Born in Melbourne, Russell Mulcahy began work as a film editor for the Seven Network. This included editing footage of live music performances, including some mid-1970s performances by The Tubes, Stylus, and AC/DC. When Mulcahy relocated to the United Kingdom in the mid-1970s (somewhere around 1976), he moved into directing music videos: his work in the late 1970s included videos for songs by The Saints ('(I'm) Stranded'), The Human League ('Circus of Death' and 'Empire State Human'), The Stranglers ('Duchess'), XTC ('Making Plans for Nigel'), and The Buggles ('Video Killed the Radio Star'): this latter music video became notable as the first music video to be played on MTV.
During the 1980s, Mulcahy became one of the most prominent music-video directors. He continued to work with The Buggles ('Living in the Plastic Age') and The Stranglers ('Bear Cage'), as well as directing clips for The Vapors ('Turning Japanese') and 10cc ('125'). He also directed numerous videos for Kim Carnes (including 'Bette Davis Eyes'), Ultravox (including the groundbreaking 'Vienna'), and Spandau Ballet (including 'True'), as well as for Billy Joel, Queen, The Rolling Stones, and Icehouse.
Perhaps his best-known music videos, however, were for Elton John and Duran Duran. For Elton John, he directed some twenty music videos, including 'I Guess That's Why They Call It the Blues', 'I'm Still Standing', and 'Sad Songs (Say So Much)'. He also directed almost all of Duran Duran's best-known music videos, including 'Planet Earth', 'Hungry Like the Wolf', 'Rio', ''Save a Prayer', 'The Reflex', and 'The Wild Boys'.
Mulcahy continued to direct music videos into the mid-1990s, even after making the shift into films, inlcuding two more videos for Elton John ('The One' and 'Simple Life') and one for Taylor Dayne ('Original Sin').
Mulcahy's first foray into film directing was the 1979 film Derek and Clive Get the Horn, a film account of the recording of Peter Cook and Dudley Moore's 1978 comedy album Derek and Clive Ad Nauseam, their final outing as alter-egos Derek and Clive. In 1980, however, the British Board of Film Classification refused outright to release the film, on the basis of sustained and excessive swearing and blasphemy. Plans to release the film on video (then an unregulated form of publication) were prevented when hundreds of copies were seized by James Anderton, then Chief Constable of Greater Manchester, as part of his drive against pornography and associated publications: the seizure sent the firm into bankruptcy, and the film was not released until 1993.
Following this, Mulcahy did not direct another film until 1984, when he directed the horror film Razorback, with a script by prolific script-writer Everett De Roche. Notable for its impressionistic approach to the Australian landscape, this film won AFI Awards for both cinematography and editing, and was nominated for a swathe of others, including Best Screenplay: Adapted and Best Original Music Score (by Iva Davies, for whose band Icehouse Mulcahy had directed music videos).
Mulcahy followed Razorback with Arena (1985), a science-fiction musical that blends the story of evil scientist Dr Duran Duran's escape from the Matmos and arrival on Earth with a Duran Duran concert. In 1986, however, Mulcahy directed the film for which he is still best known: Highlander. This fantasy film, directed to a script by Gregory Widen, Peter Bellword, and Larry Ferguson, starred Christopher Lambert as an immortal Scotsman locked in battle through the centuries with a brutal opponent; the film became a cult favourite, although its sequel, Highlander II: The Quickening (1991), was less successful and did not attract as devoted a following.
In the 1990s, Mulcahy directed a slew of crime thrillers, including Ricochet (1991), Blue Ice (1992), The Real McCoy (1993), and The Silent Trigger (1996). He also directed several fantasy and fantasy-horror films, including The Shadow (1994), based on a character from 1930s' pulp fiction who had the ability to become invisible and to 'cloud men's minds'; Tale of the Mummy (1998), for which he also contributed to the script; and Resurrection (1999), which reunited him with Highlander star Christopher Lambert.
In the same period, Mulcahy directed several episodes for anthology-style horror and science-fiction television programs in the United States, including horror anthology Tales from the Crypt (1991-1996), science-fiction anthology Perversions of Science (1997), and erotic horror anthology The Hunger (1997-2000).
Mulcahy has continued to work on Australian and American television programs throughout the last decade. Some of his directorial work for television has been on science-fiction and fantasy television programs, including Australian post-apocalytic mini-series On the Beach (2000), based on the novel by Neville Shute and directed to a David Williamson script. He has also directed episodes of American television programs Jeremiah (2002), a post-apocalyptic drama series, and Teen Wolf (debuted 2011), a fantasy series on which he has worked from 2011 to 2017. He has also directed episodes of modern-day Romeo and Juliet remake Skin (2003) and the American version of Queer as Folk (2000-2005), including the premiere episode, as well as episodes of short-lived Australian crime drama Young Lions (2002). More recently, he has directed episodes of Eye Candy (2015), a crime drama in which a woman suspects she has been dating a serial killer, and The Lizzie Borden Chronicles (2015), a fictionalised account of the infamous murder case.
Mulcahy's work in film since 2000 has been similarly divided between drama and speculative fiction. Among the dramatic films that he has directed in the last decade are war film The Lost Battalion (2001), which won him a Christopher Award; Swimming Upstream (2003), based on Anthony Fingleton's autobiography, which attracted FCCA (Film Critics Circle of Australia) Awards nominations for Best Film and Best Director; and telemovie Prayers for Bobby (2009), based on the real-life work of a gay rights activist. He has also directed numerous thrillers, including telemovie First to Die (2003), based on a novel by James Patterson; telemovie While the Children Sleep (2007); telemovie Crash and Burn (2008); and Give 'Em Hell, Malone (2009).
His speculative-fiction films include the adaptation of Jules Verne's novel Mysterious Island (2005), a US/German/Thai co-production that was nominated for a Saturn Award for Best Television Presentation; telemovie The Curse of King Tut's Tomb (2006); Resident Evil: Extinction (2007), the third film in the Resident Evil zombie-film franchise; and the direct-to-video The Scorpion King: Rise of a Warrior (2008), the first sequel to The Scorpion King, itself a spin-off The Mummy Returns.
Mulcahy's most recently released film is Bait (also known as Bait 3D), a horror film involving the tsunami-driven incursion of man-eating sharks into a seaside community, but in May 2017, he was filming In like Flynn, a biopic of Errol Flynn focusing on his early life in Australia.