Ghosts… of the Civil Dead (John Hillcoat, 1988)

“A brilliantly and authentically shocking film … nothing I have seen compares with Ghosts in the power of its ideas and the intensity of their treatment.” – THE AUSTRALIAN

“Combining structural daring with thumping emotional power, this film is the best news from Australian Cinema since the hey-day of the Aussie New Wave.” – Harlan Kennedy, FILM COMMENT

Drafthouse Films LogoCentral Industrial Prison, a new generation of maximum security prison painted in play school colors, is located in the middle of the desert.  It’s been locked down – confinement of all prisoners to their cells – following an outbreak of violence.  The film reveals the truth of the system told through a flashback.  Unseen but omnipotent, the prison’s administration deliberately provokes and manipulates inmates and officers alike until inmates exact their bloody revenge against their perceived oppressors.  With expert direction by John Hillcoat and a maniacal performance by Nick Cave (who also provides the film’s haunting soundtrack), Ghosts… of the Civil Dead is a “masterpiece on the order of Goya” (Brian Case, Time Out UK) with “echoes of Stanley Kubrick at his most uncompromising” (Derek Malcolm, The Guardian UK).

Ghosts… of the Civil Dead goes beyond traditional prison themes of good and evil to draw a frightening allegorical portrait of the nature and organization of our society, made most disturbing by the fact that it is all true.  Presented here, for the first time to North American audiences, is the most extraordinary collection of extras gathered for an Australian film – a complete history from inception to release as told by key cast, crew, and musicians, providing compelling insight into the film and the people who made it.

Special Features:

Central Industrial Edition – Package Includes:

  • Ghosts… of the Civil Dead on Blu-ray or Standard DVD featuring over 2 hours of bonus material
  • High quality 720p HD Digital Download of the Film Available on Street Date
  • Instant Download of Nick Cave’s 13-track Ghosts… of the Civil Dead Soundtrack
  • 27″ x 40″ Poster
  • Jack Henry Abbott’s book In the Belly of the Beast

The Ghosts… of the Civil Dead website, an excellent, albeit aggrandizing, resource for the film, includes a review/quote from Sex Gore Mutants stating, “Some of the most brutal non-horror films in recent memory have been set in prisons.”  While the quote lacks anything particular about Ghosts and so one wonders why it’s referenced at all, the implicit description of the film as “non-horror” is a curious one that begs unpacking.  Certainly horror films don’t require some supernatural or macabre element to qualify, to which various serial killer and rape-revenge horror movies testify.  These movies scare, filling us with dread and terrorizing us with violent imagery.  Similar to the documentary GasLand (Josh Fox, 2010), which by all rights should be considered a straight-up horror film as well, Ghosts may not obviously rest in the horror genre given its documentary-styled imagery or social commentary, but it is terrifying, perhaps more so because there is no fantastical element or rare sociopathy motivating its premise.  Those looking to be truly shaken (and perhaps awakened) need look no further that John Hillcoat’s film début.

Ghosts opens near its end.  The Central Industrial Prison, a “new generation” maximum security facility housing society’s worst prisoners, has been in lockdown (confining all inmates to their cells) for 37 months, the longest lockdown in the history of the Bureau of Prisons.  An explanatory title screen advises that a report from the Committee on the Judiciary recounts its causes and the film from there depicts the rise of violent incidents in Central Industrial and the response of prison authorities, however what is seen is not the report’s sanitized and manipulated conclusions.  Instead, we are presented with the introduction of Wenzil (David Field) to the predatory depths of the Central Industrial.  Eager to stake his claim in the prison, he steals a radio from another prisoner in hopes of trading it for a tattoo, but is instead ambushed, beaten, and raped, left with very graphic word tattooed across his forehead.  From there, authorities begin cracking down, closing off drug lines into the prison, removing personal belongings (a montage of searching for and collecting innumerable prisoner weaponry is chilling), shutting off television service, and committing their own acts of invasion and brutality.  Prison staff quietly observe the effects of these actions and, aware they are improperly staffed to deal with the frustration and anger building amongst inmates, become increasingly anxious about their own safety.  The prisoners’ boredom drive some mad, leading to occasions self-mutilation.  Many hide in their cells, afraid for their lives should they wander within general population.  Wenzil murders transvestite inmate Lilly (Dave Mason) for no real reason, confirming those fears.  In a higher security area of the prison, a guard-killer his hanged in his cell while handcuffed and a guard is later stabbed to death by another prisoner in a fit of rage.  Other inmates cheer while two guards hide within a prisoner exercise cage to protect themselves.  Yet, in the face of these escalating problems, authorities fail to resolve staffing issues and continue mixing in more dangerous prisoners (Nick Cave’s performance as the screaming, vitriolic racist Maynard, who paints his cell’s walls with his own blood, is terrifying).  The Committee report concludes accepting violence as an inevitable result of the prison environment and recommends devoting greater resources to Central Industrial to meet the challenges that it largely produced for itself.  Its economic reward for creating an environment that encourages brutality against prisoners and guards is a recommendation for the construction of a new “super-maximum” facility.

The fear that Ghosts inspires, of mounting dread and boiling hostilities, is assuredly a product of the grim realism and documentary tone achieved by director John Hillcoat and cinematographers Paul Goldman and Graeme Wood.  Krystal Maynard astutely notes how the film’s grisly action is caught fleetingly through doorways or on poor quality surveillance tapes.  While an exceedingly violent film, Ghosts actually shows relatively little action, instead dwelling on its build-up and aftermath.  It is naturally a very flat film in characterization and avoids classical Hollywood cinema elements such as well-defined, goal-oriented protagonists.  There are no principle characters and no real depth to anyone beyond their time in and relationship with the Central Industrial.  Narrators frequently shift without notice or clearly being ascribed to characters onscreen.  We see guards like David Yale (Mike Bishop) crack under pressure, but see nothing of him outside the prison, only hearing through voice-over about his persecution by authorities when he later tries to testify about prison conditions.  The film’s central figure is its antagonist and its context – the prison itself.  The highly affective documentary look of Ghosts is also described in a more directly sinister manner.  Hillcoat frequently has prisoners placed directly in front of the camera, sometimes naked, in a position of direct address.  While nearly always silent, this breaking of the fourth-wall by these hard-edged, thousand-yard stares is disconcerting.  Rather than breaking the film’s illusion of reality and offering distanciation, it reaches out at the spectator, bringing the world of the Central Industrial suddenly and uncomfortably close.  Such moments are key as the prison is a contained society and these moments of rupture connects the interior world of the Central Industrial to the exterior world of the spectator, bringing to the fore the film’s metaphorical relationship to our larger society and the measures taken to keep us afraid and controlled.  Much like the concluding sequence where a subway underground is mistaken as the prison and Wenzil follows a woman up a rising escalator, we are meant to recognize that the prisoners’ world is our world and, worse, we may become more like them to survive it.  This broader political vision of Ghosts intended by Hillcoat, Evan English, Nick Cave, and their brethren makes Ghosts much more than a chilling vision of prison life made even more crushing by the inhumane drives of consumerism and capitalism, but rather a Foucauldian nightmare on social control and manipulation.

GOTCD SoundtrackNick Cave’s ominous score also deserves comment.  Its darkly oppressive tonality is contrasted by the distant voices of women or children who wordlessly carry an ethereal tune, evoking the recurring Australian trope of the lost child in the hostile wilderness, a fitting image within Ghosts‘ unlikely context.  The most widely-used image representing the film is a close-up view of Nick Cave’s Maynard in profile, the edge of his face illuminated in blue light.  The photo is no doubt preferred as it offers some star power and commercial appeal to the film, but this stab at easy marketing feels out of keeping with Ghosts, its message, and the otherwise polemical approach taken by the filmmakers.  The soundtrack cover, with its bold, plain lettering and its distant, sterile image of the prison, a nondescript industrial facility that could be virtually anything, feels far more consistent with the form and spirit of Hillcoat’s film.

Credits:  As mentioned above, the Ghosts… of the Civil Dead website is an invaluable resource on the film and its production, release, and reception.  The site claims that the filmmakers hold a bounty of special features for an eventual DVD release.  A collector’s edition DVD produced in limited numbers by Australian Smart Street Films appears to include these extras.  With the exception of the proposed audio commentary and the French television interview with Nick Cave, all other special features listed above are drawn from this DVD.  The website contains various comments decrying treatment of the film as a commercial product, particularly where marketed “as another ‘collaboration between Nick Cave and John Hillcoat’, as some kind of celebrity back-slapping afternoon tea” that betrays “the film’s intent and its powerful call to educate.”  Drafthouse Films’ treatment and promotion of Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing (2012) suggests that the label is up to the task of doing justice to Ghosts in a manner deemed suitable to the filmmakers.  And with the label’s strong distribution, Hillcoat and Cave’s enhanced prominence as filmmakers, and the socio-political changes that have occurred since the film was originally released, Ghosts would be strongly poised for rediscovery.  Those interested in critical analysis should consider Ina Bertrand’s article “Bordering Fiction and Documentary: Ghosts… of the Civil Dead” at Senses of Cinema, Jamie Bennett’s discussion at The Film Journal, and Krystal Maynard’s review of the film.


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