMITIVES
This comes mostly from Beyond Thunderdome influence, though some of the imitators preceded it.
As Max meets the tribe of innocent, primitive, tough adolescents in Beyond Thunderdome, many heroes in Road Warrior imitators encounter a tribe of ethnics who first seem menacing but soon reveal to be stoic, honorable, and helpful.
These include the Indians from 2020 Texas Gladiators, the Mountain People in Equalizer 2000, the dwarves in Stryker, the Jawas from Land of Doom, and the “horse people” in A Man Called Rage.
These are duels among people, not vehicles. Again this seems to come from Beyond Thunderdome influence. Most duels are one-on-one in a demarcated enclosure.
In the films, these duels give the heroes a chance to prove themselves. Most are well choreographed, so these duels are often highlights of the films.
These duels include the proof-of-courage in 2020 Texas Gladiators, the arena bouts in Mad Warrior, the hunts in Endgame, the anything-goes fistfight in Warrior of the Lost World, the fistfight at the temple in Warriors of the Apocalypse, the club combat in Wheels of Fire, the motorbike joust in Dune Warriors, and the rope initiation in Raiders of the Sun.
This is a relatively minor convergence, but nearly all Road Warrior imitators feature flamethrowers or firebombs or some kind of flame weapons. Maybe it’s because vehicles run on gasoline, and gasoline is flammable. Flame weapons get used even in the films where gasoline is scarce. I guess bullets are even scarcer.
This column, I’ll list five films to start. Next column, I’ll list many more.