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Australian (and New Zealand) Horror Films

A History

by Robert Hood

First published in The Scream Factory (US) in June/July 1994; ed. Bob Morrish; also published in Sirius, 1994 (over two issues); ed. Garry Wyatt.

The market for horror films in Australia is, and always has been, unquestionably dominated by American and British products, the latter especially during the heyday of Hammer. I grew up in the 1950s and early 1960s on Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, as well as the Universal monsters, outer space horrors and other creatures that rampaged out of the States. But what of an Australian tradition of filmmaking in the genre?

First off, 'tradition' may be too generous a word. Though Australians have made horror and horror-related films, some of which have been among the most well-regarded and influential films produced in the country, they tend to be a bit isolated, with little specific on-going influence. The very best ones, which are more essentially 'Australian' in approach, often minimise narrative movement and hence don't fit snugly into the form of the essentially narrative-driven horror genre.

Moreover, an indigenous film industry has always been hampered by overseas competition. Apart from distribution problems and the resistance of the viewing public (an example of what's known in Australia as "the cultural cringe"), this OS influence affects artistic considerations. Many of the horror films made in Australia have been put together with more than an eye on America's large and lucrative audience — not surprisingly, they are often more concerned to exist within a 'universal' generic format than speak in an Australian voice. Some have been co-productions of one kind or another, or totally dominated by American or British personnel. Such foreign influences on Australian films — tyranny, some have claimed — is the inevitable result of a need for funding at a level which Australia itself is too small to accommodate. When you're producing films in a country where the total population is not much larger than the population of a typical American state, it's hard to make ends meet. The same problems have existed in New Zealand, where lack of funding and the so-called Talent Drain were (and are) cited as major obstacles to the development and survival of local filmmaking.

Ignoring the question of real local content, however, I have been able to identify about 80 Australian and 10 New Zealand films which can be called horror, dark suspense or horror-related. This represents a relatively small tradition, but a tradition nevertheless. After all, 80 is a greater number of horror films than Australia's publishing industry has managed to produce in full-length written horror works. Everything's relative.

For a brief history of the Australian and New Zealand film industries as such, see the attached Box. What follows is a narrower overview of horror and horror-related films, in Australia and, more briefly, New Zealand.

Early Horrors Downunder

The first sixty-odd years of film production in Australia did not result in many horror films, even loosely defined. There was, of course, the occasional thriller, such as The Strangler's Grip (1912) and The Face at the Window (1919) and secret service films that played on communal feelings of paranoia, such as The Enemy Within (1918). Similarly, Australia Calls (1913) was a prophecy of the invasion of Australia by Asians and included scenes of fun-loving, hard-working urban and rural Australians being overshadowed by the Mongol hordes. Spook-wise, The Guyra Ghost Mystery (1921) was an account of a famous 'true-life' haunting and Fisher's Ghost (1924) told the story of Australia's most famous apparition — but both these subjects were treated more like the histories that were popular at the time than icons of a horror genre. The Twins (1923) was a farce which included "a female vampire", who kills herself after "a life of intrigue, wickedness, and cigarettes" — which I take it was more of a pseudo-realist morality piece than a horror film. Bushrangers, outback life, social essays, patriotic war stories and comedies characterise the Australian film industry during the first few decades of its existence.

Nowhere can I detect sign of the sort of early generic work represented by Nosferatu and The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, nor the Universal monster cycles of the 1930s and 1940s in Hollywood. Major films produced between the end of the second World War and the mid-sixties were mostly made by American and British companies, and the Australian settings were used as an exotic background rather than providing a context integral to the film's thematic development. Take, for example, Hitchcock's Under Capricorn (1949). Though set in colonial New South Wales, it was not filmed in Australia and, as far as I know, none of the personnel involved were Australian. Its predominant mood is darkly European and the colonial background serves largely as a context of romantic isolation. Nor can Stanley Kramer's On the Beach (1959) really be considered Australian, though scenes of imminent nuclear disaster, filmed on location in Melbourne, are more authentic and the novel from which it came was written by a well-known Australian author (Neville Shute).

It is not until the renaissance of the 1970s that we can identify Australian films that sit more comfortably with the label 'horror'. These films are variously successful — and, perhaps not unexpectedly, the least generically typical are often the most characteristically Australian in content and approach.

The 1970s Revival

1971 saw the release of the first of these 'horror' films. Canadian director Ted Kotcheff's Wake in Fright is an intense piece of cinema, a dusty larger-than-life depiction of small-town industrial-rural life which exposes the violent and repressive nature of a society spawned out of isolation and the abuse of nature. Sexual segregation, antagonism toward the 'outsider', bizarre mateship rituals (including an almost surreal kangaroo hunt), and an oppressive air of lethargy and frustration combine to present a grim picture of outback life. Man is brutalised and even social and sexual relations are predicated on violence. This is civilisation in a state of moral collapse. Many of these themes and images will recur again and again in Australian films. Wake in Fright was released overseas with the title Outback, to some critical success.

The introduction of substantial government subsidisation in 1970 brought the Australian film industry out of the doldrums it had been in for several decades. The early 1970s saw the emergence of one of Australia's most prominant filmmakers, Peter Weir. Weir successfully translated an Australian vision into both local and international success, with a series of films that explored the surreal, at times mystic, edge of the horror genre. His first solo film was Homesdale, a black comedy made at least in part from funds supplied under the Experimental Film and Television Fund (EFTF), which was established by the government in 1970 and gave 'underground' filmmaking a mainstream status. Weir followed this in 1974 with The Cars That Ate Paris. Cars was the first film funded by the Australian Film Development Corporation (AFDC), the aim of which was to encourage both quality cinema and innovation. These aims were deemed to have been amply fulfilled in Cars, as the film was given considerable critical acclaim at the Cannes Film Festival, even though it did not do very well commercially.

Cars is an effective essay into the horror that underlies the ordinary. The inhabitants of the small country town of Paris cause passing cars to crash and then scavenge both the wrecked vehicles and their passengers (upon whom the local doctor conducts brain experiments which turn them into "veggies"). Arthur Waldo is the survivor of one such wreck and is adopted by the Mayor of Paris (John Meillon). Gradually Arthur (too weak to resist the surface ordinariness and defining venality of the place) is subsumed into the culture, only later realising the extent to which he has been victimised. Throughout, a morbid fascination with 'car culture' creates an atmosphere of sinister oppressiveness. At last, the town's own hypocrisy causes it to be consumed by the bizarrely re-built vehicles of Paris's youth. The two-edged dialogue of much of the film captures the essence of Weir's vision: as the Mayor says to Arthur, "You're basically normal ... but you may not stay that way".

Weir's next film was Picnic at Hanging Rock (1974). Based on the disappearance of a number of school girls on St Valentine's Day in 1900, Weir's film creates an aura of incipient sexuality and brooding menace, opting always for atmospheric imagery over narrative drive. Mystery pervades the film and the sense of an ancient supernatural presence is evoked through a gentle accumulation of detail (stopped clocks, disturbed flights of birds, watching animals, schoolgirl mysticism, half-formed coincidences) and by the looming alienness of Hanging Rock and the bush that surrounds it. On the level of imagery, the disappearance of Miranda and the others is presented as a sexual burgeoning and a release — but throughout, all suggestions, whether verbal or imagistic, are left unconfirmed. The audience is presented with fragments of meaning, and is continually being disoriented from the world of solid truths. A sense of Otherness dominates, utilising the horror of suggestion rather than event. Picnic at Hanging Rock could have lost itself in mindless picturesque evocations; instead Weir's sure control offers a satisfaction which transcends both the minimalist narrative and the film's verbal content.

Weir's next film was The Last Wave (1977). Again, it is dominated by an awareness of the delicate balance between human structures and a threatening natural/supernatural world. Starring Richard Chamberlain as David Burton, a lawyer suddenly faced with the irrational, The Last Wave juxtaposes a growing sense of menace most readily identified with the weather, and an effective portrayal of the bustling city (Sydney). Images of people battling freakish rain storms, disturbing dream sequences, and an effective use of Aboriginal presence serve to alienate the characters from their context, as the structures white humanity has build as protection prove increasingly unable to hold the unknown forces at bay. Horror here is the sense of a rational world suddenly charged with alien meaning that heralds a predetermined apocalyptic end. Burton finds himself cut off from all he has taken to be solid, even his own identity.

After The Last Wave, Weir directed another 'horror' film, this one a neat, little thriller made as a tele-feature. The Plumber (1978) returns to the less portentous human terrors of Homedale, being about the wife of a university lecturer who finds herself tormented by a strange, domineering plumber. Weir again creates a wonderful sense of menace and the moral crossover at the end of the film reveals the fragility of the 'normal' life as potently as does the apocalypse of The Last Wave.

Weir's films since the 1970s indicate a movement away from the horror/fantastical subject matter of his first films (though his latest, Fearless, has some of the feeling of super-reality that is so evident in his early work) and away too from films that can be meaningfully classified as 'Australian', though they remain imbued with his particular sensibility.

The revival that resulted from increased government involvement in the film industry also brought with it a desire to expand the 'Australian' cinema into an at least partially international one. The horror film was one beneficiary of this, as genre filmmaking was quite rightly perceived to have a universal appeal. Weir's films were not specifically genre based, but others made films which were.

In 1972, Jim Sharman produced Shirley Thompson versus the Aliens, which uses a variety of generic motifs to explore its theme of suburban social paralysis. Set in the 1950s but utilising 1970s pop imagery, it is an original creation that is by turns funny, tawdry and, in its implications, unsettling. Sharman next made Summer of Secrets (1976), which featured Arthur Dignam as a reclusive doctor obsessed with reviving his dead wife Rachael. His experimentation with memory and desire to discover the secret of life lead to both expected and unexpected results. In 1978, Sharman filmed a script by Patrick White and the result was a strange non-generic attack on middle-class suburbian family life called The Night The Prowler. It concerns a young women who can only find escape from her parent's obsessive attention to her sexual purity through pretending to have been raped by an intruder. This leads to her becoming a prowler herself as a means of self-expression and a revenge on her origins. The screenplay is somewhat over-emphatic, but there's no denying the effectiveness of the whole thing. All these films of Sharman's are characterised, for good or ill, by his quirky, self-indulgent approach, which was present too in the cult extravaganza The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) and his less successful Shock Treatment (1981).

Another filmmaker from this period who aimed at a genre audience was Terry Bourke. Bourke's first film was Night of Fear (1973), a short feature originally made as a pilot for the aborted TV series Fright. At first banned on grounds of indecency, the film is about a woman who crashes her car in the middle of nowhere and is subsequently terrorised and murdered by a crazie. There is no dialogue. Bourke's next, longer film also grew from a Fright script. Inn of the Damned (1975) is a pseudo-historical psycho-thriller, full of Grand Guignol violence and dark Gothic melodrama. It is set in 1896 and obviously aimed at the US exploitation market. Likewise his subsequent Lady, Stay Dead (1982), about a looney gardener cum sex-killer who murders an actress, then terrorises her sister, is in an exploitation vein. It is competent (except for a fairly inept climactic shoot-out), but is hard to like.

At least one major tradition of American gothic cinema made an appearance in Australia during the revival of the 1970s — the Poe-inspired horror film. Sabbat of the Black Cat (1973) was virtually a one-man show partly funded by the EFTF. Director/writer Marsden uses the basic plot of Poe's story, merely expanding it rather than using it as inspiration for something else, as the much more successful 1934 version of 'The Black Cat' did. A more Australian gothic, however, appears in films such as Summerfield (1977) where small-town paranoia and guilty secrets are well-evoked in a context of subtle shifts of mood and growing disquiet that suggest, without the surreal element, such films as Wake in Fright and The Cars That Ate Paris.

The Horror Push

The making of specifically genre-based horror films got well underway by the late 1970s. In many ways, some of the filmmakers involved in this were as concerned to develop an Australian tradition as the more mainstream filmmakers, but their eyes were to varying degrees on an international, and specifically American, market as well. One of the best purveyors of what I call the Horror Push was Richard Franklin, whose craftsmanship in film narrative produced several excellent horror features. The most popular, in Australia as well as overseas, was Patrick (1978), a psychic thriller which takes the unusual approach of having the main character/villain comatose throughout the entire thing, though his presence, and his psyche, dominate everything. Franklin effectively develops suspense through pacing and the use of selected detail. The film, which is much better than it is often given credit for, was written by Everett de Roche, an ex-patriate American who would subsequently be responsible for the screenplays of some of the better 'horror-genre' and dark thriller films of the next decade. These include Long Weekend (1979), Snapshot (1979), Harlequin (1980), Roadgames (1981), Razorback (1984), and the British Link (1986). De Roche understands better than most the requirements of the horror genre and though he has been castigated for pandering too much to Hollywood tastes, his best scripts tend to be both effective and recognisably Australian in mood.

Franklin's second feature was Roadgames (1981), a road-psycho thriller starring Stacy Keach and Jamie Lee Curtis. This film, despite its apparently simple surface narrative, is an interestingly complex piece of popular cinema, as Franklin's admiration for Hitchcock-style techniques develops tension through the accumulation of peripheral detail, good characterisation, and the unsettling impression that Keach's ill-adapted truckie is evoking the killer through his own obsessive game-playing. The fact that he is American also adds to his alienation. To my mind this is one of the best, and most intriguing, of the new-breed horror films. Subsequent to it, Franklin went overseas to make the Hitchcock tribute, Psycho II, and other films. His Link (1986), produced from a script by de Roche, could almost be classified as an Australian film because of their involvement, especially as its themes of emotional and physical isolation and the implacable menace of violated nature are not alien to Aussie traditions — but the British have equal claim to it, at least. It's quite an effective old-fashioned ape-on-the-loose horror film and, again, competently directed.

Themes of man's alienation from nature (and himself) have been strong in Australian films. The de Roche scripted Long Weekend (1979), directed by Colin Eggleston, is a particularly powerful ecological thriller in which a vacationing husband/wife pair, careless and dismissive in their attitude toward nature, are destroyed by the encroachments of the environment. The film works, like Picnic at Hanging Rock, not through direct narrative statement, but through the juxtaposition of image and event. It represents an unusual approach to the revenge-of-nature theme insofar as the couple's assailants are not some barely-natural monster (such as a giant shark or a huge boar as in Razorback), but rather the less insistent menaces of ants, birds, a possum, the thick undergrowth — all acting in a way which, in a less intense context, we would consider 'ordinary'. The film is suspenseful, unnerving and unsettlingly ambiguous.

Other horror films directed by Eggleston are Cassandra (1986), an enjoyable psychic thriller in which the title character comes face-to-face with a savage murderer at the same time as she must deal with her own past, manifest through nightmare visions; and Outback Vampires (1987, known as The Wicked in the US), a horror-comedy about Transylvanian bloodsuckers who have taken up residence in a small outback town. This film — a teen horror comedy crossing between The Rocky Horror Show and The Addams Family — suffers somewhat from schizophrenia, some of its 'serious' horror-comic elements being at odds with its farcical side. Eggleston also produced or worked on the screenplays of other horror films.

The end of the 1970s and beginning of the 1980s was a busy time for Australian horror. As well as Long Weekend, various approaches to the 'horror film' were made. The less effective Snapshot (1979) is a psychological thriller redolent of Psycho. Thirst (1979), a vampire variant, is at times hallucinatory, occasionally chilling and often just plain odd (silly, some would say). Chain Reaction (1980) is a well-produced and exciting 'nuclear accident' horror-thriller. Harlequin (1980) is a potentially interesting modern recreation of the Rasputin-style 'evil' influence theme, which fails mainly because its political background is characterless and imprecise. In an obvious attempt to appeal to the US market, the Western Australian setting becomes home to a political structure that is vaguely American (complete with lurking CIA clones) but which never becomes particularly convincing. Political depth was important to the film, but otherwise effective moments of suspense and supernatural ambiguity are undermined by lack of background identity.

The 'slasher' sub-genre which had become so popular in the US makes an appearance too, with Nightmares (1980). This film is an interesting failure, which tries to make the sort of cross between Hitchcockian suspense and explicit gore which Dario Argento had managed so stylishly in Italy. The startling camera work, fractured narrative and bloody effects, however, all so redolent of Argento's stylishness, can't hide the fact that here there's little suspense, no surprises and an ill-devised plot.

A high point of this period was the inimitable Max Mad. One of the most famous and influential Australian genre films, this first in what was to be an excellent series of actioners, is darker and more grimly violent than its sequels, as much as horror film as an action thriller. Its grim depiction of a social order on the verge of total collapse was to institute a post-apocalyptic tradition that captures a sense of the tyranny of distance, a denial of mass authority and a fascination with cars that seems peculiarly Australian. It also introduced Mel Gibson to the world. It was Mad Max 2 (1981), however — also known as The Road Warrior — which really propelled director George Miller into international success. Number two is more spectacular in terms of stunts, but also develops the insipient mythic qualities that underlie the original film, and escalates that film's anarchic background into a full-scale apocalyptic wasteland. Where the bikie gangs of Mad Max were harbingers of apocalypse, they are now the ruling demons of a post-apocalyptic hell. All traditional authority is gone and it's every man for himself (and a few token women too). The desert roads, the bizarrely patched-up cars (somewhat reminiscent of those in The Cars That Ate Paris), the small ad hoc communities, the roving, extremely colourful but barbarous gangs, and the lone, amoral hero ("Pray he's still out there") form the basic imagery of many SF films to follow — including the same director's second sequel to Mad Max, Mad Max 3:Beyond Thunderdome (1985). An excellent film in its own right, undertaking many interesting mythic and thematic developments, this one is, however, an action fantasy with little relationship to the horror genre. Most of the defining darkness has gone, replaced by sheer adventure.

Perhaps the most prolific name in the Horror Push is that of producer Antony I. Ginnane. Ginnane can take credit (as producer or executive producer, often in association with David Hemmings) for well over a dozen films through the 1980s and into the 1990s, most of them horror thrillers. These include Patrick, Thirst, Snapshot, The Survivor (1981), the eccentric Dead Kids (1981), Turkey Shoot (1982), Dark Age (1986), the SF film Time Guardian (1987), The Dreaming (1988), the fascinating alien visitation film Incident at Raven's Gate (1989), Fatal Sky (1989), and Demonstone (1990). I have no idea the extent of his creative input, but he has obviously facilitated extensive commercial film production in the horror fantasy genre since 1980.

Another name regularly cropping up during this time is that of action director Brian Trenchard-Smith, whose essentially pulp imagination has created a number of films of variable appeal. His first major effort was Turkey Shoot, a $3.2 million dollar gore fantasy, which has the peculiar distinction of looking and sounding like a low-budget Italian splatter epic. Its 'prison' setting — a re-education camp for the disaffected members of an unconvincing totalitarian society — looks cheapjack, despite the relatively high budget, and the plot is poorly developed as an action story. Often exciting action moments are spoilt because of the silly context in which they occur, the internal logic of many of them being so dim-witted as to be annoying. The film has some excessive gore effects, however, if you like that sort of thing.

Trenchard-Smith was also responsible for the much more interesting Dead-End Drive-In (1986). This film, from a Peter Carey short story, has a futuristic setting similar to that of Turkey Shoot, but it is more convincing because the 'reality' of it matters less. Satiric intent underlies the film, which depicts a drive-in movie theatre which has been transformed into a holding-bay for troublesome youth, "until the government decides what to do" with them. As well as a richly grafittied and appealing look, and some excellent action sequences, the film runs with the Mad Max theme of the streets as combat zones for auto-scavengers ('Kar-boys') and targets the 'mucking about with cars' syndrome that seems to appeal so much to Australians.

Other Trenchard-Smith films are the dullish Frog Dreaming (1986, also known as The Quest), about a kid who becomes obsessed with finding the bunyip that might be hiding in a mysterious pond near an abandoned mine; and Out of the Body (1988), a reasonable psychic thriller in which the protagonist's astral spirit becomes possessed by a malicious entity intent on murdering successful career women. Again, the best thing about this film is the action sequences. Trenchard-Smith also produced the 1990 possession film Demonstone.

Perhaps the best purely genre horror film of the 1980s was Razorback (1984). Directed by rock-video maker Russell Mulcahy, it shows that a film can have international genre appeal and still exist in a distinctively Australian context. Compared on the video cover, not altogether inaccurately, to Jaws and Psycho, Razorback also contains visual and plot references to Evil Angels, The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, and Deliverance. Beautifully filmed by the award-winning Dean Semler, it is, despite its antecedents, a film that fits into the outback paranoia theme common to many Australian films. The desolation is oppressive, with civilisation only in evidence as desert flotsam, a township that is barely hanging on, a sinister petfood plant and modified utes that look rather like something from Mad Max. There is a kind of otherworldliness about it all — and the otherworld is amoral, where the human inhabitants are largely immoral and as arbitrarily violent as the huge razorback boar itself.

As a monster film, Razorback never achieves the pseudo-mythic qualities of films like Jaws. But it is glitzy and involving, well-acted in an over-the-top manner appropriate to its cast of bizarros, darkly apocalyptic and funny. Like the same director's Highlander, though here effectively, it is at times like an extended video-clip — technically innovative and stimulating, if sometimes seeming to serve a purpose that isn't related to the storyline. This vid-mentality is taken to extremes in Highlander 2, which is all surface as well as being incoherent and mindlessly silly.

Late 1980s and on into the 1990s

Even allowing for the fact that I may have missed a few small, independent films, the years since 1988 have seen the release of a substantial number of Australian horror or dark suspense films — 24, by my reckoning. This level of production has occurred despite the economy's descent into recession (a descent which is reflected in the fact that in 1991, the peak recession year, there was only one horror film released — a cheap, filmed-on-video, vampire splatter film Bloodlust — and that was hardly an auspicious event).

In 1988 and 1989, however, a large number of horror films appeared — from the glossy, but harmless, teen psycho thriller Dangerous Game (made by Stephen Hopkins as a 'calling card' for Hollywood, which subsequently gave him Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child and Predator 2 to direct), to the confronting Ghosts ... of the Civil Dead, in which director John Hillcoat grimly evaluates the prison system and the potential tyranny of legal punishment. Set in the near-future, this latter is in no measure a traditional horror film, though watching it is certainly an horrific experience and one not easily forgotten. Its graphic depiction of escalating tension and politically induced violence is an unremitting examination of the immoral social control which Hillcoat sees as at least potential in the new generation of high-security prisons. It is not an inappropriate film to have been made in a country which had its beginnings as a penal colony. This 'penal' motif continues, less 'seriously', in the big-budget future prison epic Fortress (1992), filmed by Re-animator director Stuart Gordon in Queensland, and by Escape From Absolam, a futuristic adventure produced by Gale Ann Hurd in Australia (originally its working title had been The Penal Colony).

The prolific years 1988-89 also saw the release of the big budget and suspenseful thriller, Dead Calm, made by Phillip Noyce and starring Nicole Kidman and Sam Neill, both extremely identifiable Aussie and Kiwi exports; the small-budgetted independent 'slasher' film Houseboat Horror; an effective Aboriginal ghost story, The Dreaming; a surreal but gross black comedy, Haydn Keenan's Pandemonium (which includes a foetus being put in a blender, a Dingo Girl, a Nazi insemination plot, weird cloning experiments and lots of other fairly tasteless stuff); several psychic/ghost thrillers (Out of the Body, Death Run and The 13th Floor); two UFO-related films (Fatal Sky and the excellent Incident at Raven's Gate); and an entertainingly dark post-apocalyptic 'football' movie, The Salute of the Jugger, written and directed by David Peoples and starring Rutger Hauer.

Bloodmoon, a 'slasher' movie, was the first mainstream feature film to be released in the 1990s — so it's a pity it was so objectionable. Its scenario of beautiful Aussie schoolgirls getting hacked to pieces is not only trite, poorly acted and sorbid, but also generates no suspense at all. Other films of the 1990s include Dead Sleep, with Linda Blair (mayhem set in a deep-sleep clinic), The Min-Min (nasty events precipitated by the desecration of an Aboriginal burial ground), Beyond the Rim (about a strange pair of glasses that reveals things once seen by its dead owner), Demonstone (starring Jan-Michel Vincent as a marine whose beautiful girlfriend is possessed by an evil spirit), and The Presence (a ghost story). Tracey Moffat's BeDevil is a trilogy of Aboriginal ghost stories, which was well-received by critics but didn't get much of a run, while Philip Brophy's as yet unseen but much anticipated Body Melt is a horror satire on the life-style of the suburbs — albeit viewed through jaundiced, gore-splattered eyes. The film is bursting with gross imagery and grotesque bodily distortion.

As you can see from the above, horror filmmaking is alive and sometimes well in Australia. Though there are no studios or companies specialising specifically in the genre, both independent and, less often, mainstream producers manage to dabble in horror from time to time. Though the results tend to be treated without much interest by distributors, the films are available for those who keep their ear (and eye) to the ground.

The Attack of the Zombie Kiwis

New Zealand hasn't produced many horror films over the years, but those it has given birth to are remarkably strong entries. Dead Kids (1981), set in Illinois but filmed in New Zealand, stars Michael Murphy as a cop investigating a series of bizarre murders. It is offbeat the way American Larry Cohen's films are offbeat, combining grotesque humour, idiosyncratic bursts of imagery and occasional gore. Michael Laughlin's direction is effective and provides many excellent sequences. Moreover, though appearing out of the blue, it exists firmly within the horror genre.

Sam Pillbury's The Scarecrow (1982), on the other hand, is an episodic movie showing one summer in the life of a small town. Set in 1950, events are filtered through the eyes of an adolescent, and it is his fears which give the story its gothic elements, as he grapples with feelings of alienation. John Carradine plays the Scarecrow, a personification of the boy's anxious imagination.

Similarly Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey (1988) is not a horror film. Its beautifully photographed story of a group of medieval villagers on a quest through the centre of the world to modern-day New Zealand, in order to save their world from the Black Plague, is a surrealist fable about death, meaning and the past. But it has a dark richness and a sense of temporal dislocation which is at times quite chilling. At any rate its 'demonic' view of the modern world seems not inappropriate in this context. Death Warmed Up (1984), however, is a genre-driven mutant-zombie tale -- complete with mad scientist and medico-conspiracy context --, but it is effectively told and well-filmed, if somewhat too conscious of its deco-punk techniques and striking imagery. Similarly the recent ghost story, The Returning (1990), gets a trifle swamped by its own technique. Its very serious approach to being artistically interesting mainly serves to distance the viewer from what's happening and in the end what starts out as a potentially memorable 'haunting' tale becomes merely distracting. Despite reservations, however, these films reflect an earnest and energetic approach to cinema which makes the few horror movies produced in New Zealand worth seeking out.

But the enfant terrible of the New Zealand film industry -- Jane Campion's dark half, as it were -- is undoubtedly Peter Jackson. Jackson's background in puppetry and special effects, and his outrageous imagination, shot him rapidly into the limelight, not through mainstream acceptance, but rather through cult adulation -- both in his home country and in America. (Curiously, the exposure given him in Australia is minimal, despite favourable reviews.) His first film, Bad Taste (1988), was developed, with NZFC help, out of a 20-minute short entitled Roast of the Day. Jackson wrote, produced, directed, photographed and co-edited the film, as well as acting in it -- most conspicuously as a man whose brains keep falling out. The film is outrageous and outrageously funny, as it spins its tale of an incompetent anti-alien group bent on tracking down and destroying a bunch of invading aliens who want to establish a take-away food chain on Earth (they eat people). The climactic scene, which includes the edifying sight of one of the agents chainsawing his way through an alien, from head to bum, is an effective, low-budget extravaganza that shouldn't be missed. Bad Taste won the Special Jury Prize at the 17th Paris Festival of Fantasy and Science Fiction.

Jackson followed up with Meet the Feebles (1989), an equally (or even more) bizarre film with a cast made up entirely of puppets. The film grew out off Jackson's inability to fund a much more ambitious film which was to be "the ultimate zombie movie". To fill in time, and to help encourage investment, Jackson and his mates conceived the concept of Meet the Feebles during an idle moment and set about making it. The film is a sort of sinister, sleazy Muppet Show. We watch backstage as a troupe of showbiz puppets rehearse for the big TV special, meanwhile engaging in all sorts of sordid behaviours. There's a promiscuous rabbit with a hideous venereal disease; a rat who's a pusher; an elephant fighting a paternity suite issued against him by a chicken; a gutter-press blowfly reporter with a disconcerting tendency to appear out of the toilet; a walrus (the show's producer) who must pretend romantic interest in the star -- a hippo who overeats, especially when depressed -- but is in fact having an affair with a cat; a big-boss underworld whale who swallows the opposition... You get the idea. The film ends with a massacre in which most of the cast are blown gorily to pieces by the hippo star gone rampant with a machine gun. It's a virtuoso piece of cinema and became an instant cult hit.

At any rate, Meet the Feebles succeeded in attracting Jackson the backing he needed to make his "ultimate zombie movie", Braindead (1992) -- retitled Dead Alive in the States. Ultimate it indeed proved to be, firmly establishing Jackson as splattermeister supreme. The film is an unbelievably exuberant flight of zombie fantasy that is so outrageously gory that it makes other splatter films seem rather restrained. The story, set in New Zealand in the 1950s, concerns a monkey-rat, brought into the local zoo, which is infected by a nasty disease that causes death and zombification in those it bites. In fact it bites the somewhat repressed hero's mother, who then dies -- but not quite. Soon her corpse becomes violent, while going to pieces physically, and the hero is forced to lock her up in the cellar. Others follow. Then, about halfway through the film, the zombies are loosed into a huge crowd of people whom the hero's uncle has invited to the house for a party. Before long, only the hero and his newly acquired girlfriend are still alive. In the end, the hero deals with the zombies using a lawnmover. The last half hour of the film is an absolute bloodbath -- and the result in an often hilarious, but certainly extreme, exercise in mockery directed toward death and the flesh. The film garnered various awards in European festivals, for best picture as well as effects, music and acting. Though it received limited release in Australia, Braindead has established Jackson's position in the 'cult horror film' pantheon worldwide. He is currently making a non-splatter drama, Heavenly Creatures, based on a true-life NZ murder case, but insists that he doesn't intend to stop making the genre films that are his first love.

 

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