Until the 1970s, Australian film was a moribund art form (bar the odd exception). However, with the election of the Whitlam-led Labor government in 1972 came all manner of beneficial social changes, not the least of which was the establishment of the Australian Film and Television School, the Australia Council for the Arts, and the Australian Film Commission. Coincidentally, these initiatives coincided with a publicly-accepted relaxation of prudish censorship laws and the introduction of the new R rating, resulting in a reinvigorated film industry that enjoyed both public and governmental support, which was the beginning of what many now call the Australian New Wave movement. Alongside this movement, whose practitioners embraced both a social-realist and art-film ethos, was another movement emerging from the margins: Ozploitation.
A slang portmanteau of the words “Australia” and “exploitation,” Ozploitation is essentially a catch-all term for Australian exploitation films that emerged in this period, which were greatly influenced by American B-films of the 1950s, the “New Hollywood” films of the 1960s ushered in by young filmmakers keen to challenge the status quo, and the emerging punk/DIY ethic that was slowly becoming a dominant mode of cultural expression throughout the 1970s. Typically categorised by low budgets and a “raw” aesthetic, Ozploitation covered everything from science fiction to horror, action to “ocker” comedies and frisky sex romps to creature features, and focused on Australian issues of the time rather than recreations or examinations of our past. As renowned film academic Sam Rodhie stated: “Ozploitation films set about projecting not a nostalgic rural Australian beauty, but the vulgarity, philistinism and energy of contemporary Australia. These were not the distanced and distancing vignettes of the past, or a parade of Australians buttoned up in costume.”
With that in mind, let’s turn to what I consider the best speculative Ozploitation gems.
The Cars That Ate Paris (1974)
The first feature from acclaimed Australian director Peter Weir – Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), Gallipoli (1981), Witness (1985), Dead Poets Society (1989), The Truman Show (1998) and Master and Commander: The Far Side of the Sea (2003) – The Cars That Ate Paris has been called many things: Blackly comic, disturbing, satirical, macabre, slow and deliberate, bizarre, surreal, and bleak. Considered a low-budget oddity on its release, in the years since it has achieved cult status and is now considered a herald of the changing nature of Australian film, from the “distanced and distancing vignettes of the past, or a parade of Australians buttoned up in costume” to a dark reflection of contemporary Australian attitudes, values and prejudices.
Set in the fictional town of Paris (an isolated outback community only accessible by way of winding mountain roads and narrow tracks), it concerns the key economic driver perpetuated by the townsfolk: Forcing tourists and lost travelers to crash their cars on the winding roads and passes, salvaging valuables from the wrecks, and using them as currency or barter. It’s a town where the normal rules of Western society don’t apply, facilitated by its remoteness and isolated nature.
So far so typically Australian, you might say – the trope of remote towns operating by their own rules is fairly standard in both our stories and history. However, what sets The Cars That Ate Paris apart is that Paris’ citizens, from ordinary working folk right up to the mayor, aren’t written as monsters or villains, but instead as ordinary people just trying to keep their town alive. Almost to a one, they are framed as friendly, nonthreatening and decent, despite the fact that they are basically psychopaths whose existence depends on death and destruction. And this is the film’s beauty. Despite Weir’s grotesque imagery, stately composition and off-the-wall conceit, at its core the film is really a social parable about the divide between rural and urban communities, the economic stagnation of the former and the dissociative effects of consumerism on them, and the repressive and outwardly bizarre nature of close-knit societies.
The Last Wave (1977)
The second film from Peter Weir on this list, The Last Wave examines the cultural divide between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians in the face of an impending apocalypse, and the consequences of a non-Indigenous Australian denial of an Indigenous Australian conceptualisation of people, animals, spirits and the land being intertwined.
It is, in many ways, a lurid and hallucinatory fever dream, a morally complex police procedural, and a clear-eyed look at race politics in modern Australian society, filled with incredible compositions, surreal imagery and a dark and murky “look.” Telling the story of David Burton, a non-Indigenous Australian lawyer defending five Indigenous Australians against charges of ritualised murder, it focuses on just how out of his depth he is when confronted with an Indigenous Australian belief system that prophecises a coming apocalypse, challenges his worldview and sense of cultural identity, and is both steeped in the supernatural and undeniably real (within the context of the film).
A startling and criminally underrated film that is unsettling and ambiguous, it is ripe for rediscovery by a new generation and paved the way for other films that sympathetically attempted to bridge the divide between Indigenous and non-Indigenous ways of perceiving and understanding the world.
Mad Max (1979), Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981) and Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome (1985)
Unarguably the most well known and influential example of Ozploitation, George Miller’s original Mad Max trilogy is a classic of post-apocalyptic cinema, and remains one of the most financially and critically successful Australian film franchises in history. A true master of visual storytelling, Miller combined kinetic camerawork, a “raw” mise-en-scene and rhythmic editing with eye-popping stunts, car crashes and car chases, to create a post-apocalyptic world that is vivid, brutal and undeniably “Australian.” Each film is its own kind of masterpiece, as the combination of Miller’s cinematic techniques, narrative economy and simple (but never simplistic) through-lines allow the world of Mad Max to open up around us, rather than simply get served up to us.
The original Mad Max showed us a world teetering on the edge of collapse, in which the roads are ruled by roving gangs and the few police still remaining are almost as crazy as the criminals they chase. The Road Warrior explored this world after the collapse, with society reduced to a kind-of punk savagery in which crazies and survivors are left to scavenge in the wasteland left behind. Beyond Thunderdome opened this wasteland world up even further, delivering a new kind of community built from the ruins of the old, a lawless and wild place without even a veneer of civilisation.
The world of Mad Max is one in which the car is king, gasoline the most valuable commodity and civilisation a forgotten dream. It is as punk as Johnny Rotten sniffing glue with Johnny Ramone; as brash and inventive as that of a suburban backyard full of DIY geniuses; and as tongue-in-cheek “Australian” as Paul Hogan and Steve Irwin wrestling over a crocodile. In its own words, it is a world “where the gangs took over the highways, ready to wage war for a tank of juice, and in this maelstrom of decay ordinary men were battered and smashed.”
Road Games (1981)
Eschewing the frantic visual style common to so many exploitation and Ozploitation films, director Richard Franklin combined moody compositions that emphasised scale and vastness, stately and slow camerawork, remote and unpopulated settings, and tension and suspense to infuse Road Games with an almost Hitchcockian vibe. As well, he employed a narrative device that was common to what might be called realist Ozploitation, but had yet to be used in the more speculative variety: Centering the story on a foreigner in the Australian outback, and thereby allowing the peculiarities, idiosyncrasies and Australian-isms of the characters within to be seen with fresh eyes. First used in Ozploitation in Wake in Fright (1971) and Walkabout (1971), this device allows us to enter the story right alongside the main character, and is a version of the “stranger in a strange land” trope, a storytelling device as old as history itself.
Centered on American expatriate truck driver Pat Quid, it begins in a realistic way: Hauling refrigerated meat across the emptiness of the outback, Pat entertains himself with thought-games concerning the lives and activities of other drivers sharing the road. One day, a suspicious green van catches his eye, which he later comes to believe is involved in a series of unsolved murders up and down the highways and byways. Soon after picking up hitchhiking American tourist Pam, the local police begin to suspect Pat of the murders; with Pam’s encouragement, he becomes embroiled in a cat-and-mouse game with the driver of the green van in an effort to clear his name. What follows is buttock-clenching tension juxtaposed with the foreboding and desolate expanse of the Australian outback, as the conflict between Pat and Pam and the driver of the green van escalates in a land where help is nowhere nearby and thus Pat and Pam have no choice but to rely solely on their wits.
A masterclass of understated film-making, Road Games is the perfect example of how space can define subject, and how the Australian landscape can be a character all of its own.
Razorback is a perfect blend of dark “Ocker” humour, hyper-stylised visuals and small town creature-feature – think Wake in Fright (1971) meets Jaws (1975) via Alvin Purple (19726) and The Evil Dead (1981), and you’re on the right track.
The first feature from music video director Russell Mulcahy, it features an aesthetic philosophy common to exploitation films throughout history and borne of their typically low budgets: Go for broke. Underpinned by a tongue-in-cheek screenplay that played up its exploitation influences and ambitions, and full of kinetic camerawork, POV shots, frantic editing, bustling backgrounds, a “lived in” atmosphere, colour saturation, extreme close-ups and a cacophonous sound design, it is a truly jarring and unique movie.
Just like Walkabout (1971), Wake in Fright (1971) and Road Games (1981), Razorback is centered on a foreigner in the Australian outback. This time, it’s Carl Winters, a grief-stricken American who has traveled to the unnamed town in which Razorback is set, seeking answers to the death of his wife, a TV journalist who was investigating the town’s pet-food cannery. Upon arrival, he hears stories about an enormous razorback boar that preys on the townsfolk and was responsible for his wife’s death, setting in motion of chain of events that pits him against both the enormous razorback and the town’s set of Australian caricatures. And what caricatures they are! Broad and bordering on camp, they’re nonetheless invested with backslapping malice, a love of violence and beer and fear, and a dark sense of humour that carries an underlying threat, illuminating what nowadays is called toxic masculinity but back then was merely the dark underbelly of the stereotypical Aussie bloke. In combination with Mulcahy’s bravura visual style, they transform Razorback from what might have been just another b-grade Ozploitation film into something truly special: A film that both entertains us and asks big questions regarding identity, morality and parochialism.
The Quiet Earth (1985)
A cheeky addition from across the ditch, The Quiet Earth not only shares many of the qualities of Ozploitation cinema – a low budget, location shooting, a high-concept brought down to earth by relatable characters and visceral camerawork – but also helped reinvigorate the New Zealand film industry in the same way, moving it away from “the distanced and distancing vignettes of the past” towards something more urban and contemporary. And besides, it’s worthy of inclusion here because we Australians have never hesitated to claim a Kiwi property as our own – think Pavlova, Russell Crowe, Split Enz, Crowded House, Anzac Biscuits and Phar Lap.
A variant on the classic “Last Man on Earth” story, The Quiet Earth concerns a depressed scientist by the name of Zac, who awakens one day to find that the research project he works on has malfunctioned and seemingly left him alone in the world. At first, Zac tries to figure out what has happened; soon realising the futility of this quest, he instead proclaims himself a kind of god-king of his depopulated world, treating the empty city of Auckland as his own personal playground while simultaneously experiencing a type of psychological breakdown. He wanders the streets in the rain, playing saxophone rather badly. He moves into the most palatial mansion he can find, erects cardboard cut-outs of famous historical figures (including Charlie Chaplin, Elvis Presley, Alfred Hitchcock, Mahatma Gandhi, Richard Nixon, Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, Queen Elizabeth II, and Pope John Paul II), and preaches to them at length. He plays pool with himself, assuming two different personas in an acting masterclass that lasts bare minutes. And then, overcome with loneliness and becoming aware of the psychological damage this is inflicting, he becomes suicidal.
This is where things get weird. He meets another survivor, a woman by the name of Joanne, and they soon develop a friendship that quickly becomes something more romantic. Another survivor appears, a pragmatic and practical Maori by the name of Api. Now, this kind of love triangle is a staple of “Last Man on Earth” stories, typically employed to initiate conflict. And at first, The Quiet Earth is no different. However, as the causes behind humanity’s disappearance begin to be understood, and as Zac slowly realises that Joanne and Api are a much better match than he and Joanne, the film thematically changes in a radical way, focusing on self-realization, hope, sacrifice, ambiguity, and the metaphysical. And then there’s that ending! To say more would spoil what is a film full of surprises – it is simply a “must watch” piece of Antipodean science fiction.
Howling III: The Marsupials (1987)
The Howling (1981) was a masterpiece of 1980’s horror, featuring a blackly-comic script, confident performances, standout special effects and slick direction from horror maestro Joe Dante. But like many of its kin – Friday the 13th (1980), Poltergeist (1982), A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), Hellraiser (1987), Child’s Play (1988), and so on – its numerous sequels strongly adhered to the rule of diminishing returns. But there was an exception: Philippe Mora’s Howling III: The Marsupials. A stand-alone sequel (if you’ll pardon the contradiction), it abandoned any direct connections to the original and instead served up an original story that can really only be described as “bat-shit crazy.”
A brief summary barely does justice to its madness, but is worth a shot anyway. Anthropology professor Harry Beckmeyer stumbles upon archival footage showing Indigenous Australians ceremonially sacrificing a humanoid wolf-like creature, and shortly after he encounters Jerboa, an Indigenous Australian marsupial werewolf evolved from the extinct marsupial wolf (the Tasmanian Tiger). Shortly after this encounter, Jerboa is cast as the lead in a horror film shooting in Sydney and then falls pregnant to her human boyfriend, Donny. And that’s just the first fifteen or twenty minutes – what follows is a riotous hot-mess involving Russian ballerina-werewolves, werewolf nuns, werewolf hunters employed by the Australian Army, a visit to Hollywood, a time-lapse set in the Australian outback, spirits and living skeletons, and heavy-handed social commentary.
Featuring a who’s-who of Australian acting royalty of the time – Barry Otto, Frank Thring, Max Fairchild, Imogen Annesley and Barry Humphries (as Dame Edna Everage) – Howling III: The Marsupials is often considered “so bad it’s good,” a critique applied to many Ozploitation films. However, it is more than just a trash-tastic piece of cinema best enjoyed when under the influence, because Philippe Mora’s all-or-nothing approach results in a film so tongue-in-cheek and gleefully self-aware that too take it seriously is to miss the point – it’s deliberately schlocky, sending up the pomposity and pretensions of so many of the werewolf films that preceded it.
Following the success of Crocodile Dundee (1986), the Ozploitation wave slowly receded. No longer seen as outliers or curios, Australian films began to achieve international mainstream acceptance, with the far-out themes and styles of Ozploitation making way for more standard fare such as action, dramas and comedies, which are historically the most common and popular film genres. But this didn’t remain the case, as in the early 2000s a new wave of Australian film emerged, sharing the limelight with the aforementioned action, dramas and comedies. Directors who had grown up loving Ozploitation films – the Spierig brothers, Greg McLean, David Michod and Zak Hilditch, to name but a few – showed that we can still produce quality genre and speculative films that are distinctly Australian, as seen in works such as Undead (2003), Wolf Creek (2005), Rogue (2007), These Final Hours (2013) and The Rover (2014). In fact, so popular was this resurgence, and so well received was it by both Australian and international audiences, that George Miller of Mad Max fame returned to the world he had created way back in 1979, and in 2015 gave us Mad Max: Fury Road, a sequel that is arguably the best film in the series.
(Originally published on Speculative Fiction Australia, 18/11/2018)