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By Joshua Smith

Ghosts...Of the Civil Dead
Author: Joshua Smith
Published on: June 30, 1998

One of the most confronting, shocking and insightful works to emerge from the visceral, genre-dominated age of the 1980s in Australia is Ghosts…of the Civil Dead (1989). Ghosts, directed and produced by a pair of artists whose previous work was in the music video arena, presents a stark, super-stylised view of the future that is deeply affecting.

The film is based on the notion that Australian prisons, once privatised, may become dark, macabre torture-houses aimed at confining and dehumanising their inmates, in a similar fashion to which a number of American prisons have degenerated of late. A dystopic view of the future (the "not-too-distant-future," in fact) is presented in a vivid, expressionistic display of colour and hyper-real form.

It is worth noting here that the film is also co-written by and stars one of Australia's best known singer-songwriters, Nick Cave, who also composed the music for the film. Reflecting the style and themes present in Cave's own work, Ghosts can be seen as Australian poetic realism at its darkest and finest. The film's screenplay is filled with irony, parody and pastiche, commenting on the gradual decay of the human spirit as a result of its entrapment within a capitalist world. Just as the film's score is remarkably subtle and minimalist, there is noticeably little dialogue, but the dialogue and monologue that is present is often desperately poetic and tragic in nature. Its sparseness places more emphasis on the film's form.

Images of blood, violence and sex dominate much of the film's mise-en-scene, increasingly so as the film progresses and the level of humanity maintained within the prison regresses. It soon becomes obvious that the inmates, who are forced to suffer a series of increasingly disturbing and increasingly invasive bouts of brutality from the wardens, are not the only victims in the film. The guards come to realise that they are fighting a futile cause - one that is not only controlled by a higher force, but which will never lead to the reformation of the criminals' lives.

The guards' descent into the same sense of helplessness and isolation that overcomes the inmates is revealed in their dishonourable demise. The guards' previous attempts to break the spirits and create friction between the in-mates backfires upon them in an explosion of violence and self-destruction that ultimately leads to the demise of the prison. Following is a masterfully subtle but terrifying conclusion in the same vein as the final flash of De Niro's eyes in his rear-view mirror in Scorsese's Taxi Driver (1976), that reveals that the criminals, once released, will never be able to function normally again.

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