Retro Review: Ghosts… of the Civil Dead

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“Its relentless, disturbing, impactful, and thoughtful portrayal of this setting makes the likes of Scum and Oz seem like Rugrats.”

by David Morgan-Brown

Australia has produced some of the roughest and toughest films ever created and Ghosts… of the Civil Dead ranks up at the top. Released in 1988 in film festivals (and in 1989 in its wide release in Australia), this film was one of the many Aussie films in the ‘80s to be financed through the 10BA tax incentive, and it couldn’t have been made at any other time. It’s the single most effective prison film I’ve ever seen, its relentless, disturbing, impactful, and thoughtful portrayal of this setting makes the likes of Scum and Oz seem like Rugrats. Set in the geographically isolated Central Industrial Prison (a “New Generation” maximum-security prison), this film focuses intently on the inmates and their hobbies, relationships, “vocations”, and their cells littered with pop culture from the outside world. Slowly but surely, their rights and belongings are revoked, only heightening tensions, leaving the inmates bored and with nothing to quell it but violence – all of this, as the film states, are deliberately systematic measures to give the prisons even more power, at the expense of those contained within it (both inmates and guards). This film gets many profound and clearly made points across about the prison system and how further institutionalising only leads to further violence, as well as how these relate to the outside world (which is glimpsed at as another external prison).

Made up of loosely associated scenes featuring a large ensemble of differing characters, the film operates as a very clear-minded critique of the prison system’s treatment of its occupants and broadly encompasses the many hobbies and vices the prisoners partake in, such as the exchange of possessions, drug use, transsexuality, and even consumption of television and pornography. As the film progresses in its strictly procedural manner, it shows the mistreatment towards the prisoners’ property (including their unharmful hobbies like their artwork) and signals that it is these past-times that keep violent outbursts subdued.

Through the use of various character voiceovers, many different viewpoints are presented through those that are deep within the prison system, whether it be newbie Wenzil (David Field) who comments on the inner workings of the prison and how the new system rules negatively affect the inmates, or Joseph (Kevin Mackey) who comments on how his immeasurable time in jail has overall affected his emotional and mental state. These voiceovers, along with the official report of the events that lead up to the inevitable lock-down that scroll across as computer text, help efficiently pack in a lot of different stories, thoughts, and circumstances that lead up to a most violent climax.

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Despite its multiple story-strands and exuberant (sometimes multi-media) style, the film’s presentation still has an appropriately restrictive and dulling aesthetic. Housed in a prison-like Academy ratio, most of the shots make the interiors of the prison appear very rigid and upright, evoking an authoritative feeling. Prisoners and guards are often viewed through windows, gates, wires, cages, or simply obscuring foregrounds, giving the film a constant feeling of tightness. This confronting style, along with the very confronting and serious subject matter, make this a harrowing watch, one that is perhaps suited to only those with a strong stomach, but also an open mind.

Based on the 1981 book ‘In the Belly of the Beast’ by Jack Henry Abbott, a Melbournian who spent most of his life incarcerated, this aggressive and insightful debut feature was directed by John Hillcoat, who had previously worked on an INXS documentary and years later established himself as a promising filmmaker in Australia with The Proposition and then in America with The Road, Lawless, and Triple 9. He and producer Evan English spent a great deal of time and effort researching prisons, with the ideas and inspiration really coming to fruition when they learned about the new-generation prisons whilst at a think-tank in America. After visiting some of the prisons and even collecting some blue-prints, they went about designing their “futuristic” prison for the film. Its exterior shots show how distant and isolated it is from the rest of the industrialised world (which was filmed in Nevada); however, the inside of the prison looks deliberately more friendly (and more consumer-friendly). On the film’s website, English describes the prison’s interior as “painted in play-school yellows, bathroom violets and resembling your modern Shopping Mall” and in his interview on The Movie Show he likens it to a conditionalised environment of the outside world such as a 7/11, McDonalds, or shopping mall, emphasised by the colours of the prison interior and the calming musak that plays on the intercom. With the inside of cells filled with personal items like pornography, artwork, TVs, stereos, junk food, cigarettes, and an assortment of hidden treasures such as various drugs and their paraphernalia, this just goes to support the film’s other more subliminal meaning, that the prison is simply a more restrictive institution within a much larger prison of the outside consumer culture world. These sets were designed on the cheap by Chris Kennedy, sometimes utilising cardboard for concrete walls, yet he ended up winning the film’s only AFI award for Best Set Design (amidst nine nominations).

Hillcoat and English recruited Australian musician Nick Cave as an actor (as well as co-writer and co-composter) to play one of the more off-hinged and more verbally abusive/racist characters in the film in a brief, yet impactful (if a bit overperformed) role that somehow sticks out from the rest of the prisoners. The rest of the lead roles were given to professionals, though plenty of the supporting cast and extras were played by actual ex-convicts (who were recruited at very blokey pubs by production assistants), who certainly do a good job supporting the film’s doco-drama appeal, as do the prison guard characters who were played by actual former prison guards, security guards, and police officers.

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For the Australian release, Hillcoat and English tried to boost the film’s visibility by plastering “promotional” posters on shops, blank walls, over existing film posters, or anywhere in general, which displayed large bold writing that stated a gloomy fact about prison systems, with the film’s title written smaller underneath. They had previously done this at the 1988 Cannes Film Festival (where the French loved the film upon premiere and its wide release) with not much hassle, though they encountered trouble whilst doing so at the Venice Film Festival. On their fifth night of plastering posters around the city, Hillcoat found himself surrounded by armed police who arrested him. Speaking only in Italian, this communication barrier caused Hillcoat to think that the police thought he was a terrorist, as opposed to just a poster-plastering anarchist, though English came to his rescue with their Italian journalist friend, who wrote up a column and according to English: “the Police were made to look like absolute morons and we (I guess) like honest amateurs”. After that fiasco, they gained permission to put up the posters at only permitted places, but found that they had even more support from shop-owners to display their “advertisements”.

The film ended up attracting crowds on the film festival circuit, but never translated that attention for its wider release, despite favourable reviews from David Stratton and Margaret Pomeranz on The Movie Show when it was released after more than a year circulating festivals. Hillcoat claimed the dilemma with the film was that it “seemed to be too arty for the exploitation market, or the mainstream, and it was too heavy for the art market.” It’s a film that was made with great care, dedication, preparation, and conviction, with the filmmakers (namely Hillcoat and English) adamant about its core themes and messages that they wished would address the new generation of prisons – it’s just unfortunate no-one really ended up seeing the film. Hillcoat went on to make music videos and it was six years until he directed another feature film (though these days, he’s a bit more prolific).

There’s no other prison film like this. This ain’t no Shawshank Redemption, it’s a searing and harrowing film essay that’s as engrossing as any narrative feature, though through its escalating brutality rather than its developing characters. Released in an impressive DVD set that includes more than two hours of extras including interviews with Hillcoat, English, Cave, and co-composers Mick Harvey and Blixa Bargeld, as well as trailers, photo galleries, storyboards, and a bunch more. This comprehensive DVD is unfortunately out of print, though you can shell out for a copy here or wait til a cheaper second hand copy appears online. It’s unknown whether the DVD will be reinstated, though according to English on the film’s site, a new DVD is in the making (since all the way back in 2008) which will be “heavy on information and short on show biz puff” and will include various essays and videos on the prison state (inside correctional institutes and out in the “free” world) since the film has been released. This DVD will apparently take time, though if it also contains the extras of the previous set (and is in a higher quality, hopefully on Blu-Ray) I can’t wait to pick up a copy – a film this good and this important needs to be seen by more people.

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