The movie Damnation Alley came out in 1977.
Because the desert environment was radioactive, and because the super-vehicle was like a spaceship, that gave the impression of a space opera more than a post-apocalyptic lower-class motorcycle brawl.
But motorcycle gangs are cool in movies. (Maybe they’re cool in real life too. I’ve never met one.)
(It didn’t have motorcycles, but The Warriors came out in 1979 and it had street gangs with an almost post-apocalyptic feel.)
Two Mad Max had come out in 1979 and 1981. Clearly this had convinced a lot of film-makers that the future conflicts ought to be fought out in desert-like conditions.
1982’s Megaforce was a celebration of mercenaries or elite patriot commandos – I couldn’t tell the last time I watched it. It was a good fit with Reagan’s militarism:
It also put a new twist on motorcycle action: the fight took place on paramilitary motorcycles with rocket weapons. That alone was worth the price of admission.
1983’s Metalstorm was a basic low-budget sci-fi film that owed a fair amount to old-fashioned 1970s sci-fi. The desert/scrubland setting may have owed something to the Mad Max films.
I’m pretty sure it took place on some distant planet, and there was something about crystals as power sources and sonic waves to dig trenches. (I haven’t watched it lately – I hope I’m recalling that correctly. I was drunk whenever I last watched this movie.)
Of course, much of the 1980s was taken up with much more famous movies: The Terminator, Aliens, Dune etc. These movies achieved critical acclaim, financial success, and the undying love of sci-fi geeks, but few of them involved deserts with the notable exception of Dune.
Honorable mention should be made of 1985’s Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome.
At some point in the 1980s, mainstream America, including Hollywood, noticed that Japan was pretty cool, so there were a few imports and innovations. Bubblegum Crisis was made, but I don’t think most of the world saw it. Macross was probably much more influential. Giant robots appeared in American cartoons like The Transformers. Certainly there were wargames like Mechwarrior.
And that leads naturally to 1989’s Robot Jox:
That movie had it all: giant walking fighting machines (a.k.a. “mecha”), desert landscapes, cheesy American heroes.
In fact, Japan had already made a better story with the same gimmicks, and their hero even had an amazing 1980s mullet haircut. That was M. D. Geist. And while Megaforce had a fairly impressive motorcycle commando unit, M. D. Geist had the world’s most bad-ass desert motorcycle gang.
So basically, M. D. Geist won the desert, gang, and mullet categories of 1980s sci-fi without even breaking a sweat. Which is amazing, because for the first half of the movie, he’s in the desert, and he does things with his “cloned” or bio-engineered body that would definitely make normal humans break a sweat. Then again, the writers probably never left Japan and certainly didn’t have a realistic understanding of desert warfare.
Quite a few important sci-fi futures were urban – ranging from Logan’s Run to Blade Runner to Escape from New York to Robocop – or entirely traditional space colonies, such as Saturn 3 and Outland. But that is a topic for another post.