Springs Eternal

It’s hot and stuffy inside the cramped, camel-dragged wagon, but Starling doesn’t really mind. She looks through a crack in the wall, at the dust kicked up by the rest of the townsfolk as they trek down the broken highway.

At least I’m resting my feet, she says to herself, even if I do have to look after mum.

She slumps back in her chair, eyeballing the other elders crammed in with them. The wind is

blowing hard, carrying the faint smell of the sea.

She sighs deeply.

“I’m bored,” she tells her mum.

“We’ll be there soon.”

Starling crosses her arms over her chest.

“I’m still bored. Tell me a story to kill some time. Tell me how you and dad met.”

“Okay.”

Home was a half-horse town at the foot of an extinct volcano in the middle of the drought plains. I was born there. I won’t get to die there. None of us will, now that the spring’s dried up.

But thanks to your dad, I got to grow old there.

***

He wasn’t your dad back then. He was just a stranger who showed up late one afternoon at the tail end of summer.

He was bloody, bruised, battered.

One of the guards manning the gates didn’t want to let him in. Another guard pointed out that he was alone, hurt and young. A third guard noted that he obviously didn’t pose a threat.

So they let him in. You know the law: Help when you can.

Hands raised, he entered. Then he took two or three steps before collapsing onto the cracked road that led into town.

Before he passed out, he said one word:

“Raiders.”

***

I was there when he fell. I was there when he spoke.

Back then, I used to love hanging around the gate. Every day, after rushing through my lessons and chores, I’d head straight there rather than spend time with the other youngsters. They bored me. The boys just talked about girls, or fighting, or how they couldn’t wait to be old enough to start hunting. The girls just talked about boys, or what they’d learned that day, or how they couldn’t wait to have kids of their own.

So instead of listening to them rabbit on – or even worse, joining in – I used to badger the guards, asking questions about the old days. Sometimes they indulged me, sometimes they didn’t.

Whenever they didn’t, I’d just look over the sun-scorched plains, trying to imagine what they used to be like, imagining them full of people and houses and machines.

***

When your dad arrived, I was about the same age as you are now – no longer a girl, but not yet a woman.

The guards had brushed me off that day. I guess I’d worn them out, asked too many questions. I couldn’t help it. A fire burned in my belly, giving me too much energy. Apart from exhausting myself physically, the only way to douse it was by satisfying my curiosity.

I was given a name when I was born, but no one ever used it. The nicknames piled up instead, describing what I was rather than who I was.

Fidget.

Whirling dervish.

Roadrunner.

***

I was the first one to help your dad after he fell. I cradled his head, and wiped some blood off his face.

One of the guards took over. Your dad came to, blinking fast. The guard held a wet rag to his mouth. He sucked at it greedily, and then suddenly smiled.

He had a nice smile, if you looked past his cracked lips and bad teeth. I tried not to stare.

“Go get Aunty,” the guard told me.

And so off I ran.

***

Aunty wasn’t in her caravan, or the village green, or the communal kitchen, or the fields where we grew our food.

That left only one other place to look.

I headed up the side of the volcano overlooking the town, my legs pumping. I stopped at the volcano’s rim, catching my breath and resting in the shade of the rickety tower that served as a lookout.

“Oi, Fidget, you alright down there?” someone yelled.

I looked up. My big brother – your uncle – was perched in the crow’s nest atop the tower.

“All good, bro,” I replied. “I’m just looking for Aunty.”

“She’s down below.”

“That’s what I figured. Thanks.”

“No worries.”

“Hey, you got any water? I left mine in town.”

“You bet, heads up.”

He held out a full canteen, and then dropped it. Squinting in the sun, I let it fall rather than try and catch it. It hit the ground with a thunk but didn’t split open.

I took a long drink and then headed over the rim.

***

It was cooler inside the crater. I slowed down a little, trying to keep my feet, not wanting to tumble arse-over-tit. I found Aunty in one of the caves that disappeared into the earth.

It was her favourite cave, the one that let us live our lives.

She was sitting cross-legged next to the spring that burbled up from underground. Her eyes were closed. One hand rested in the water, feeling it flow through her fingers and into the system of channels that fed our fields.

“Hello, Rabbit,” she said, eyes still closed.

Somehow she seemed to know when someone was near, as if she could sense them. It always freaked me out a little.

“Is everything okay?” she asked.

I got straight to the point, knowing how she hated it when people ummed and aahed.

“There’s a stranger here. He said something about raiders.”

Aunty’s eyes flicked open, and seemed to bore into me. I tried not to flinch.

“Very well.”

She was suddenly on her feet, a smooth and effortless motion. She strode past me. I did my best to keep up.

***

Back in town, Aunty checked on your dad and had someone tend to his wounds. He spoke in fits and starts, forcing the words out, obviously in pain. Aunty listened carefully and didn’t interrupt him.

This is what I learned:

A mob of raiders were heading our way, fifty or sixty of them.

They were a three-day hike to the north.

They meant business.

They were armed and had some kind of war machine.

Your dad had been their slave, but had somehow escaped.

***

There were more details to his story, but they didn’t really matter. The bones of it were frightening enough.

***

When your dad had finished talking, Aunty let him be and gathered the rest of the elders, leading them to what we laughingly called the town hall. She let me stay. She knew I’d kick up a fuss if they tried to get rid of me.

I hung back, keeping my eyes and ears open.

They talked about fighting and fleeing. As young as I was, and as much as I loved home, I

knew we couldn’t defend ourselves. There were barely thirty of us left, and that included the kids and youngsters – everyone else had fled when the rain stopped falling.

But we couldn’t run either. Where would we go?

***

Eventually, Aunty and the elders settled on a plan – they would send out runners to ask for help fighting off the raiders. We weren’t alone back then. There we people we traded with if we could, or just gave water to if they needed it.

I scoffed at the idea of help. I objected, loudly. I told them they were stupid for relying on the hope that others would help.

Why would they?

Life was hard enough as it was.

***

But to the elders I was just a kid, and they completely ignored me.

***

The rest of that day was a buzz of activity that went through the night. First off, Aunty chose the fittest half-dozen of us to get the word out. She told them where to go and what to do, and then passed each of them a rough haversack crammed with a few days worth of water and food.

Lastly, she gave each of them a relic of the old world that she called a ‘flare gun.’

“Their elders will know what to do,” she told the runners.

None of them spoke, the importance of their task sitting heavily on their shoulders.

I watched silently as they took off into the night. Each one headed in a different direction, some to the mud-folk from the swamps engulfing the drowned city down south, some to the nomadic tinkers who gleaned scraps from the ruins, some to those hold-outs and die-hards who refused to leave their towns, some to the First Country caravans winding their way through the desolation, and some to those recluses and loners hunkered down in the hills.

***

As soon as they had gone, the other elders called us together and set us to work. Half of us turned our minds to defending ourselves if we had to. The rest started preparing to evacuate.

We fortified the gate.

We built barricades out of car carcasses and wrecked furniture.

We set traps and snares.

We emptied out meager armoury and practised-practised-practised.

The best of us with a bow and arrow set up sniper nests in the trees ringing the town.

***

I didn’t sleep at all that night. Neither did your dad. He pitched in, pushing himself as hard as anyone else, doing whatever was asked of him. That surprised me, considering his injuries and the fact that he was a stranger.

At one point we found ourselves working side-by-side. I’m glad for that, and always will be, because otherwise you wouldn’t be here.

***

I collapsed in the middle of the next day, absolutely exhausted. By the time I awoke, the sun was setting and we were as ready as we could be.

***

I decided to join my big brother while we waited. I asked your dad if he wanted to tag along, but he declined – he always hated heights.

And so I was all alone as I carefully climbed the tower clinging to the rim of the volcano.

Once at the top, I dropped my supply of fresh water, hugged my brother tight and did my best not to look down. You’ve been there. You know how high it is.

He was pleased to see me, but as soon as we’d broken apart he scooped up the town’s sole set of binoculars and resumed his vigil.

We took turns scanning the dark horizon, looking to the north.

All we saw were shadows and gloom.

***

We saw the first sign of the raiders just after dawn – a thick plume of dust to the north, thrown up by their march.

“How long do you reckon it’ll take them to get here?” I asked my brother.

“They’ll probably be here by dark. You’d better tell Aunty.”

“Got it.”

I descended the tower, hurried into town and told Aunty what was what. She gathered us together and filled us in.

After that, all we could do was wait.

That was the worst part.

***

Night fell, after an anxious day. We took our positions. We readied our weapons. And then the brilliant blossom of a flare filled the sky to the south.

Help was on its way, our friends and neighbours were coming, all we had to do was hold off the raiders until they arrived.

I smiled so wide that my cheeks hurt.

Moments later, another flare went off, this time to the west. And then another and another and another, more and more of them, including one from the north, behind the raiders.

And then one of our runners approached the gates.

Before he fell to the ground in exhaustion, he gave Aunty a thumbs-up.

***

Our law doesn’t just apply to us, but to everyone else out there in the wasteland. Well, everyone else that’s still good.

Help when you can.

(Originally published in Stories of Hope, February 2020)

Psychological Science Fiction and Our Fascination with Inner Space

There’s no denying that the world of today resembles the science fiction futures imagined by writers of the past. From smartphones to driverless cars, social media to online shopping, holographic recreations of dead musicians to robotic concierges, retinal scanners and facial-recognition systems to talking computers and drones, advanced technology is inextricably intertwined with our lives. In fact, so ubiquitous has it become, that it has left hitherto unseen mental disorders and psychological problems in its wake.

This leaves contemporary science fiction in a strange place. Why bother imagining new kinds of advanced technologies, and examining their potential repercussions? After all, it’s more likely than not that technology’s next step in its seemingly endless progression might make these imaginings seem passé. A problem like this, while provoking debate amongst the science fiction community, has also given birth to brand-new subgenres that attempt to reconcile these problems, as well as reinvigorating moribund subgenres of the past.

Old-fashioned science fiction of the space opera kind has experienced a revival, its escapist nature acting as a means of temporarily forgetting about these contemporary issues. Climate change fiction has returned to examine one of today’s most vexing problems, one that technology still seems a long time away from solving. Steampunk is growing in popularity and reaching wider audiences, transporting the reader to a bygone time where our relationship can be re-examined. And post-apocalyptic fiction is likewise growing in popularity, as well as becoming increasingly brutal and nihilistic, arguably as a reaction to the pessimistic atmosphere permeating the modern world.

One particular subgenre, however, seems perfectly positioned to address the questions posed by our technologically-driven world: psychological science fiction. An adaptable and fluid subgenre that can easily nestle within others—post-apocalyptic, climate change, cyberpunk and literary science fiction, for example—it typically deviates from the standard science fiction concern of examining the ways in which advanced technology impacts the world around us, and examining the follow-on effects of these impacts on our day-to-day lives. Instead, it is more concerned with the way that said technology and its attendant impacts effect our psychological make-up—our ‘inner space.’

A term apocryphally attributed to J G Ballard, psychological science fiction is nonetheless most closely associated with his work, which occupied two very different conceptual positions and yet shared a focus on the ways that technology-defined spaces can influence characters’ psyches, personalities and emotional states. On one hand, works such as The Drowned World (1962), The Drought (1964), The Crystal World (1966), The Unlimited Dream Company (1979) and Hello America (1981) take place in undeniably science fictional settings, made possible by circumstances such as climate change, apocalyptic warfare or through a ‘leaking’ of time. On the other hand, works such as Concrete Island (1974), High Rise (1975), Crash (1973), Cocaine Nights (1996), Super-Cannes (2000) and Kingdom Come (2006) are nominally realist, taking place in worlds resembling the way ours was at each book’s time of writing—their science fiction elements emerge from Ballard’s focus on the ways that the increasingly-built spaces his characters inhabit owe their existence to the technologically-driven nature of twentieth and twenty-first century life.

These narrative and structural devices didn’t just occur because Ballard had a particular penchant for this kind of storytelling. Indeed, Ballard actually saw science fiction as more a philosophy for twentieth and twenty-first century life. His writings and quotes on this subject are legion, but for the purposes of this work just two will suffice. From an essay written in 1971, entitled Fictions Of Every Kind, he claims that ‘Everything is becoming science fiction. From the margins of an almost invisible literature has sprung the intact reality of the 20th century.’ And from the introduction to the French edition of Crash (1974), he claims that ‘No other form of fiction has the vocabulary of ideas and images to deal with the present, let alone the future.’

To put it more simply, Ballard saw science fiction as a way of describing our present and our position within it. As well, he saw it as a guide to help navigate and understand a world of exponential technological development and advancement, which changed not only the fabric of our environments and communities, but also the ways we conceive of our place within them, and the ways that we connect and communicate with each other and the wider world. However, while the term psychological science fiction undoubtedly applies to Ballard’s work and the philosophical framework behind it, Ballard himself was without question a singular writer. Steeped in psychological, psychoanalytic and psychiatric terminology, his writing style was instantly identifiable as being his alone, so much so that the term ‘Ballardian’ emerged in certain literary circles, and other writers who mimicked his style, focus and thrust were often justifiably called out for doing so. This doesn’t mean, though, that psychological science fiction begins and ends with his oeuvre. Instead, until the twenty-first century, the few other writers operating in this field used different stylistic techniques and chose different focuses for examining the ways that technology and its attendant impacts effect our psychological make-up.

But, with the world now resembling the science fiction futures imagined by writers of the past, more and more writers have begun to embrace these kinds of examinations, in new and interesting ways. As well, many of them have shied away from technologically-based scenarios as the starting points for their examinations, and instead turned to what might best be described as ‘impossible’ science fiction scenarios, such as the appearance of aliens, the almost-total disappearance of humankind and the multiverse/parallel worlds theory, perhaps as ways of accommodating the aforementioned belief that technology is advancing and evolving faster than we had ever thought possible, and so now more ‘impossible’ scenarios might not quite seem so ridiculous or unbelievable.

Jeff Vandermeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy (2014) is an extreme example of the ways that advanced technology and its attendant impacts might affect our psychological make-up and our ‘inner space.’ In Vandermeer’s case, however, the advanced technology within is really a moot point—his focus is on what might happen to someone’s psyche in the face of a thoroughly inexplicable and unknowable force, rather on the technology behind this force.

For over thirty years, an uninhabited and abandoned section of the United States coastline has been sealed off by an intangible border, and is referred to as Area X. No one knows what’s really inside the border, or how it came to be—physics and biology seem strangely askew, but not in a quantifiable way. The Southern Reach is a secretive government agency charged with investigating Area X, but after innumerable expeditions, which all ended in madness, murder, terminal illness or suicide, they are no closer to understanding it.

While this scenario might seem like a hoary science fiction chestnut, Vandermeer’s focus isn’t on Area X’s detail, logic and reason for being, allowing him instead to use what could be considered a cliché as a framework for a deep dive into the ways that Area X makes his characters think and feel. Chiefly structured around two points of view—Ghost Bird, a biologist sent on the Southern Reach’s latest expedition; and Control, who has just replaced the head of the Southern Reach—Vandermeer shows us the psychological effect of Area X from both an outsider’s perspective, and an insider’s. The biologist, at first trapped within Area X, struggles to make sense of something so concretely real and yet impossible; when freed, she remains forever marked by it. Control, sifting through the previous director’s increasingly-bizarre notes while hunkered in the Southern Reach’s headquarters, struggles from a distance with the very concept of Area X, and the futility of even trying to comprehend it.

We follow them on the inner journey that Area X maps for them, and feel the emotions that they feel. In the end, as they realise that perhaps the best way to understand Area X is to stop trying and simply accept it, we realise a trick that Vandermeer has pulled—Area X can be read as a metaphor for the great technologically-driven changes happening around us, which seem both prosaic and extraordinary, visible and opaque, influential and unknowable, real and unreal.

Paul Hardy’s The Last Man on Earth Club (2011) is another extreme example. In the far future, travel between the multiverse has become a reality, overseen by an agency based on our version of Earth. Within this agency is situated a department tasked with rescuing and rehabilitating survivors of post-apocalyptic calamities on ‘other’ Earths, calamities that have rendered them the sole survivors of their respective Earths.

While such a concept allows Hardy to gleefully play with all manner of Last Man on Earth and post-apocalyptic tropes—worlds overrun by zombies, devastated by plague or nuclear weapons, rendered uninhabitable by wars between humans and cyborgs, pillaged by aliens and left in ruins —his glee is only skin deep. While not bereft of action, his real focus is on the psychological make-up and ‘inner space’ of these survivors. Hesitant to accept their newfound reality, and deeply scarred by the events they have lived through, the bulk of the book concerns the characters’ interactions with their fellow survivors and their shared lives in a rehabilitation centre. Scenes focus on group therapy sessions, conflicts with fellow survivors, their frequent inability to connect with others or move on from their trauma, and their difficulties adjusting to their changed circumstances.

Upon reflection, we soon see that The Last Man on Earth Club is really an examination of post-traumatic stress disorder, especially as it pertains to those unable or unwilling to adjust to the radical changes happening to their worlds and lives. None of us can relate to surviving an attack by aliens or hordes of zombies, but we can all relate to the difficulties involved in moving on from a traumatic event that seems to shift our world’s axis, and from which there can often seem no return.

Vandermeer and Hardy aren’t the only contemporary writers of psychological science fiction—the concerns addressed by this subgenre are so thought-provoking and relevant to the world of today that many other writers have also engaged with them, often nesting their examinations within other subgenres. Thomas Glavinic infuses Night Work (2008) with a Ballardian chill, charting the slow but inevitable disintegration of a man’s psychology and personality after an inexplicable event has left him alone on Earth—a more accomplished tale of the perils of disconnection and isolation is yet to be found. In Machine Man (2009), Max Barry uses the trope of cyborgs to look at the technology-fostered internal dislocation experienced by some people, and offers us an engineer so disconnected from ‘reality’ and so blasé about technology and his relationship with it, that he effectively upgrades his entire body. Matt Haig’s The Humans (2013) reverses the perspective of a typical first-contact story, so that we see people through the eyes of an alien rather than the other way around, allowing a thoroughly moving look at our common humanity that also raises the prospect of hope in the face of the impossible. In Things We Didn’t See Coming (2009), Steven Amsterdam presents a world wracked by environmental disasters caused by climate change, and yet rather than focus on the doom and gloom typical of post-apocalyptic fiction of this kind, he uses the scenario to look at how such a future might inspire our psyches rather than warp them, allowing us to pull together rather than tear apart. And in the world of visual science fiction, films such as Moon (2009), 10 Cloverfield Lane (2016) and Anon (2018), and television shows such as Black Mirror (2011-2017) and Humans (2015-2018), use science fiction tropes as varied as clones, alien invasion and personal robots as springboards for their own examinations of the ways that advanced technology and its attendant impacts might affect our psychological make-up and our ‘inner space.’

No matter which medium you prefer, you can bet that someone is using it to create new types of psychological science fiction. After all, it is perhaps the most fitting subgenre of science fiction when it comes to understanding our modern world, allowing us to see anew the rapid rate of technological change surrounding us, as well as our own place within it and our relationship to it.

(Originally published in Aurealis #114, September 2018)

The Best Speculative Ozploitation Gems

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 (1984)

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)