In the “Class of …” series, Nick Rogers takes a monthly look back at films celebrating either their 20th or 30th anniversary of initial release this year — six from 1995 and seven from 1985 (in an upcoming double-feature column). The rules: No Oscar nominees and no films among either year’s top-10 grossers.

“A Few Years from Now.”

In 1979, over scenes of the Australian Outback’s desolate expanse, Mad Max set its apocalyptic scene like so. This noncommittal nihilism protectively vacuum-sealed director George Miller’s vision of society’s speedy collapse against any aging cinematic aesthetics.

Looking back, it’s a remarkably smart play. Why constrict yourself to chronology if you think you could eventually gaze upon today’s world on fire — as Miller appears to have done with next month’s Mad Max: Fury Road — and see a contemporary canvas to splatter with allegorical anarchy … and no shortage of spectacularly creased, crunched metal?

Continents may separate them, but the roads of Miller’s Mad Max (and its 1981 sequel, The Road Warrior) could easily intersect with American-heartland blacktops paved by Roger Corman. At a visceral level, both men share a penchant for the pathology of crash trauma and the perpetually lurid, pulpy allure of rubbernecking.

But in Miller’s films, the sundry and sunbaked villains babble in deranged delight as they self-ascribe bogeyman nicknames to themselves like Toecutter, Nightrider, Wez and Lord Humungus. Their feverish ramblings suggest an apocalyptic infection that will fell even the planet’s hardest men.

The original Mad Max remains a spray-and-pray blunderbuss that pulls its trigger and hopes for the best. But that’s just a natural byproduct of low-budget resourcefulness. (Hell, the severity with which star Mel Gibson dodders like a mangled marionette to sell his eventually deadened leg remains one of the entire series’ most impressive effects.) Both brutally efficient and efficiently brutal, the film spends relatively little time with Max Rockatansky (Gibson), a cop striving to contain what little civility the world has before it plummets over the edge. It’s more about the bad guys extracting eye-for-eye vengeance on Max’s partner and family; the world is mad well before Max, as his loved ones’ dying wheezes sound like a howling wind whisking away the last tattered shreds of the social contract.

After the baddies mow down Max’s wife and baby son, there’s a great shot in which Max exits the frame as man and reemerges as machine — specifically his signature murdered-out, and murderous, 1973 Ford XB Falcon GT351. He is behind the wheel, of course, but the car is all the central nervous system Max needs. Here’s an adaptation that’s not necessarily an evolution, a genetic recoding to combat the coming apocalypse.

Max emerges from this chrysalis of crisis as The Road Warrior, which represents a stratospheric boost in sophistication and staging that kicks off with memorably floral, fiery exposition to explain the crisis: “A whirlwind of looting, a firestorm of fear, a maelstrom of decay … and on the roads, a white-line nightmare.” Here, morbid humor complements the aggressiveness of an exploitation-Western mash-up; had Max a 10-gallon hat to tip, he’d do it in the pause of his phrase, “If it’s all the same to you, I’ll drive that tanker.” Even as Miller’s film pounces with swift, predatory ferocity, the director builds out this world with the force of a big-bang blast; he lends whimsy and wonder to characters’ improvisational reinvention of dust-choked tools.

From James Cameron and Christopher Nolan to the various filmmakers of such auto-minded franchises as Fast & Furious and James Bond, countless directors owe a debt in perpetuity to The Road Warrior’s contraptions of cacophony and chaos. It holds up tremendously well, and you’d be hard-pressed to peg it as part-and-parcel of the late 1970s / early 1980s. One explosion is so glorious you’ll savor every one of the six angles Miller gives us, and its exhilarating final half-hour goes HAM in ways Fury Road may resurrect for a modern age. But yet, at its heart, a philosophical treatise: Part of a hero’s unspoken covenant with those in need is that they try, when reasonable, to meet him halfway. In a broken-down place where badges are relegated to useless scrap, here is the once (and future?) peacekeeper’s last vestige of purpose.

This is the entire series’ thematic imprint, invoked most directly, and at times awkwardly, in 1985’s Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. If Mad Max embraced a geneticist’s acumen and The Road Warrior a philosopher’s spirit, “Thunderdome” is about economics — not just in the transactions of Bartertown (its boisterously realized dust-bowl bazaar) but the market expectations that come with receiving studio funding.

Thunderdome was the first Mad Max film paid for with American money (by Warner Brothers). It’s the only installment to carry a comparatively soft PG-13 rating. It retcons several aspects of the series for clarity and convenience. And unless Fury Road has something bizarre up its sleeve, it’s likely the only Mad Max movie to open or close with a bombastic Tina Turner pop song.

Turner doubles as Aunty Entity, the film’s omniscient sorta-villain. As a foil, she’s fine; however, like David Bowie or Sting, her larger-than-life musical persona overshadows much of any character she could really create. It’s impressive to see Tina Turner act imposing wearing a 120-pound dress … but it’s still more Tina Turner than Aunty Entity.

The film’s very genesis also smacks of the mainstream development process. Having created an idea about a group of children living without parents in the wild, Miller wondered what might happen if an adult — like say a grayer-haired version of Max Rockatansky — were to find them. Nothing says “studio system” more than retrofitting an existing idea to accommodate a more bankable one.

Also, whatever enthusiasm Miller mustered for Thunderdome is said to have been soured by the death of his producing partner, Byron Kennedy, whose helicopter crashed while scouting locations for this film. (An end-credits title card dedicates the film to Kennedy.) So understandably distraught and distracted was Miller that he more or less handed over any non-action sequence to George Ogilvie — a credited co-director here with whom Miller had worked on The Dismissal, an Australian miniseries.

While it would be nice to say two men entered and one flawlessly cohesive film left, that’s not quite the case.

A miniature masterpiece that seems almost certainly orchestrated by Miller, Thunderdome’s first act channels the best of David Lean and Sam Peckinpah while infusing Miller’s singular hellish visions. From a jarring introduction in which a buzzing plane knocks Max from his vehicle, Dean Semler’s lush anamorphic cinematography and Maurice Jarre’s elegant, epic score bump up against the sweaty, brutish denizens of Bartertown, where Miller imaginatively applies his sketchbook of steampunk eccentricities.

Robbed of his supplies, Max stumbles into Bartertown with nothing to trade but his facility for quick thinking and faster reflexes. Those are precisely the goods Aunty Entity needs to retain her fiefdom in Bartertown and stem an uprising from Underworld — a below-ground refinery where underlings process pig feces for methane that power Bartertown’s topside wheeling and dealing.

Master Blaster, Underworld’s foreman, threatens Entity’s reign. He’s actually two people separated along lines of brawn and brain; Master is a diminutive, shrewd man with Yoda’s insistent syntax (“No trade! Do! Me order! Me Master!”) and Blaster is the simplistic, mute enforcer on whose broad shoulders he rides. Mirroring the real world’s era-specific energy crisis, Master creates rolling blackouts in Bartertown on a whim, suggesting he who runs shit runs shit. In exchange for killing Blaster, and leaving Master vulnerable, Entity promises Max a full resupply and a new vehicle.

Bartertown is a buzzing, majestic and nigh-medieval burgh unmatched by anyone not named Terry Gilliam or Guillermo del Toro. While the score’s saxophone motif there may scream ’80s, there’s really no more fitting instrument. The saxophone requires a ceaseless, industrial huff-and-puff to force out a sound much as Bartertown does to eke out a society.

Plus, you know, there’s THUNDERDOME.

Thunderdome isn’t just the name of the cage-match arena in which Max and Blaster come to blows. It’s a revolutionary vision of combat unlike anything the movies had showed us before (or, really, since), and it has become iconographic pop-culture shorthand for unrivaled gladiatorial awesomeness. “I know you won’t break the rules,” the ringmaster intones. “There are none.”

Conceptually, Thunderdome is equal parts circus and charnel house. It represents an extension of Rome’s underbelly, wherein warriors from the seediest ludi scrapped in scuzzy warrens of ill repute, and a stealthy mainstream appropriation of wuxia, a genre of Chinese fiction in which martial artists battle in flight a la Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. To be fair, Max and Blaster are harnessed into springy bungee cables, but the effect is the same as they collide and carom off one another while trying not to impale themselves on protruding sharp implements.

That’s not all. This dingy, human cockfight unspools inside an interactive coliseum that has no cheap seats and all cheap shots. Onlookers cling like ants to a colony wall and jockey for their own chance to claw at the combatants. Miller films this prolonged grapple inside Thunderdome in long takes and shots not only to orient you to the space but to let you luxuriate in its fiendishly inventive choreography. (He would replicate the Thunderdome conceit 13 years later, far less violently but just as thrillingly and with cuddly animals, in the vastly under-appreciated Babe: Pig in the City.)

Although Max gets the drop on Blaster, he begs off a killing blow upon revealing Blaster to be a developmentally disabled teenager. (Adding to this unexpectedly disarming moment is Master’s switch to grammatically correct, albeit terse, sentences in his pleas to Max for mercy.) After Entity spins a Showcase Showdown wheel of misery to choose Max’s punishment, he’s exiled to the desert.

It’s here, in the likely Ogilvie-guided second act, that Thunderdome becomes, of all things, a children’s film. As Max stumbles upon the aforementioned band of kids in a watery oasis, Ogilvie attempts a hearty embrace of Spielberg-ian wonder but must settle for wanly wrapping his arms around it.

These children rationalize Max’s arrival as the return of Captain Walker, a crash-landed pilot who set off on a rescue mission years ago and whom the children have mythologized in hieroglyphics.

Their dream entails finding civilization in “Tomorrow-morrowland,” their term for the far-off lights of Bartertown. Max knows that “civilization” applies loosely there, if at all, so he urges them to stay in the oasis. When they defy his orders, tragedy strikes, and the loss of supplies leads Max back to Bartertown … and a climactic train / car chase that simultaneously features some of the series’ wildest stunts and meekest momentum. Still, there’s an obvious joy at seeing those vehicles rollin’ and tumblin’.

Although it’s engaging, the last half of Thunderdome still comes off as a rumpled, roughshod and far less believably earnest precursor to what Spielberg himself did with a similar Peter Pan / Lost Boys tale in Hook six years later. Max Rockatansky isn’t the boy who never grew up. If anything in Max’s life is stunted, it’s his sense of life’s meaning in the wake of so much death. He’s more of a straight-on-till-mourning guy. Speaking of grief, one death in a sand pit feels especially eerie given Kennedy’s fate out in the sands. Perhaps Miller felt of two minds about meting out too much milk of human kindness.

On one hand, it’s necessary to get Max “beyond Thunderdome” as the title implies and enlivening to see Miller and company endeavor something new. On the other, it’s disheartening to see the series trade its distinctive sense of societal invention for an inversion of a lovable-moppets story. Thus, in trying to broaden the movie’s compassionate scope and commercial prospects, Thunderdome gets hemmed in. The scenes between Max and the kids feel small instead of intimate, repetitive instead of revealing. Nature’s sprawl is sacrificed for the hermetic soundstage precision. Plus, Gibson is rarely asked to do much in these movies beyond strike a persuasively physical, imposingly stoic presence, and his rhythm feels off attempting nuance in the fairytale redemption of this reticent rogue.

Thunderdome proves more poignant when placed on the back end of a binge of the whole trilogy. It’s easier to consider that the children allow him the fatherly experience denied him long ago by the murderous marauders — albeit in the manner of father as religious godhead, savior and provider. Even if it’s just a sliver, there’s a sense this grace will keep Max’s pilot light aglow when he’s again on his own, and Entity ultimately granting him mercy feels like his ultimate recompense for retaining his humanity. While Thunderdome closes on an affecting note, it’s still more by association with groundwork laid by other, more cumulatively successful movies.

Afforded nine-figure money for modern-day mayhem, Fury Road has thus rendered Thunderdome an interstitial chapter in Max Rockatansky’s story rather than a regimental final word. While its trailers promise resplendent road rage, the mind reels at whatever engine-powering additive of context Miller has concocted for this outing. Whatever form it takes, chances are good we’ll still be talking about it, like Thunderdome, well more than just a few years from now.