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Re-released on video this month, Ghosts . . . of the Civil Dead is one of Australian cinema’s most confronting and disturbing feature films, and one that has received relatively little attention in the list of our movie achievements. Is it too shocking, asks Andrew L. Urban.

Arguably the most powerful Australian film ever made, Ghosts...Of The Civil Dead, tackles its subject matter so uncompromisingly it is impossible to ignore.

It is the film's contention that the Australian prison system is being increasingly modelled 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.

"a deeper, more awesome proposition"

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.

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, grating, emotion-neutral female voice whose recorded announcements sound much like suburban train departure information. This contrasts with the often graphically disturbing content, violence made the more penetrating by our involvement through the eyes of a new prisoner, Wenzil, played by David Field and a warder, Officer Vale, played by Mike Bishop.

There is little doubt that the film was a significant cinematic debut for both producer Evan English and director John Hillcoat, who distributed the film themselves, through their own company, Outlaw Values Marketing.

They also travelled the world and sold the film for release in countries such as Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Canada, New Zealand and Austria.

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.

"about the way fear is used as a means of social controL"

"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 make for 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.

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."

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 a Cannes screening for buyers and critics 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.

"Ghosts … of the Civil Dead lives again"

Now re-released through Melbourne based Smart Street films, Ghosts … of the Civil Dead lives again. Haydn Keenan of Smart Street says, "Ghosts is a skid mark across the landscape of Australian cinema. I believe it is an essential addition to any academic library servicing media, film, criminology, sociology courses. This is the ultimate tertiary level discussion starter."

This article is based on a feature first published in The Australian, June 1989.

Published February 21, 2002

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Nick Cave

David Field

Vincent Gil

Stars: David Field, Nick Cave, Vincent Gil, Dave Mason
Director: John Hillcoat
Script: Gene Conkie, Evan English, John Hillcoat
Producer: Evan English
Camera: Paul Goldman, Graham Wood
Music: Nick Cave, Mick Harvey, Blixa Bargeld

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For personal use : $70 (incl GST/postage)
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