Tag team review: Ghosts … of the Civil Dead (1988)


Director: John Hillcoat

Stars: David Field, Mike Bishop, Chris DeRose, Kevin Mackey, Dave Mason, Nick Cave, Bogdan Koca, Freddo Dierck, Vincent Gil, Tony Clark

Second viewing, via DVD

Ghosts … of the Civil Dead is a prison drama set in Australia’s Central Industrial Prison. A flagship of Australia’s “New Generation Prisons” based on existing American prison models, Central Industrial Prison is, according to the film’s title card, a “maximum security facility designed to house the prison system’s most violent, unmanageable and predatory inmates”. At film’s start, the facility has just initiated 37 months of lockdown after a long string of violent incidents. The film backtracks to chronicle the lead-up to this event, following the paths of various prisoners as they are systematically abused and dehumanized by each other and the system. For this tag team review, I’ll be joined by music critic and commentator Cristian Stromblad, whose work can be found at the website Ugly ‘n’ Weird.


Ben: Australia has provided many filmmakers with fertile soil for growing a film career, as evidenced by the likes of Bruce Beresford, Baz Luhrmann, Gillian Armstrong, George Miller, Rachel Perkins, and others. But in many cases it’s provided arid ground, and some directors have only managed to wrestle one or two films onto the screen. Joel Anderson, director of 2008’s faux-documentary chiller Lake Mungo, once told an interviewer that “the Australian film industry is stop start at best. It’s impossible to know whether your working life is over or just in remission”. Anderson hasn’t made another film since. Scott Roberts’ 2002 flick The Hard Word is a witty, grimy good time and one of the best of last decade’s comedic crime thrillers. Roberts hasn’t helmed another feature since. We’ve looked at several other instances of this on Down Under Flix: see, for example, Rachael Lucas and Bondi Tsunami (review here) and Nick Parsons and Dead Heart (review here). In other cases, the wind does return to the sails, but just takes a while: a case in point is Ray Lawrence, for whom sixteen years elapsed between the release of his debut feature, 1985’s Bliss, and his follow-up Lantana.

For a period, John Hillcoat looked like another of those endangered filmmakers. After making Ghosts … of the Civil Dead, it was another eight years before his sophomore feature, 1996’s little-known To Have and To Hold, and another nine before 2005’s The Proposition. He’s been more active since then, carving out an international career with The Road, Lawless, and Triple 9. But these later films, gritty as they purport to be, have a layer of Hollywood sheen that separates them from the raw, electric power of Ghosts and The Proposition, and it’s a shame a director in possession of such talent was effectively benched for so many years.

Ghosts debuted at the Venice Film Festival in August 1988, and was released locally in June 1989. If the film seems somewhat anomalous in today’s local film culture, it was even more anomalous then. Australia had produced another prison-based film earlier in the decade, 1980’s Stir, which was directed by Stephan Wallace, starred Bryan Brown, and dramatized a riot in Bathurst Prison in the 1970s. But at the time of Ghosts’ release, Crocodile Dundee II was the commercial victor of 1988-89 by a long margin, with Young Einstein and The Man from Snowy River II also performing well. The Navigator, Evil Angels, and Dead Calm reaped in the gongs on the awards front, Kylie made the jump from soap songstress to film star with The Delinquents, and those craving artier fare got their fix via Sweetie, Island, and Incident at Raven’s Gate. That’s not a shabby line-up, but Ghosts is an altogether different animal: ugly, intense, at times repellent, and thoroughly disinterested in commercial aesthetics.

Cristian: Ghosts … of the Civil Dead is certainly stark and uncompromising (and that ellipsis in the title really … irks me). But while it might be one of the worst date movies of all time, it’s a singular entry in Australian film history, and one of the most exciting feature debuts from an Australian director I can think of. Raw, electric and elemental are good words for it.

I eventually came to Ghosts, as I’m sure many people did, through an interest in the music of Nick Cave. I was too busy listening to the Young Einstein soundtrack and drawing pictures of Yahoo Serious to know anything about it at the time, which is probably for the best as I was eight or nine. I probably first read about the film in Australia’s Rolling Stone magazine as a teenager, and then rented it from my local video store, which had a pretty interesting and eclectic selection for its location in south-west suburban Brisbane. I re-watched it again recently when you suggested collaborating on this piece, and it was a much richer experience this time around.

While there’s much to recommend Ghosts beyond Cave’s involvement, his mitts are all over this thing, from the script to the soundtrack and of course his performance as Maynard: a character who embodies all the violence and chaos that is not just allowed but actively encouraged in the so-called “new generation” prison in which Ghosts is set. Not a great actor by any stretch, Cave nevertheless brings a psychotic, savage energy to the film that recalls his combative presence in The Birthday Party – it’s more “Nick the Stripper” than “The Ship Song”. Bad Seeds/Birthday Party alumni Mick Harvey, Blixa Bargeld and Anita Lane were also involved in the soundtrack, so the film has firm connections with the whole indie/alternative-rock underground. Coming at it from this angle, the film’s raw aesthetic, not to mention its darkness and toughness, resonated with me. Still, I remember being left with a slightly uncomfortable, almost traumatized feeling after watching it the first time. I liked it, but hadn’t developed the critical faculties to really understand why.

Re-watching Ghosts, I’m struck by just how ambitious the film is. It’s certainly unconventional, and its low budget and the inexperience of those involved shows through. But Hillcoat and company don’t let those restrictions get in the way of pursuing something artistically challenging and meaningful – in some ways, the low budget probably helped in this regard. What I had just accepted as being symptomatic of indie filmmaking the first time around, I now see as also being the result of quite deliberate and effective aesthetic choices. The raw, stripped-back feeling is one of its great strengths. But there’s a degree of sophistication and nuance there, too, and it’s perhaps more thematically rich and politically charged than Australian films are generally known for. Is that a fair statement?


Ben: Yeah, I’d agree with that. Though there are exceptions to this – and certainly Ghosts was pivotal in creating a space for those exceptions – Australian films do by default tend to gravitate towards the liberal humanist, and do so in a way that doesn’t offend liberal humanist sensibilities. Adrian Martin once noted in The Monthly that Australian films specialize in “chronic understatement”. But Ghosts, which David Stratton called “one of the most powerful and disturbing of the socio-political feature films made in Australia during the 80s” (The Avocado Plantation, p. 230), doesn’t have time for such niceties. It’s a young man’s movie ala Taxi Driver, made with a young man’s indignation and rage against the machine, and a young man’s compulsion to shock and provoke, without the modulation or moderation of age. Compare the film to, say, the Sylvester Stallone prison vehicle Lock Up, which was released the same year, or the universally beloved The Shawshank Redemption, released a few years later, where (relatively) innocent prisoners triumph over a (somewhat) corrosive prison system. Nobody triumphs in Ghosts. Wenzil (David Field), who isn’t quite our protagonist but serves as our entry and exit points for the film, is dehumanized from the outset: he’s introduced naked in a harsh white room on arrival at the prison; he’s assaulted over the course of the film, including forcibly getting the word ‘C**t’ tattooed on his forehead; and he’s as damaged, if not more so, on release at film’s end as he was on arrival. Prisoners anesthetize themselves with drugs, pornography, television sets glaring and blaring, all constant distractions from the hopelessness of their situations, and tensions only escalate when those distractions are confiscated. Others, like those in solitary confinement, never even have the luxury of distraction, and are trapped in the dark only with their own eroding thoughts. Nobody is reformed or rehabilitated: the system only numbs and then inflames their propensity to violence, all under a corporate branding – complete with Robocop-style corporate video propaganda – that reinforces the absence of humanity. Watching the film unfold, it plays out like a boiling kettle left to whistle incessantly on the stove for ninety minutes before the lid finally flies off.

As you note, the film milks every penny of its low budget, exemplified in the production design of Chris Kennedy. Kennedy would deservedly win an Australian Film Institute Award for Best Production Design for Ghosts, and while he’d do great work in later films like Death in Brunswick, Dirty Deeds, The Water Diviner, and all of Hillcoat’s subsequent films, his work here remains impressive. Our first glimpse of Central Industrial Prison is an unassuming exterior: a concrete speck surrounded by hills and scrub in a remote outback location. But its interior is modern, spartan, severe, gaudy, and built around three levels representing a class system. The first, the general inmate level, is inhabited by prisoners like Wenzil who are free to fraternize and are afforded possessions and comforts, while on the second level, the high rise, prisoners like Cave’s Maynard are segregated but can retain possessions. These levels are permanently lit in harsh fluorescent light, ensuring that daily injustices and instances of abjection are not obscured from the audience; indeed, Hillcoat rubs our faces in each and every one. In contrast, the third level is solitary confinement where prisoners are permanently locked in cells without furnishings or comforts, only darkness and silence and their own filth. Whilst it’s tempting to read these three levels as mirroring Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory, in reality all three are simply variations on Hell, without even the hope of rehabilitation and expiation for their crimes inherent in Purgatory.

Cristian: The Dante allusion is an interesting one. But as you suggested, Ghosts is all inferno – very little comedy here, divine or otherwise. You mention more palatable prison films like The Shawshank Redemption, where we’re meant to identify with the inmates and want them to escape. Ghosts is not that movie.

And yet, as bleak as the film is, and as potentially unsympathetic the inmates are, there’s a certain humanity that shows through. As reprehensible as some of the prisoners might be, we still feel for them. At the beginning, we get a glimpse into their everyday lives, and the slow pace lets us linger in their world and soak up the feel of it. There are little moments that humanize the inmates, like when two of them are playing cards and share a joke about how the muscly one’s tits are getting bigger, or when the tattoo artist takes Wenzil under his wing. Of course, this sort of vulnerability can’t last – the tattoo artist doesn’t offer any protest or assistance when Wenzil is assaulted, just leaves them to it – but you get the sense that these people are at least trying to form bonds and create a community. It’s not a nice place by any stretch of the imagination, but in contrast to what happens later with the lockdown and riot, you can see people building a sort of life for themselves. One of the inmates in solitary confinement, Glover (Kevin Mackey), sums up this shift with a piece of voiceover:

We were united once, even if it was only in our misery. But then we were divided. And then there was nothing. Nothing except fear. Fear of each other. Always watching your back. Paralysed by fear.

We also witness this shift through Wenzil’s arc. You’re right in saying that there are no real protagonists thanks to the always shifting perspective, but Wenzil almost acts as a surrogate. We enter the prison with him, and we’re invited to see events through his eyes, at least to begin with.  From green inmate in general population to victim of abuse and eventual murderer, his journey spells out the film’s theme of the dehumanization wrought by the privatization of the prison system. Field puts in a great performance in this, his feature film debut. He’s suitably laconic, a little crazy looking, but more immediately relatable than, say, Cave or Vincent Gill’s character: the psychotic yet philosophical Ruben. Field is so good in this type of role that he’s become somewhat typecast as the prisoner/criminal-type in films such as Everynight … Everynight (1994) and as Keithy George in Chopper (2000) – films that incidentally owe a debt to Ghosts (down to the former’s irksome ellipsis).

Yet Field is one of the few trained actors in the film, and the cast is made up of a motley bunch including ex-prisoners, ex-security and police, homeless people, artists, and, of course, cult rock stars. These hard-bitten, worn-down individuals bring a gritty authenticity to the film. The prison feels lived in, the relationships genuine, even though there’s a lot of quite understandable paranoia and mistrust. I watched some of the extras in the Umbrella DVD release of this and remember Cave saying that between takes, the cast naturally separated into groups – prisoners at one catering table and wardens at the other. Cave himself was thrown into this natural order to create chaos, and there was a blank area in the script where he was given room to improvise, riling people up and causing trouble. Hillcoat described him as the film’s ‘secret weapon’.


Ben: Agreed on David Field: he’s a national treasure and does great work in Ghosts. It’s funny you should mention drawing pictures of Yahoo Serious earlier: my first exposure to David Field was the double whammy of Serious’s third and final (alas) film Mr Accident, in which he played a bonkers egg magnate and rival for the object of Yahoo’s affections, and Two Hands, in which he played one of Bryan Brown’s criminal offsiders menacing Heath Ledger. He’s one of Australia’s foremost “that guy” character actors, and it’s always fun seeing him pop up, whether playing to type like this commercial for OAK flavoured milk or doing more nuanced work in a film like One Night the Moon (review here) or Oyster Farmer. Cave is great too as the ferocious, feral, seemingly extra-terrestrial animal Maynard, whose appearance in the drama’s last stretch unsettles the film’s gravitational core.

Earlier you mentioned coming to Ghosts via Cave’s involvement. I quite like Cave’s work, but I’m fairly agnostic musically, so I came to the film via Hillcoat after being wowed by The Proposition back in 2005. That film didn’t quite prepare me for Ghosts though. I mentioned earlier that Hillcoat’s later work is more accessible, and even The Proposition, severe as it is, has a certain reassuring “movie-ness” to it, in part due to its period setting. Ghosts is at times almost documentary-like, a feeling accentuated by its use of voiceover, frequent use of security video footage, and fly-on-the-wall detachment. But there’s also a strong element of the music video vocabulary to the film, unsurprising given that the medium was producer Evan English’s bread and butter at the time (including some music video work with Cave), and would serve as Hillcoat’s bread and butter in subsequent years between film projects. There’s a primacy and urgency to the images onscreen – especially those of abject or sticky or sickly bodies, whether under harsh fluoro light or in stifling dark – that’s symptomatic of music videos. One critic, Marcus Breen, wrote that Hillcoat “maintains the intensity of a three minute pop song for more than 90 minutes, using the ruthlessly fast editing that is a signature of film clips” (Oxford Australian Film 1978-1994, p. 277). I sort of agree with that sentiment, but take a different angle: for me, there’s a discordance to the editing, sound, compositions, and so on that creates jarring breaks between vignettes, making the film closer to a series of intense music videos or short films, rather than one long one.

Actually, I think Ghosts could be one of the ultimate approximations of the music video form on film. When people think of commercial or music video directors working in movies, they tend to think of guys like Ridley and Tony Scott, Adrian Lyne, Alan Parker, and Australia’s own Russell Mulcahy. Indeed, when you look at flicks like Legend, The Hunger, 9 ½ Weeks, Angel Heart, Highlander, and so on, they all use music video/commercial stylings in terms of lighting, texture, composition, and editing, with specific set pieces exemplifying that lineage. But they also usually spread their narrative incidence thin across the duration of the film, resulting in films that are inert at times, albeit beautifully inert. But Ghosts – partly because of the various character and narrative threads coalescing, how individually compelling those threads are, and the simultaneous discordance between them – feels like the closest approximation of the absolute hypnotic absorption one experiences watching a music video. Scenes and passages of film work as self-contained, thematically enclosed vignettes with setups and crescendos and payoffs, much like a music video, and in that sense, even sans the dry ice and mood lighting and … well… the music, Ghosts feels like a succession of music video clips and one of the best approximations of that vocabulary, with its ebbs and its rhythms, in a narrative film.

Cristian: I hadn’t really thought of Ghosts in the music video context, but that’s an interesting observation. The quick editing, the expressionistic use of lighting, the fragmented/vignette approach and focus on emotional impact over narrative all point to that style. I wasn’t really aware of English’s or Hillcoat’s music video work until you mentioned it. Now that you’ve brought it up, I just realised it was Hillcoat who made one of my favourite videos: a clip for the song “Sabrina” by Einstürzende Neubauten. It’s more in line with his later, more polished film work, yet explores some similar thematic territory to Ghosts, particularly by finding some tenderness and humanity in places where you’d least expect to find it, this time in a public toilet with a literal beast of a character. I also can’t help but wonder if Chris Cunningham was influenced by Hillcoat’s work on Ghosts. His videos for “Come on My Selector” by Squarepusher and Aphex Twin’s “Come to Daddy” spring to mind (they both feature dogs, Ben, so you should like them).

One of the strengths of the form is its capacity to portray emotion. We may not always know exactly what’s going on in Ghosts, but we know what we’re meant to feel, which I think makes it incredibly immersive and powerful. The overall pacing of the film is too slow to exactly match the hurtling momentum of the typical music video, but you’re right in saying that the individual parts have that sort of energy. And while there are no traditional songs, music naturally plays a big part in the film. The visual style is intensified by the score, which is credited to Cave, Harvey and Bargeld of the Bad Seeds. Cave talks about wanting to avoid heavy sounds for the score, and using sounds contradictory to their corresponding actions. For instance, Anita Lane’s voice is used over the murder scene towards the end, singing a sort of wordless lullaby. Her voice sounds both naïve and sensual, which makes for a haunting combination with the brutal action on screen. This vocal theme is picked up again when Wenzil is released back into society, and it’s subtly menacing, hinting at the violence of before without being overbearing. This kind of contrasting approach has been used by plenty of directors since, from Quentin Tarantino to Rob Zombie, and I might be drawing a long bow here, but in some ways the film feels a bit like a precursor to their more kinetic music video aesthetic.

I think Bargeld’s contribution to the score deserves special mention. A pioneer of industrial music, the guy is no stranger to architecture as instrument. His other group, Einstürzende Neubauten (which translates as ‘collapsing new buildings’), were great at experimenting with non-musical sounds, beating on air conditioning ducts and recording inside overpasses on their earliest material, which is more on the avant-garde side of things. That stuff is amazing, but the score to Ghosts relies less on bashing metal and more on subtle, atmospheric instrumentation. Like something from a Morricone movie, there’s an eerie, grating tin whistle that plays throughout as a sort of main theme. There’s also plucked piano strings and a little bit of guitar strumming, among other instruments. Perhaps most interestingly, a recording of a womb was used during the solitary confinement scenes, which adds an ironically comforting sort of purring, humming sound. The various themes are assigned to areas of the prison rather than to characters, as is usually the case with film scores, and contribute to the pervading sense of unease and dread within the space. Bargeld talks about the film being about architecture, and that the villain is the architect being led through the prison, which is a very Blixa thing to say. It’s almost cliché to say that the prison is another character in the film, but it’s the one constant throughout, and certainly has a presence.

Not… of the Civil Dead

Ben: A lot of really talented folks worked on Ghosts. As someone romantically inclined towards auteurism, I have a bad habit of speaking about films primarily as products of their directors, and have done that here too to a degree. But films are communal creations, some moreso than others, and Hillcoat’s work as director on Ghosts is bolstered immeasurably by Cave, Harvey, and Bargeld’s score; by his fellow scripters Cave, English, Gene Conkie, and former Bad Seed Hugo Race, adapting a source book by Jack Henry Abbot; by David Hale, a former US prison guard who consulted on the project; by the aforementioned design work of Chris Kennedy and the photography by Graham Wood and Paul Goldman, who later directed several films including Australian Rules and Suburban Mayhem; by the fifty ex-convicts in the cast, who bring to the film an authenticity and vibe that cannot be manufactured. It’s a tremendous roster of talent and ingredients in service of difficult material, and the end result is a film that’s not easy to like, but commands admiration. The film’s conclusion is particularly troubling: Central Industrial Prison is closed, but a new and better prison model is commissioned in its place, and the film’s final shot sees a paroled Wenzil at a train station riding up an escalator behind a woman, who may or may not become his victim once the credits roll. The legacy of Central Industrial Prison is squat: its prisoners have been released back into the world unreformed, and will most likely end up back in Central Industrial Prison 2.0.

And what of Ghosts’ legacy? Measuring a film’s impact is an inexact science involving a healthy dose of both conjecture and sweeping generalization, especially in the case of a film like Ghosts which wasn’t really a commercial force. But I do think it opened up a space at the cinematic table for some of the bolder local fare of the 1990s – flicks like Romper Stomper and Metal Skin (review here) and Bad Boy Bubby which illuminated the darker, grubbier, nastier recesses of modern society – as well as a whole slew of smaller, underground films since that dwell in similarly dark terrain. And while there haven’t been too many Australian prison films since Ghosts – the Field-starring Everynight … Everynight and Field-co-directed Convict notwithstanding, as well as Stuart Gordon’s Australian-made Fortress, though that’s really another animal – look at the number of local dramas, thrillers, comedies, and true crime miniseries about criminals and convicts that followed in the 25+ years since its release, many starring Ghosts alumni: Blue Murder, Underbelly, The Boys, Chopper, Two Hands, The Hard Word, Gettin’ Square, to name a handful. You could make a case that Ghosts helped create a space for films set in that milieu about those sorts of characters. At the very least, I imagine a lot of those characters would end up in Central Industrial Prison 2.0.

Cristian: Yes, Ghosts is certainly a rich melting pot of talent and ideas. While many individuals deserve credit for the final product, I think it’s still a testament to Hillcoat as director that it turned out as coherent and powerful as it did. This could’ve been a mess, but it’s raw and fragmented in a way that serves the material well.

I agree that the film’s influence is a hard one to track given its relative obscurity, but almost anything on the grittier side of Australian film that has come along since could be seen as owing it a debt. In the Australian context, the film contributes to our cultural obsession with criminality. Australia is certainly not alone in this, but I see a film like Ghosts as something that allows us to dig into the myth of our convict origins indirectly. Ghosts doesn’t give us the whitewashed version of criminality that feeds into our national mythology, and yet it finds a humanity in people who most of society would deem irredeemable. It’s also contributed something pretty unique to wider cultural conversations about crime, punishment and rehabilitation and how to depict that material on-screen. For me it brings to mind the HBO TV series Oz, which doesn’t shy away from the unpleasant truths of prison life either, and employs some similarly idiosyncratic stylistic touches. Not to overstate its importance and reach, and yes I’m just conjecturing here, but I think echoes of Ghosts can be detected in everything from Oz to Law & Order and even Orange is the New Black, and this stems from the fact that, as far as I know, Ghosts of the Civil Dead was the first film to deal with the subject of new generation prisons. That’s quite an achievement for an Australian indie film.

Modern prisons like Central Industrial were a relatively new phenomenon when Ghosts… of the Civil Dead was made. But despite the warning at its heart, they continue to proliferate. You mentioned Jack Henry Abbot’s book In the Belly of the Beast, which was a major inspiration for the film. Ghosts was originally intended as an adaptation of Abbot’s book, but Hillcoat was unable to secure the rights, and while the film mutated quite a bit from this initial idea, Abbot is still very much a part of it thanks to characters like Vince Gill’s Ruben and Kevin Mackey’s Glover. These guys act as mouthpieces for Abbott’s philosophical musings on the societal effects of the prison system, which help give the film its political power, and so I think I’ll end with another quote from Glover. Please excuse the ellipses:

I was free once…. I didn’t want to be released, but they released me anyway. Prison was the only world I knew. When I was free I was so angry I could hardly speak. I killed someone; I didn’t even know why. I’ve thought about it ever since, and I finally realised, they wanted it to happen…. I was trained to do what I did…. ‘Convicted murderer kills again’, screaming in the headlines. And I remember this advertisement for home security alarms, and this article: ‘police demand more power’. They’d bred me to create fear, and I just did was I was supposed to do. People are scared. They’re scared of each other because of people like me. That’s the way they want it, ‘cause then it always stays the same. They keep control that way…. I was never free. Nobody’s ever free. One man released so they can imprison the rest of the world.

Up next: Resistance (1992), a dystopian action-thriller directed by Mad Max and Mad Max: Fury Road star Hugh Keays-Byrne. Thanks again to Cristian Stromblad of Ugly ‘n’ Weird for swinging by Down Under Flix.

Author: downunderflix

This site was created by Ben Kooyman, a teacher and writer based in Sydney, Australia hoping to shine some light on some neglected local films...

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