Melbourne Classics: Ghosts…Of The Civil Dead

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John Hillcoat’s Ghosts… of the Civil Dead is a nihilistic study of prison life. Set in the near future inside a rural maximum security prison, it documents the daily life of inmates and the events leading up to a bloody prison riot.

Filmed in an abandoned Port Melbourne warehouse, it was inspired by the writings of Jack Henry Abbott, an American criminal whose prison experiences were documented in In the Belly of the Beast.

Ghosts… of the Civil Dead is a difficult film to watch. There are no redeeming characters: the wardens are just as violent as the inmates they systematically beat up. Some inmates relieve their boredom with needle drugs, whilst others fantasize about carnal violence. This grim subject matter is coupled with gritty cinematography, while an intrusive camera shows the men engaging in the most private of acts, causing the viewer to feel like a perverse onlooker. This voyeurism is reminiscent of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four, and creates a lurking sense that Big Brother is watching.

The film features several prominent musicians in lead roles. Dave Mason, vocalist for psychedelic band Traffic, plays the role of Lily, a transsexual inmate who’s subjected to regular harassment from both wardens and cellmates. Nick Cave, one of Melbourne’s most cherished musicians, plays Maynard, a psycho killer so brutal he makes Hannibal Lecter look like a choirboy. Nick Cave also co-wrote the soundtrack with fellow Birthday Party bandmate Mick Harvey – a soundtrack that adds to the eerie atmosphere of the film. It was this collaboration that led to Hillcoat and Cave working together again on The Proposition.

The screenplay, written in 1988, is a chilling precursor to the privatization of Australia’s prison system that began 1990 – an initiative which has since made Australia a leading nation in terms of jail privatisation. In Victoria, it began in 1994 under the Kennett Government with Fulham and Port Phillip prisons being taken over by corporations. GSL Group, the company that runs Port Phillip Prison, has been scrutinized by the media in recent years for several inmate deaths that occurred within its facilities.

Ghosts… of the Civil Dead is far more than a typical prison movie. It’s a social commentary about survival, dehumanisation, and institutionalized violence. It has been a defining film in Australian cinema history and is one of the most politically ambitious films ever produced in Melbourne. For film buffs, it’s one of those movies you just have to see.

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