Ghosts…of the Civil Dead (1988)

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This is one of those movies that just chills you to the bone. John Hillcoat’s first film is part documentary, part dystopian prison drama and part horror flick. Anchored on a script that features contributions from the great Nick Cave (as well as a fierce acting performance from Cave) Ghosts…of the Civil Dead features the same blend of myth and reality that would go on to define many of Hillcoat’s (and Cave’s) later films. Having worked backwards to this movie though, I can say without a shadow of a doubt that this is by far his most authentic and disturbing film. It shudders with absolute reality and pulsates with violence.

From the gritty faces who make up the cast to the clinical desolation of the prison location, there’s a confrontational unease from the first frame to the last. It definitely has a lot of rough edges and the pacing can be frustratingly slow but there is an atmosphere and choking sense of dread that makes it all worthwhile.

Definitely not something I’ll be in a hurry to revisit but it’s a fascinating debut full of bold ideas and an essential Australian discovery. It doesn’t seem widely available and only known by select groups (in the UK at least) which makes it feel all the more forbidden and notorious. Seek it out however you can. This is a cult shocker that really delivers.

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