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System of a down
An Australian region 0 DVD review of GHOSTS... OF THE CIVIL DEAD by Slarek
"They respect the man that wears the boot that's in their face. That's why they're here."
Guard – Central Industrial Prison
"They bred me to create fear, and I just did what I was supposed to do."
Inmate – Central Industrial Prison


In an age where the title of a film does not necessarily spell out its content or even genre, Ghosts... of the Civil Dead should still surely be up for some sort of prize for opaqueness of meaning. Whether or not the title rings any bells may depend on where you live – if you're Australian you may well know it, but elsewhere the film has had precious little exposure, despite the critical acclaim that greeted it at its various festival screenings and on its limited international release. Which is a shame, because it really is something.

Ghosts... is set in one of the so-called 'New Generation' jails that were designed to be safer, more humane, give more control to the staff, and reduce inmate tension and associated violence. I didn't make that up, that's how they are described to this day by correctional authorities (itself a term that has grown out of the 'new generation' thinking) across America. You can check this out for yourself at the web site of the Sheriff of Alexandria in Virginia County, which sells the Alexandria Detention Centre as a model of New Generation Jail design and implementation in a manner that makes it look and sound like a holiday village (well you could until the site was taken down). At the very least it sounds progressive and potentially effective. Except...

The film begins with a textual prologue. Central Industrial Prison, a maximum security facility designed specifically to house society's most violent and unmanageable inmates, has been in a state of 'lockdown' – where the prisoners are confined to their cell block – for the past 37 months, the longest in Australian prison history. What follows is a record of the events that led to this situation.

There is some intriguing misdirection in the first few minutes. As a number of chained new inmates are marched into the cell block in which the rest of the film will be set, we are connected through voice-over to the thoughts of one of them, Henry Wenzil. Movie tradition, and especially prison movie tradition, tells us a couple of things straight up – firstly, that he is to be our lead character, the one whose journey we will follow from arrival to probable release, and secondly, that he is the relative innocent of the piece (something emphasised by his initial wide-eyed uncertainty), the one whose experience and personality would most closely match our own in this situation. But this soon proves not to be the case. As Wenzil settles into his cell we move on to Jack Grezner, who has been transferred after killing a guard at a previous place on incarceration and sent to this institution, the voice-over informs us, "to undermine our authority." Excuse me? It's at this point that it becomes clear that the voice-over does not belong to Wenzil at all, but an as-yet unidentified custodian. Perhaps it is part of the report into the causes of the lockdown, something a computer display that appears intermittently suggests is to form the thrust of the narrative. As the story progresses, other voices make themselves heard, the most poignant of which belongs to a middle-aged man in solitary confinement, who looks back on his imprisonment at the age of 16 and the pain of never having slept with a woman. He thinks about it a lot, but finds the thoughts obscured by dreams of violence, because "It's all I know, it's all I've ever seen."

In some ways, Wenzil does indeed meet narrative expectations, learning the ropes from others and very quickly becoming a player within the inmate subsystem. But despite his confidence, he's out of his depth and soon pays the price through a form of jail justice that ultimately reshapes him from a violent thief into something much worse. Far from aiding his rehabilitation, the system helps turn a man into a monster.

The air is charged with tension and the threat of violence from the opening frames, but as order on the block slowly starts to disintegrate there is a growing and almost apocalyptic sense of a society on the verge of complete, anarchic collapse. The warders are increasingly on the defensive, and at a key moment one of them quits on the spot, unable to face another hour in a situation in which he fears for his life. The arrival of a particularly psychotic inmate (played by singer Nick Cave, one of the original writers) acts almost as a focus for the pent-up anger and hostility of the others, and the sense that the block is a human time bomb primed to explode on a single wrong word is almost overwhelming.

Although both clearly inspired by similar source material, it's hard to believe that that makers of the HBO series Oz had not seen Ghosts... when they embarked on their own, justifiably praised project. The main set, the cell block, is virtually identical (although this does reflect the consistency of design in the New Generation prisons) and the frank presentation of violence, sexual abuse, racism and drug addiction, as well as the raw honesty of the language that so marked Oz, are all present here in recognisably similar form. Where the two do differ is in their handling of the main characters – while as a TV drama series Oz relies on more traditional story arcs and character engagement, Ghosts... maintains a steely detachment and an almost documentary sense of observation that makes for consistently unsettling and later downright disturbing viewing. The sense of what it's like to go through such a system feels very real and at times genuinely frightening, emphasised by the canny casting of real ex-prisoners and guards and actors who look and behave every inch the part.

Ghosts... of the Civil Dead is more than just a prison movie, it's also an allegorical reflection of the changing nature of law and order in a society that is encouraged to form very specific responses to a perceived threat, one that is often exaggerated and sometimes even manufactured – as producer Evan English reminds us in the included interviews, "fear is a great method of social control." But its prison movie credentials are nonetheless crucial to its searing effectiveness – the incidents detailed here have all taken place in real New Generation prisons, one of which, in Marion, Illinois, has been in a permanent state of lockdown since the killing of two guards in 1983, an incident recreated in one of the film's most chillingly horrible scenes. With that lockdown still in place and inmates confined to their cells for up to 23 hours a day, not to mention the human rights abuses taking place at Guantanamo Bay, the film has lost none of its urgency or social relevance. Here the prison system is seen less as a place of punishment and correction than a machine for further criminalizing its inmates. It remains an extraordinary work that demands to be more widely seen outside of its native Australia. With the latest collaboration between director John Hillcott and writer Nick Cave, the dark western The Proposition, released in the UK on 10 March, the timing is surely perfect for Ghosts... to appear on UK DVD.

sound and vision

Framed in its original aspect ratio of 1.37:1, it has to be said that – particularly for a special edition – the picture quality here is not all it should be. Sharpness and colour are for the most part strong, and the contrast, though a little fierce at times (which may be deliberate), is solid, but there is quite a bit of dirt on the print, with dust spots and even the occasional hair very visible. Grain is also noticeable, but this is neither surprising nor particularly distracting. In all other respects the transfer is very good.

The soundtrack is Dolby stereo 2.0 and is of very high quality, with excellent separation and crystal clear reproduction of music and sound effects. Even the main menu sounds good.

extra features

As a Collector's Edition, you'd expect this disc to have a decent set of extras, and it does not disappoint. Surprisingly, there is no commentary track, but the plentiful interviews provide so much information on the background and filming that you are not left with the sense that you have been short changed in any way. Indeed, actually cataloguing the extra features here is an almost Herculean task, as many of them are buried in subsections and found only by paying close attention to each screen or experimenting with the direction buttons on the remote control, and there is some duplication in places. With this in mind, it seems only appropriate that on the main menu we are invited to 'Explore Extras'.

The first section, Interviews, were shot in 2002 and and include chats with director John Hillcoat (25:26), co-writer and producer Evan English (17:52), co-writer, actor and co-composer of the score Nick Cave (14:23) and co-composer Blixa Bargeld (5:38). There is a lot of information about the research and writing of the film here, the financing, the use of real world former guards and prisoners in the cast, as well as the influence of Jack Henry's book The Belly of the Beast, the documentary Tattooed Tears, the filming styles of Kubrick, Bresson and Ozu and even Gillo Pontecorvo's The Battle of Algiers. It's all fascinating stuff, and despite the high regard in which they all still hold the film, there is no ego on display here. All are shot on DV and sometimes directly to camera. The fourth wall falls down completely with Bargeld, who refuses to redo his opening intro to camera and then stops to take a phone call.

This is one of those cases when you have to look carefully, as a small triangle on the lower right of screen indicates that there is a second page, which can be highlighted by pressing the right button on your remote. This will give you a second page of Interviews with Evan English & John Hillcoat (14:39), Nick Cave (9:34), co-composer Mick Harvey (5:14), and Blixa Bargeld (7:54), all recorded in 1998 and which do cover some of the same ground as the 2002 interviews, but actually provide a wider level of detail on the research and background to the film, and in some ways are even more interesting as a result. Mention here is also made of 'The Aryan Brotherhood', strengthening the connection with Oz. The interviews are conducted by the filmmakers themselves on analogue tape. The interview with Bargeld is more of a jokey chat with friends, and none of them take it remotely seriously.

And yes, there's a third screen of Interviews, though these are audio only. Production designer Chris Kennedy (12:30) describes the problems of constructing and maintaining sets made largely from cardboard (due to the film's tiny budget), and he has some nice anecdotal stories about the real-life ex-prisoners used in the film and the chaos that exploded at the wrap party. Actor Mike Bishop (8:20) talks by phone about the real-life prisoner (again from Marion prison) on which his character was based, and his experiences preparing for and working on the film. Actor Vincent Gil (7:37) describes his time on the film as one of the most disturbing experiences he has ever had, but remains proud of the work. Brett Collins (10:26) is an ex-prisoner who works with the Australian Prisoners Action Group and campaigns for the welfare of prisoners in general, and worked on the film as a consultant and actor. He is also interviewed by phone and gives a fairly detailed history of his own background and time in jail, then talks at some speed about his involvement in the film. It should be noted that you can't pause or fast wind any of these interviews, so if you get interrupted mid way you'll have to start again.

The next section, Nick Cave, has a textual biography of the singer, but also included here is a link to the 1988 and 2002 interviews detailed above, and a Script Image (1:00), which is a slow scroll down Cave's annotated script for the film.

Production has 6 subsections, which themselves also have subsections (you see what I mean?). In Concept & Research there are 3 textual biographies, one each on The Belly of the Beast author Jack Abbott, former Marion Penitentiary guard David Hale, and justice campaigner Brett Collins. Each biography includes links to other files. Under Jack Abbott's picture you can find The Novel, a link to stills of the cover of his book, and Letter to Hillcoat (2:05), in which Hillcoat reads (audio only, accompanied by a still of the document in question) the first letter he received from Abbott, who was at that time incarcerated in Marion. In David Hale's piece the Audio Tracks contain 8 extracts (1-5 mins each) from the soundtrack CD, 4 of which include part of a phone conversation with Hale about his experiences as a guard at Marion. His paints a worrying picture of the management and administration there, and talks about the murder of the two guards, which happened while he was on duty. In Brett Collins' section there is a link to his interview detailed above.

Filmmakers contains biographies for John Hillcoat, Evan English, Nick Cave, Chris Kennedy and director of photography Paul Goldman. Links are provided to interviews and related materials found elsewhere on the disc in the first four biographies; Goldman's has none.

Cast has biographies for David Field, Mike Bishop, Vince Gil, Dave Mason and Nick Cave. These also provide links to related interviews and features.

Storyboards unsurprisingly features the storyboards, which are viewable a frame at a time for two sequences in which killings take place (to reveal the titles given would be a plot spoiler). You can also watch each of the sequences without the boards from here.

Photographs are just that, four pages of thumbnails of production photos that can be enlarged to a reasonable size.

Music & Sound has biographies of (once again) Nick Cave, Mick Harvey and Blixa Bargeld, again with appropriate links. There is also a link to the soundtrack extracts found under the David Hale piece.

The next section, Promotion, features a Trailer (1:08), the French Trailer (1:21), Print Promotion, featuring poster artwork, stills taken at the Venice and Cannes festivals, and a list of the film Festivals at which Ghosts... has played. Venice and Cannes includes an audio extra, Arrest Story (8:54), in which Hillcoat talks about the approach he and Evan English took to promoting the film at the festivals, creating simple but provocative posters and illegally sticking them up at night wherever he found a space, which one night resulted in him being arrested as a suspected terrorist.

The final section, Criticism, has 3 subsections. Audio Essay (9:10) is an audio review by freelance writer Ina Bertrand. Review Quotes is exactly what it says. Australian Prison Films provides trailers for the 1980 Stir (2:56), Ghosts... of the Civil Dead (1:24), the 1994 Everynight Everynight (2:22) and, of course, the 2000 Chopper (1:42). The Stir trailer looks very much like it has been hauled off of second generation VHS.


Ghosts... of the Civil Dead is a remarkable film that deserves to be far more widely seen than it has been, at least outside of Australia. With the imminent release of The Proposition, starring our very own Ray Winstone, that may all be about to change, who knows. For now this Australian Collector's Edition DVD from Umbrella Entertainment and Street Smart Films is the only way to go. The print could do with some cleaning up, but it's hard to fault the extras, which provide a splendid level of background detail to the production, and the film itself is a must-have. Highly recommended.

Ghosts... of the Civil Dead

Australia 1988
90 mins
John Hillcoat
David Field
Mike Bishop
Chris DeRose
Kevin Mackey
Dave Mason
Nick Cave
Vincent Gil

DVD details
region 0
Dolby stereo 2.0
Interviews with director, producer, composers, actors, production designer, technical adviser
Soundtrack CD extracts
Poster artwork
Nick Cave's annotated script
letter to the director from Jack Henry Abbott
Arrest story

Umbrella / Street Smart
release date
Out now
review posted
13 February 2006

See all of Slarek's reviews