Always double check your
work. Or at the very least have a good editor (Hi George!), because you never
know when a simple mistake or seemingly minor miscalculation could wind up costing
you dearly. Take for instance Philippe Mora’s MAD DOG MORGAN. Filmed in
1976, the picture's copyright date should read MCMLXXVI. Unfortunately what
ended up on screen reads MCMDXXVI, a date which would place the production in
the year 2426. This little oversight essentially nullified any indented copyright
protection and allowed the picture to slide into the public domain limbo where
it remains to this day.
Based on the true story of Daniel Morgan, one of Australia’s most notorious criminals, MAD DOG MORGAN stars Dennis Hopper as the titular bushranger. After witnessing his friend's face get blasted off by a shotgun (!) during a raid at an opium den, Morgan takes to a life of crime where in short time he finds himself arrested and tried for robbery. Sentenced to twelve years hard labor, Morgan is branded, raped and humiliated behind bars before being released early for good behavior. A mental wreck, Morgan heads back to the bush where, aided by a steady diet of rum, he picks up where he left off, robbing and looting to survive. After an unexpected bullet to the shoulder almost proves to be his undoing, Morgan teams up with an aborigine named Billy (David Gulpilil), who after helping nurse the Irishman back to health, teaches Daniel how to survive in the outback. With a Queen’s bounty on his head, Morgan eludes and confronts the authorities time and again, all the while garnering a reputation as a hero to some and a lunatic criminal to others.
MAD DOG has a number of things going for it; most notably a frenzied turn by Hopper and often awe-inspiring cinematography courtesy of Mike Molloy (HARDCORE), but the picture is a bit of a hard pill to swallow. In setting up Morgan’s later maniacal nature, the film's first act hops, skips and jumps over time, leaving a disjointed, albeit linear narrative that isn’t very easy to latch on to. Once Morgan is released from jail the film does become more coherent and the picture, for awhile at least, finds a more agreeable pace but the initial stumbling does leave a bit of an awkward aftertaste. It’s also hard to take a drama seriously when the lead actor's beard is so fake it looks like a prop discarded from CANNIBAL! THE MUSICAL. That said, writer/director Philippe Mora, whose other film credits include THE BEAST WITHIN and COMMUNION, does succeed in presenting the Australian outback, circa 1865, as a rugged terrain both breathtaking and brutal. The same of which could also be said of Dennis Hopper’s performance.
If there was ever a movie that demanded the docudrama treatment it's MAD DOG MORGAN. The stories behind the making of MAD DOG are quite truthfully more interesting than the film itself. Talk to anyone who worked any where near the production and you’re bound to hear at least one good tale, usually about the film's lead. A method actor, Hopper would start each morning by drowning himself in 151 rum as a means of getting into character. The result of which can be seen clearly on screen with both comical and dramatic results. Dennis’s erratic and often psychopathic behavior clearly took its toll on both cast and crew, a fact that is probably most evident in the abrupt disappearance of co-star David Gulpilil. In the middle of the film's shoot, David decided to go on walkabout. Upon his return, director Philippe Mora inquired as to the reasoning behind his walking away from the active production. Gulpilil’s response; he needed to ask the trees and the kookaburra’s about Dennis. Their conclusion; Dennis was crazy. Mora must love to tell this particular story as he recalls it at least two times in this release's extras and once during the Ozploitation doc, NOT QUITE HOLLYWOOD. It wasn’t just Hopper however that caused a commotion on the set. Stuntman Grant Page (STUNT ROCK) burned himself from head to toe while trying to film the picture's blazing high fall of a dream sequence. True to his form, Page took only a couple of days to recover before returning to the same treacherous ledge to complete the dramatic shot.
Though Dennis does undeniably steal the show, MAD DOG features a number of recognizable and talented Australian actors, such as the aforementioned Gulpilil. Whenever a producer needs someone to play an aborigine, David Gulpilil seems to be the first person they call and rightly so. Personally I can’t see David and not think of Neville from CROCODILE DUNDEE but his list of credits do reach far beyond that of Paul Hogan’s film debut. Most recently David appeared in THE PROPOSITION, a picture that is very much in the same vein, and time period as MAD DOG. While his early career featured roles in such sweeping epics as BEN-HUR and EL CID, Frank Thring’s later work would land him in a number of down under genre efforts, including MAD MAX BEYOND THUNDERDOME and HOWLING III: THE MARSUPIALS, which was also directed by Mora. As Superintendent Cobham, Frank gets the distinction of delivering MAD DOG’s closing line, one that you’re unlikely to "forget" anytime soon. Bill Hunter (MURIEL'S WEDDING) and Jack Thompson (FEED) also turn up, both playing lawmen eager to bring Mad Dog to justice.
Originally released into homes via VHS by both Thorn EMI Video and Troma, MAD DOG MORGAN's transition to DVD has been a rather easy and frequent one. Given its questionable copyright status the film can currently be found on a number of bargain sets and budget discs, often paired with Monte Hellman’s COCKFIGHTER. Continuing with their Tromasterpiece Collection, Troma has seen fit to update their own previous efforts with the release of a two-disc special edition that presents the picture uncut, in all of its bloody glory. I do not own Troma’s previous, stand alone release, which they dropped back in 2005, so I don’t know exactly how this new release compares to their prior attempt but assuming that they have in fact made improvements, I feel bad for anyone who did buy it, as their latest presentation is a bit of a disappointment. Barring its original title, MAD DOG, the film is presented in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio but appears to have been culled from a badly dated video source. The letterboxed, non-anamorphic picture is riddled with debris and the image quality itself is so lackluster that it’s often hard to tell if fades in color are due to passing clouds or flowering flaws in the print source. The English Stereo audio track fairs well enough, but it’s not going to blow anybody's socks off. Subtitles would have also been nice.
the picture's presentation is visually a letdown, the supplements which accompany
it are thankfully quite enjoyable. “THAT’S OUR MAD DOG” is
a 27 plus minute conversation between Hopper and Mora. The exchange between
the two men consists mainly of Mora questioning Dennis about his recollections
of the film's shoot and Dennis trying to remember his time in Australia. Despite
being so high that he was eventually put on plane and ordered to return to the
U.S., Dennis is able to recall quite a bit, elaborating not only on the film's
shoot but of his life in general during the 1970s. “Interview with director
Philippe Mora” is a rehash of the same 54 second introduction available
on disc one of this release. The interviews with director of photography Mike
Holly and associate producer Richard Brennan (LONG WEEKEND) are however unique
to disc two. With a combined runtime of 13 minutes, each interview again features
Mora prodding for anecdotes from the film's shoot, most of which pertain to
Dennis’s unpredictable behavior.
A 14 minute radio interview with director Mora, seven minutes of deleted scenes, a 44 second then and now location featurette, copies of the film's original program/pressbook and over four minutes of productions stills, with didgeridoo accompaniment attempt to paint a full picture of MAD DOG’s production and distribution, and are all quite welcomed. I was however surprised to not see any behind-the-scenes footage as the previously mentioned (and highly recommended) documentary NOT QUITE HOLLYWOOD features several such clips that help illustrate just how difficult it must have been trying to corral Hopper. Troma’s re-cut Tromasterpiece trailer as well as trailers for POULTRYGEIST, THE TOXIC AVENGER, COMBAT SHOCK, THE LAST HORROR FILM and The Sexy Box set - which includes THE FIRST TURN-ON, SQUEEZE PLAY, WAITRESS and STUCK ON YOU - round out this release's special features. (Jason McElreath)
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