The Chain Reaction (1980) – ripper car movies

A fast drive to paradise turns into a nuclear nightmare


IF 1979’s Mad Max is about what Australia would look like post-apocalypse, then The Chain Reaction, released the following year, depicts a small band of folks striving to prevent a massive, man-made disaster.

The Chain Reaction movie poster

The two films share more than just similar themes; for starters, Mad Max director George Miller was one of The Chain Reaction’s producers and directed the car chase scenes. The production is also chock-full of Max actors; we’ve got Steve ‘The Goose’ Bisley, Hugh ‘The Toecutter’ Keays-Byrne, Roger ‘Fifi’ Ward, Tim ‘Johnny the Boy’ Burns, David ‘Mudguts’ Bracks and an uncredited Mel Gibson in a fetching mesh T-shirt. Other notables include Full Frontal’s Kim Gyngell as the lecherous airbrush artist Crabs and muso Frankie J Holden as the excellently named Farts.

And like Mad Max, The Chain Reaction drew on the modified car scene of the day – the first example of which is a tantalising glimpse of one of the most famous panel vans of the 70s, Chris Cummings’s turbo 202-powered Midsummer Dream II HQ. But the film’s hero car is a stepside Holden One Tonner, a number of which were built for the movie by John Clifton of Kustom Image and Invader 2001 fame (and at least one still survives to this day). We never get to see under the bonnet, but it does have a stick-shift, a serious stereo system and a very annoying alarm.

Bisley plays hot-up shop proprietor and part-time race driver Larry Stilson, a bloke as flash and brash as his Tonner. Larry and his missus Carmel (Winchester) head up to Crabs’s shack in the fictional Paradise Valley for a dirty weekend, but are interrupted by amnesic engineer Heinrich Schmidt (Thompson). Injured in a catastrophic industrial accident, Heinrich is on the run from his sinister employers at WALDO – Western Atomic Longterm Dumping Organisation – and is desperate to blow the whistle before untold millions are killed.

Larry is initially unsympathetic to Heinrich’s plight: “This guy comes bursting in here in the middle of the night, in the middle of nowhere, looking like a front-row forward spat out of a grand final scrum and he won’t tell us what the score is!”

However, it soon becomes apparent that the forces of law and order have been co-opted by WALDO and that Larry, Carmel and Heinrich are in for the fight of their lives.

Assisting the trio is an unrecognisable Hugh Keays-Byrne, who plays a pigeon-fancying environmentalist.

The baddies include a pair of classy, suit-wearing hitmen: the sadistic Gray (Cotterill) and his deaf sidekick, Oates (Patrick Ward). They arrive in town in a Hercules that contains everything they will need to contain Heinrich, including a small army and a P5 Ford LTD.

The viewer is treated to two extended chase scenes on dirt roads that push Larry’s Tonner to the limit – the apparently stock LTD has no problem keeping up. It would have been nice if they’d popped the LTD’s bonnet to reveal a twin-turbo set-up, a la the Mercedes 450SEL 6.9 used in David Lynch’s Lost Highway. We can but dream.


THE theme of individuals sacrificing themselves for the greater good has particular resonance in 2020, but it is the nostalgia trip that makes The Chain Reaction a great watch today, starting with those George Miller chase scenes. And it is a rare treat to see classic 70s street machines documented onscreen. Bisley’s larrikin star power is reliable as ever, and he and Winchester deliver a cracking but very Aussie chemistry as Mr and Mrs Stilson. While the film is available on Amazon Prime, it is worth ordering the DVD or Blu-ray for the extra features, with include a making-of and interviews with cast and crew.


  • Holden One Tonner stepside
  • HQ Holden panel van
  • CF Bedford
  • Ford P5 LTD
  • HK Belmont wagon
  • 1978 Chrysler Sigma wagon
  • 1980 Land Cruiser


  • Steve Bisley
  • Arna-Maria Winchester
  • Ross Thompson
  • Hugh Keays-Byrne
  • Lorna Lesley
  • Richard Moir
  • Patrick Ward
  • Laurie Moran
  • Tim Burns
  • Mel Gibson
  • Ralph Cotterill
  • Michael Long
  • Bill McCluskey
  • Margo Lloyd
  • Kym Gyngell
  • Frankie J Holden
  • Roger Ward

Director: Ian Barry

Action: A super-hot stepside Holden One Tonner is pursued on dirt roads by an unaccountably swift P5 LTD

Plot: A nuclear waste facility scientist seeking to blow the whistle on a radiation leak stumbles across a husband and wife on holiday

Available: DVD, Blu-ray, Amazon Prime

Cool flick fact:
The legendary Midsummer Dream panel van makes a brief appearance in the film, fresh from a rebuild that included an Innervisions-style front end and XB GS bonnet scoops