Arguably the most powerful Australian film made until then, Ghosts...Of The Civil Dead,
tackles its subject matter uncompromisingly : it is the film's contention that the
Australian prison system is being increasingly modeled on the "New Generation"
system of "human containment". This New Generation of prisons adopts the
'environmental awareness' generated in the 70s for the workplace.
They are almost like suburban supermarkets with yellow/green/blue colour schemes gently
persuading violent breasts to stop heaving, frustrated psyches to be placated...automated
doors slide, glass enclosures provide observation posts.
The language is as sterile as the intended message: General Population means general
inmate housing. Administrative Segregation means maximum security. The bland, unnatural
environment, however, is seen as threatening and manipulative.
"a deeper, more awesome proposition"
Behind this manipulative new methodology lies a deeper, more awesome proposition which
the film defines. This is that the system needs to justify its own brutality by frequent
and bloody examples of how ugly the inmates are - having made them so ugly by the clinical
process of "containment," its sterile jargon and the dehumanised manipulation.
The warders are just as badly off. They are brutalised as much as the inmates. The
insidious nature of the New Generation system is underscored by the soft, irritatingly
emotion-neutral female voice whose recorded announcements sound much like suburban train
But this contrasts with the often graphic and disturbing content, violence made the
more penetrating by our involvement through the eyes of a new prisoner, Wenzil, played by
Dave Field and a warder, Officer Vale, played by Mike Bishop.
There is little doubt that the film is a significant cinematic debut for both producer
Evan English and director John Hillcoat, distributing the film nationally, through their
own company, Outlaw Values Marketing.
They also traveled the world and sold the film for release in Britain, France, Germany,
Italy, Canada, New Zealand and Austria.
"..is about the way fear is used as a means of social
The film traces the events that lead to the 'lockdown' - a state of emergency when all
inmates are confined to their cells, all rights and privileges withdrawn.
"Ghosts...Of The Civil Dead is about the way fear is used as a means of social
control," says director John Hillcoat, "both in prison and outside it." We
see, for example, how the officers' respond to the manipulations of the System.
The unremitting tension and the violence are all part of what has to be called
"tough" viewing: but the film has been made with exceptional care and
preparation. Hillcoat and producer Evan English spent weeks researching the New Generation
prison system at America's Jail Centre in Colorado, (where the exteriors were shot) and
then recruited prison warders and ex-inmates as well as professional actors to work on the
film in Melbourne. After six weeks of rehearsals, they began to shoot - and finished up
with a film unlike any other made in Australia.
The effort paid off: the performances are hauntingly effective. Indeed, Hillcoat's
vision was fully realised in all aspects, including the music. "I had a clear idea of
what I wanted," he says. "Nick Cave, Blixa Bargeld and Mick Harvey collaborated
on it and came up with exactly what I conceived."
"It's really about our world - with the volume control
Certain sounds (a tin whistle, for example) becomes associated with each of the
different areas of the prison, and with each of the central characters - but in the
solitary confinement areas, there is just a black silence. "It's really about our
world - with the volume control turned up," says Hillcoat.
After the Cannes Film Festival screening for buyers and critics, the audience filed out
in stunned silence: after a promotional public screening in Paris, they debated it at
length, and in London many prominent industry people came especially to see it. In Berlin,
also on a promotional programme, there were two sessions and two full houses: in New York,
"where you can't get an audience in two weeks" the film attracted a lengthy
queue with just five days notice.
And at a one-off late night screening in Sydney, the Dendy cinema was packed out, two
hours before the screening began.
Following its debut at Cannes, Ghosts ...Of The Civil Dead was invited to film
festivals in London, Toronto, Hoff and New York, as well as the second most important
feature film event, the Venice Festival, where it was shown in the Critics Week section.