Academic journal article Science Fiction Film and Television

Nowhere to Run: Repetition Compulsion and Heterotopia in the Australian Post-Apocalypse – from 'Crabs' to Mad Max beyond Thunderdome

Academic journal article Science Fiction Film and Television

Nowhere to Run: Repetition Compulsion and Heterotopia in the Australian Post-Apocalypse – from 'Crabs' to Mad Max beyond Thunderdome

Article excerpt

I am the one that runs from both the living and the dead - Max (Tom Hardy),

Mad Max: Fury Road

You're here until the government decides what to do with you - the manager (Peter Whitford),

Dead End Drive-In

It is five o'clock on a glaring summer afternoon and we are starting to arrive at the steep-sided quarry of the State Brickworks in Western Sydney, a place that has been a site of industry since colonial times. Now the huge pit is built and dressed as Bartertown, one of the sets for Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (Miller and Ogilvie Australia 1985). We are the extras for the Thunderdome scenes, arriving from our varied daytime lives as David Jones's sales assistants, bouncers, bikers, cooks, Asian body-builders, models and Fatagram strippers.1

We change into our rags and line up to be sprayed with brick dust to look suitably dirty and downtrodden. The harshness of the brick dust causes ongoing conflict between the crew and the extras, but Miller and his crew deploy their authority in an Australian style, coaxing rather than bullying. 'We are all in this together working towards the same goal', is the general approach. American film sets may be notoriously hierarchical, but Australian productions are well-known for their more egalitarian feel, possibly a continuity of the egalitarian elements of Australian society arising from the shortage of labour in the colonial era (Braithwaite 22). I will explore some of these continuities with Australian history in the Mad Max films (1979-1985, 2015) and the Peter Carey short story 'Crabs' (1972) in this essay.

The story 'Crabs' by two-time Booker-prize winning Australian author Peter Carey takes place in a dystopian post-apocalyptic near-future; this story is one of the most important precursors to the Mad Max films in Australian sf. The story's protagonist, Crabs, who aspires to become a tow truck driver, is incarcerated at the Star drive-in with his girlfriend Carmen after the wheels are stolen from his car, a 1956 Dodge. The Star is home both to the criminal Karboys gang and to corrupt cops, either of which might have stripped the car. As no one is allowed to leave the Star on foot, those whose cars have been stripped form an imprisoned 'castaway' community. Crabs realises that the only way he can escape the Star is to metamorphose into a tow truck. When he does, however, he finds that there is in fact no 'outside' beyond the drive-in, and therefore he must return to the Star.

First published in the Australian literary journal Overland in 1972, the irreal world evoked in 'Crabs' predates other significant Australian post-apocalyptic visions of car-driven dystopia, such as Peter Weir's horror film The Cars That Ate Paris (Australia 1974) and of course the original Mad Max (Miller Australia 1979) and its sequels Mad Max 2 (Miller Australia 1981), Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985) and Mad Max: Fury Road (Miller US 2015). 'Crabs' itself was adapted into a film titled Dead End Drive-In (Trenchard-Smith Australia 1986), which is considered a minor classic in the 'Ozploitation' genre.2

In this essay, I explore how 'Crabs' (and its film adaptation) offers a compressed and symbolic meditation on elements of Australian history that have shaped the psyche of Australian settler society, and which are projected into a dystopian future. I look at how these elements are elaborated in the Mad Max films and suggest that this particular type of story arises from the first global oil shocks of the early 1970s onwards as a recognisably Australian genre of irreal nihilist automotive dystopia, an aspect of a broader metaphor of Australian society and governance characterised as 'the petrochemical, chrome-plated cyborg republic of Oz' (Tranter 77).

I use the term 'irreal' in its literary sense, suggested by Dean Swinford as a new type of fantastic literature, 'a particular mode of postmodern allegory' (Swinford Defining Irrealism 77). While it does not necessarily have magical elements - though it may rely on unreal physics - this literary mode attempts to find a new allegorical language to explain our changed perceptions of a 'culture whose economy seemingly depends on the mutation and usurpation of the natural at a scale previously imaginable only on Dr Moreau's isolated island' (77) as well as changes brought about by our scientific and technical culture. …

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