Words: Brody Rossiter
IT’S 1988, WELCOME TO HELL
There have been several depictions of supermax prisons committed to film over the last few decades. Whether pure action, sci-fi, or a combination of the two, very rarely do we see these intimidating structures of incarceration exhibited beyond the two genres. Usually our protagonists begin their journey as a rugged anti-hero cop or a grizzled yet morally just ex-con tasked with breaking in to break something out – or maybe take someone out. Ultimately the whole premise has become something of a trope within mainstream cinema. The narrative goalposts have been moved and realigned a few times, the most recent examples including critically approved fan-favourites, Dredd, and The Raid, but when the dust and shell casings settle the base ingredients all leave the same somewhat satisfying taste.
It is difficult to fully understand why such a common theme throughout contemporary storytelling, from television, to film, to video games, possesses such mileage; possibly it’s due to the manner in which these structures frame our heroic protagonists as the ultimate underdogs, facing several storeys, sectors and stations of violent adversity; perhaps it’s an analogy for the manner in which our everyday lives constrict our sense of true freedom and how we can literally rise above or escape; we might appreciate the modern transposition of classical narrative threads such as Dante’s Inferno or Theseus’ bewildering battle through the Minotaur’s labyrinth; or maybe it just feels like an elaborate and exciting multi-million dollar board game – basically the same reason why The Crystal Maze was so popular (if you’re not British or you’re young, it was a dodgy game show in which a team of muppets from Swindon competed for the chance to grab shiny monopoly money inside a hoover).
What can be identified as a common trend is that if the plot’s setting is inside a supermax, it’s most likely a futuristic one. A result of the skyrocketing crime rates of dystopian future society. A home for the violent waves of psychopaths which roam the streets of a floating city loaded on drugs with name such as Vapour-X, or Chiwawa Marmalade. What we don’t often see is the nucleus upon which such structures were built; the social and political realities which gave rise to such extreme zero-tolerance penal colonies. Forgetting the fantasy, today supermax prisons are a scary reality predominantly due to the individuals they house – namely “the worst of the worst”. John Hillcoat’s Ghosts… Of the Civil Dead, depicts such a place, specifically ‘Central Industrial Prison’ in the desolate centre of the Australian desert. Following a rise in violent activity from inmates towards wardens resulting in ‘total-lockdown’ an investigation is launched to uncover the events which led to the prison’s collapse. Ultimately Hillcoat’s brutal depiction of the men which inhabit the complex slowly reveals how the two groups are manipulated into madness in the aim raising public and media support to build more, stricter supermax prisons to combat the lawless inmates who rose up and began to run the asylum.
Ghosts… is not an easy film to watch. Buzzwords such as ultra-violence are commonplace today as many films hide their emotional and psychological vapidity behind their manipulation of the connotations formed by truly controversial yet discussion worthy films such as Kubrick’s symphony of societal implosion, A Clockwork Orange (Hillcoat’s picture rivals the intensity of the nihilistic semi-futuristic tone Kubrick crafted). The film doesn’t pull punches (or shivs for that matter) the violence is truly explicit, primarily due to the deeply oppressive attitude it projects as opposed to relying upon cheap buckets of blood shocks. As depicted in his later pictures, The Proposition, The Road, and Lawless, Hillcoat isn’t adverse to exhibiting man’s savagery, but his forte lies in revealing the thought process behind such actions, and more often than not, one key factor comes into play, survival. Essentially, survival is a key theme throughout the film; the survival of the human spirit; the survival of man’s physical integrity; the survival of sanity; and the survival of societies influence when all evidence of its existence is removed.
Despite Hillcoat’s current reputation, Ghosts… of the Civil Dead is a film which is easy to miss. The Pictures biggest claim to fame is that of Nick Cave’s brief yet haunting appearance, but if you take the time to search it out you will be confronted with a true cult classic. A cult classic which constantly pushes and prods at your emotional thresholds, provoking you to process and reflect upon its content long after you’ve finished serving your time.