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By Joshua Smith

Australian Exploitation Films
Author: Joshua Smith
Published on: January 13, 1998

When used in general conversation, the term "exploitation" quickly excites people's moral systems — conjuring up imagery that runs against the established social norms (or politically-established rights). The term has a markedly different interpretation when used in a cinematic context.

Exploitation films, rather than exploiting a particular race/gender's rights, generally deviate from the accepted cinematic-literary codes and conventions. Arising from a low-budget "slasher" or "sexploitation" tradition, exploitation films are often generic works that, while conforming to many generic characteristics (usually those of horror, sci-fi or action), also push the boundaries of the art-form.

While early exploitation films are generally seen to make little serious social commentary, the form has developed remarkably of late, undoubtedly boosted by the international success of Miller's "mainstream" exploitation film, Mad Max (1979). Through their escapist form, exploitation films are able, unlike their more rigidly-censored and analyzed mainstream counterparts, to tackle social and political issues, while surrounding such within an extreme, almost avante-garde form.

The "best" Australian exploitation films of late (such as Howling III: The Marsupials (1987) and Sons of Steel) don't take themselves too seriously, instead making comment through the use of self-reflexive irony, satire and intertextuality. Since Australia has had no established "B" grade cinema in the past, films produced here are often seen as bland, literary-based period pieces that signified the nation's social awakening. It seems only logical, therefore, that such an awakening should also extend into Australia's cinematic traditions.

Exploitation films challenge conventions, while applying the vigorous narrative thrust and visceral energy of U.S. cinema to the nation's "collective dreams" (in the words of George Miller). In doing so, exploitation films also pave the way for mainstream productions to completely realise the potential of the art-form.

By taking exploitative elements, or avante-garde stylistic traits of the more successful exploitation films, mainstream productions can progress forwards. Undoubtedly, there is some connection between the rise in Australia's "B" grade cinema, and the success of challenging social-realist pieces, such as Geoffrey Wright's Romper Stomper (1992) and Metal Skin (1995).

Wright's work displays both a move towards the visceral, explicit trends of American or Hong Kong action cinema, and a dark, over-the-top stylistic shift that has permeated through films such as Proof (1994) since. Certainly, exploitation films are seen by many to be the dregs of cinema, but they could also reveal more about this nation and its people than what mainstream motion pictures are able to convey.

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