What It’s Like to See ‘The Road Warrior’ In the Alamo’s Post-Apocalyptic Raceway from Hell

By  · Published on May 22nd, 2012

If you live near an Alamo Drafthouse, you probably already know that Tim League, Zack Carlson, Lars Nilsen and co. have coordinated an amazing summer series devoted to the blockbusting year of 1982. If you’ve been reading FSR lately, you already know that our site co-sponsored a screening of George Miller’s Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior in coordination with the Drafthouse’s site-specific Rolling Roadshow series. And if you live anywhere within five hundred miles of the Thunderhill Raceway in Kyle, Texas, then you probably attended said screening.

But for you feral kids who may have not had a chance to witness this awesome event, or for those of you that did, here’s a first-person account of the happenings by one of FSR’s own.

The Road Warrior is something of a sweet spot in Mel Gibson’s history. The peak entry in the Mad Max series (sorry, Tina Turner), The Road Warrior gives us a Gibson who is too young, too unknown, and too accented to yet become a bona fide Hollywood star, but someone who has also (thanks largely to the first Mad Max film) developed enough charisma to be a magnetic force of nature onscreen. He’s hardly a man with no name, but Gibson’s one-man machine doesn’t need to say much – hell, he doesn’t even need both eyes – to give us a degree of intensity that hasn’t been seen before, or arguably since.

Yes, Max is surrounded by several comic relief characters (notably the Gyro Captain, who if cast today would most certainly be played by Rhys Ifans, and the Feral Kid who, with quite articulate narration, apparently learns to speak English at some undisclosed later moment in life), but Max’s performance here is decidedly un-comic in a way that few later Gibson performances were after he achieved Hollywood fame.

This isn’t just 80s Mel Gibson. This is Mel Gibson before Lethal Weapon, before Tequila Sunrise. This is the badass Australian, Year of Living Dangerously-ing, Gallipoli-ing, Road Warrioring Mel Gibson.

The Road Warrior may have been Gibson’s breakthrough film, but the film also gives us a Gibson persona that was rarely revisited during the various contortions of his career. So perhaps the best way to truly appreciate a one-of-a-kind Gibson n an awesome film is a one-of-a-kind screening at an awesome venue.

The Thunderhill Raceway is just over twenty miles south of Austin. After my Google Maps route instructed me to cross over I-35 after exiting, the only further direction given was “turn right.” But getting lost was not a possibility. There was no mistaking where the glorious Thunderhill Raceway sat amongst a flat green vista and a Nissan dealership. I called Neil Miller for instructions on how to pick up tickets, and all I could hear on the receiving end were the loud sounds of unmuffled engines. Was Neil racing? Then why the hell did he answer his phone?

After I passed the ticket booth, to get to the Thunderhill Raceway patrons I had to walk up a steep hill guarding any sight of what was going on, leaving the imagination up to the ears. The only indication I had has for what I was in for was the escalating sounds of engines roaring and tires burning. Thus, finally getting sight of the raceway is kind of a cinematic moment; like when characters on journeys are exhausted and finally realize they’ve reached a kingdom or something that’s revealed with a tricky reverse-shot as music swells. Except instead of a Howard Shore score, what I heard was an overwhelming combination of Heavy Metal music and intense motor acceleration.*

I quickly found the rest of the FSR crew in attendance: Luke Mullen, Adam Charles, Brian Salisbury, and Neil Miller, who it turns out was not in a race car but was simply saying “vrooooooooom” every time he brought his Pabst Blue Ribbon tallboy to his lips. This place was loud. And I mean loud. The guys and I attempted to have a conversation about the curious filmography of Werner Herzog until the sounds of squealing tires drowned us out. Brian observed, “That’s FSR in a nutshell right there.” Or maybe he said, “Matt’s still fishing in not-Hell with a chair.” Again, it was loud.

We named the four race cars Aguirre, Grizzly Man, Little Dieter, Fitzcarraldon’t, and Even Dwarves Started Small. I secretly hoped that Joaquin Phoenix was in one of them.

It took me about one and a half PBR tallboys to realize that the real event actually hadn’t started yet. These racers were simply practicing. So around 8:30, after a postapocalyptically leather-clad Zack Carlson screamed into a microphone, the symphony of glorious (and perfectly safe) destruction began. Of the makes and models of the four cars participating in the Demolition Derby, all I explicitly recall was a 90s Jeep Grand Cherokee with the word “WAR” spray-painted on the back in hot pink. The cars smashed into each other with orgasmic, chaotic elegance. Pieces flew all over the track. Cars dragged other cars around the track several times. This was undoubtedly what the kids these days call “bad ass.” The crowd hollered in reaction to every crunch. This was no race. The only winner was total destruction.

For some reason at this moment, I decided to refill my beer. This was my biggest mistake of the night. I looked back at the steep incline, heard a crash and saw a gigantic billow of smoke emerge above the hill. One of the cars had smashed into the burning trash cans to glorious effect. I ran over the hill and returned to my seat as quickly as I could. After a few more rounds, the “race” was over. It was difficult to tell how much time had gone by. We had all visited some strange primal testosterone-fueled place, as if we returned to a time where caveman and machine somehow co-existed. For the first time in four years, I suddenly wanted a steak.

Then the cleverly-named band Rockatansky played. While this event was tonally consistent with the rest of the night (especially their cover of “We Don’t Need Another Hero”), the utter epictude of the demolition derby and the band’s location under the giant Roadshow screen forty yards away from the fence made for a rather small interlude between epic race and awesome film. But there really isn’t much to complain about on a night like this.

I’d seen Road Warrior several times before, but never like this. For some reason, hearing tires round the raceway for over an hour made the dynamic sound editing of Miller’s film more intense, not less. Yes, The Road Warrior is now thirty years old, but on this screen, in this night, you would hardly know it. I don’t know how much the Raceway setting fits into the Alamo’s efforts of showing us these films as they existed in 1982, but watching Mad Max 2 outdoors under the rural Texas stars as the smell of burnt asphalt emanated through the stadium seemed only one desert apocalypse short of watching the film in the absolute perfect setting (and in this case we didn’t have to beat the shit out of each other to drive home afterward). Miller’s kinetic camerawork, while impressive after all these years in any context, seemed to somehow be more alive than ever on this screen, in this context.

Neither the three non-FSR friends that I attended the screening with nor myself have seen the first or third Mad Max movie. It doesn’t really matter. The Road Warrior is that special and rare type of sequel like The Evil Dead 2 or (probably) The Dark Knight that far outlives its greater narrative context. It’s damned good enough to live on its own. And after hours of loud music and screeching cars, the audience (this is after all, a Drafthouse audience) suddenly hushed in reverent respect for Mel Gibson’s most violent and exciting journey through the Outback. Throughout the night, master of ceremonies Zack Carlson repeatedly called The Road Warrior the “greatest action movie ever made.” After Friday night, I’m now inclined to agree.

For information on the other films in the Alamo Drafthouse’s Summer of 1982 repertory series, visit their website.

*I don’t know much about cars.

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