Ghosts… of the Civil Dead (1988)

Director John Hillcoat
Writers Nick Cave, Gene Conkie, Evan English, John Hillcoat, Hugo Race
Starring David Field, Mike Bishop, Chris DeRose (Grezner), Kevin Mackey, Dave Mason, Nick Cave, Bogdan Koca
Genre Prison
Tagline None Listed

Talk us through it

The Central Industrial Prison is a privately owned and run penal facility used as a dumping ground for serious offenders. A major advantage for society is that the prison is in the middle of nowhere, hence out of sight and out of mind. Unfortunately the Prison has become news worthy due to it having the longest running "lockdown" in Australian penal history. Feel free to insert your own shackle dragging joke right about now.

Ghosts follows an investigation into events leading up to the lockdown and highlights major incidents along the road to a preordained outcome. Just how much can the guards and prisoners take before anger boils over, and how much is wider society to blame?

Ready to get incarcerated in an early mockumentary?


Civil Dead has been loitering around in the review queue for quite some time due to my preconceived notion that it would be a bloody hard movie to review. I was right, Civil Dead is one of those films where a movie threatens to breakout once in a while before things are arrested by more title card insertion or strange decisions on how to present the next scene. John Hillcoat presets for our viewing pleasure, if that's the right word, a mockumentary fill of spite, degradation, and a general feeling of harshness. This isn't a movie for everyone, while the acts of violence are rare they are still pretty damn brutal, and possibly gives the Wine and Cheese set an in to Oz Independent cinema. Yes the movie takes itself very serious, has messages to send our way, and just by the by is considered a cult classic. Interestingly a lot more people have heard of the movie than have actually seen it, I'm not sure if that is a good thing or not to be honest.

John Hillcoat took one hell of a risk with this movie, prison films tend to be either vehicles for exploitation or are so heavy in their own messages that they implode under their own self importance, and delivers a gritty and brutal vision steeped in Machiavellian undertones. Who are the "civil undead" mentioned in the movie title, are they on the inside looking out or on the outside looking in? The title is a clear reference to the thoughts of one Jack Henry Abbott, a lifelong prisoner who hanged himself in his cell in January 2002, who wrote "[a]s long as I am nothing but a ghost of the civil dead, I can do nothing…". For Abbott the "civil dead" refers to people like himself who have had their autonomy removed piece by piece by an overbearing State. It would be overly simplistic I think to simply view Civil Dead in this light from the viewpoint of the increasingly brutalized prisoners, Hillcoat and his fellow scribes expand on the "civil dead" to include the Prison Warders, who are shown as powerless to prevent the coming violence, and society as a whole who are held to ransom by the violence of released inmates who have little chance of integrating back into mainstream society. We are all the "civil dead" in Hillcoat and team's viewpoint, while the unnamed and invisible powers that be continue their agenda of media manipulation and the raising of fear and loathing among the hordes of tabloid press readers. John Howard, the former Prime Minister of Australia, was a master of this having won elections on thinly veiled lies about asylum seekers and other issues with the general low standard of our Press being running dogs to the whole house of cards. Eventually, like in Civil Dead, Howard pushed the envelope once too often and became only the second sitting Prime Minister to be given the arse in his own seat. As Hillcoat and crew point out you can only push the "civil dead" so far before they push back. Where Hillcoat undermines the agenda is by indicating this is the end game of the State and there is no free will among the "civil dead". Powerful and provocative stuff, but can Hillcoat wrap his central ideas in an actual movie?

There's no doubt we are in a deep meaningful movie with a few axes to grind, but can the Director get a movie happening that will encompass the themes?

Hillcoat reinforces the stark social commentary of his movie via adopting a Mockumentary approach to things. This did initially throw me off the nihilistic viewpoint adopted by the film, but worked in Civil Dead's favour as increasingly the movie centered on major incidents and less on narrative flow. We are following the findings of a report here looking into incidents leading up to the lockdown, but looking at those incidents from a preconceived viewpoint that had exoneration of the unseen Prison Authorities as it's primary goal. We are introduced to the prisoners via identification photographs, with the individual's name and prison number superimposed, title cards mark the passage of time, and various differing cameras are used to good effect, including a prison security camera capturing one prisoner murdering another prisoner, with ironically the culprit being released after the riots and bloodshed. Throughout the movie we have title cards giving quotes from the "Report", most often the quote being at odds with the reality we are viewing. Hillcoat, in keeping with the documentary nature of the movie, dispenses with any form of character development though we learn maybe a bit more about some of the major players as time passes than we may really have wanted to. Surprisingly we don't actually get to see the riot that lead to the lockdown, like most of the events seemingly "captured" on film we are at the edge viewing things indirectly, once again a documentary style of real time events capture. Hillcoat could arguably be trying for a "viewer as spectator" approach, though I didn't overly sense that was high on the Director' agenda in Civil Dead.

As stated previously Hillcoat may be sparse with his violence but when he goes down blood alley he's coming at you hard and fast. There are two murders in the movie, each is brutal and to the point, no one achieves anything by the sadistic slaughter of another. This of cause brings the whole depiction of violence as an aesthetic to the fore, sorry detour here as had this debate over the weekend. While I would argue that the violence is necessary to the movie, Hillcoat here is not being exploitative, there are going to be some readers who will view that violence as simply an attempt to shock the audience rather than having cinema merit. I would agree that Hillcoat goes to some lengths staging his murder scenes and perhaps spends slightly too long either lingering on them or going for that extra cut angle, but the murders prove pivotal to an understanding of where Civil Dead is heading and hence my argument that Hillcoat is justified here. Of course those on the other side of the divide can argue that violence is the edge of the abyss, we may be venturing there slightly too much with movies going for a realistic depiction of violence.

Another aspect of Civil Dead that defies accepted cinema conventions is the lack of a central focus character. People wander into scenes without the movie following any one person and relating events to the situation that person finds themself in. We have a narrator, who spends most of the movie in solitary confinement, expelling the sort of home grown philosophy that the damned tend to come up with, and which no one else is really interested in. Wenzil is the prisoner out of his depth who simply doesn't get how to cope with his fellow inmates. The dude wants to belong and wants to make a name for himself but singularly fails absolutely in doing so. Davie Yale should be the central character, he's bucking the system and voicing concerns, but Hillcoat allows only a limited exposure.

Overall Hillcoat hits out with a stark, almost poetic, looking movie that is as subversive as all get out. The Director and his fellow Writers line up their ducks and then proceed to strafe the lifeboats. Guess anyone who has been involved in a Management think tank with a fix agenda will be right at home here. Also I love mixed metaphors.

David Field (Wenzil) goes at it wide eyed and innocent and nails the requirement of being the person out of his safety zone who will make decisions based on false assumptions. Mike Bishop (Davie Yale) is solid as the Prison Warden ready to blow the whistle on the situation. Dave Mason (Lilly) was a find and delivers a very engaging performance in a difficult role. And Nick Cave (Maynard) can play psycho with the best of them.

The score was handled by Blixa Bargeld, Nick Cave, and Mick Harvey. We get an altogether eerie soundtrack that heightens the tension laced brutal approach that Hillcoat takes with the visuals. It adds to the general feeling of alienation the movie delivers as atmosphere. Add in the use of background sharp noises and the silence Hillcoat greats some scenes with and you have a unique audio adventure. Well worth checking out.

Summary Execution

I wasn't sure what to expect from Civil Dead, Australian cult movies tend to be over rated at the best of time, but thankfully Director Hillcoat was on his game and delivered a stark realistic looking journey into hell that will stay with you long after the closing credits. For sure I wasn't expecting a mockumentary and Hillcoat wasn't throwing a traditional movie structure at me. I was pretty much happy with events on my screen and jived along without missing the beat at any stage.

As usual not a lot done Box Office wise with this superior local movie, we do tend to eat our own young down here while the vast bogan population would rather rush off to see the latest Boredwood conveyor belt bollocks than be stretched by a movie rising well above it's station. On the bright side foreign viewers have been helping with the cult nature of things and the movie is gradually eking out a place in the cinema firmament for itself.

John Hillcoat once again delivers a movie that you can sink your teeth into, albeit in a nihilistic fashion. If you don't mind trying a film that throws the cinema conventions out with the prisoner rights then you should locate yourself a copy of Ghosts… Of The Civil Dead and see what all the fuss is about. It's not going to involve a lengthy jail term, but it just might arrest your interest.

ScaryMinds Rates this movie as ...

  Finally a cult movie that really does live up to it's star billing.