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Australia 1989
Directed by
John Hillcoat
90 minutes
Rated R

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
2.5 stars

Ghosts...Of The Civil Dead

Although an impressively well-made and ambitious film by debut feature director John Hillcoat and producer, Evan English, Ghosts...Of The Civil Dead falls between serious sociological comment and aestheticized exploitation. With its setting of a hi-tech, "new generation" high security prison, text intertitles and thrumming soundtrack it appears to be an Orwellian-cum-Godardian depiction of a future society but is played as a contemporary prison drama, a confusion of time and place added to by the fact that some of the actors sport American accents (notably the female newsreader).

Given the privatization of Australia's prison (and detention) system it is a remarkably prescient film and evidently intended as a critique (it was based on a book, In the Belly Of The Beast, by John Henry Abbott, an institutionalized inmate of the US prison system who committed suicide in 2002), but sundered from a comprehensible frame of reference and lacking any dramatic development other than that applied externally by the aforementioned intertitles, it fails to connect emotionally.

The film achieves considerable authenticity by casting a convincing looking and behaving lot of heavily-tatooed non-actors (many of them real ex-cons) but miscasts David (then known as Dave) Field as a purported heavy and, even more incongruously, gothic popmeister, Nick Cave (who was also responsible for the script and soundtrack) as a sociopathic inmate (on the other hand former lead singer of The Reels, Dave Mason and post-modern artist Tony Clark contribute some lighter moments as prison homosexuals).

With its roster of pop stars, graphic violence, drugs, porno movies (Field watches the notorious Forced Entry on cable TV in his cell) the film has some cult cachet but one that only negates the attempt to make a serious comment on the brutalizing effects of this kind of prison. In this respect, Stephen Wallace's 1980 film about the Bathurst prison riots Stir, if more vernacular, is a more effective film.

DVD Extras: In an attempt to rehabilitate the film, which unsurprisingly was not a commercial or critical success, but which looks and sounds very good in this DVD transfer, a remarkable array of extras have been assembled. There are video interviews from 2002 with director Hillcoat, Evan English, Nick Cave and Blixa Bargeld who worked on the soundtrack. There's also another 38 minutes worth of video interview, essentially with the same people made during the production of the film that makes for interesting comparisons as well as audio interviews with actors Vincent Gil and Mike Bishop, and Chris Kennedy and Brett Collins. There's an extensive biography of Cave along with screens of his original annotated script for his character in the film; a biography of Jack Henry Abbott, and a reproduction of an original letter sent by Abbott to Hillcoat, read aloud by Hillcoat, critical analysis of the film, 23 minutes' worth of musical excerpts from the soundtrack. the original trailer, the original French trailer etc. If you're a fan of this film it's a must have.

Available from: Umbrella Entertainment




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