John Hillcoat's intense debut film from 1988 sees the director already working out ideas and themes that would preoccupy later films, chiefly individuals struggling to survive in a hostile and dangerous environment. The clean, comfortable, modern prison facility in Ghosts...of the Civil Dead might seem a world apart from the ragged infrastructure of The Road, but it's society in collapse is familiar enough. The film unfolds as a report into the events that led to a lockdown at the Central Industrial maximum security prison after a number of inmates and prison guards were attacked and killed. What is revealed as the film progresses is that the increasing state of unrest was a carefully orchestrated plan by the prison system administration, geared towards exploiting fears of violent criminality, necessitating the building of more prisons while the government exercises a tightening grip on its citizens...
Ghosts...of the Civil Dead is a difficult film to pin down. On it's initial release the film played on the arthouse circuit but alienated audiences with it's ugly depiction of prison life - the casual brutality, the conveniences of daily life - hard drugs and hard pornography (at one point someone is seen watching a video of Forced Entry), and the distorted prison sexuality (one of the inmates in the film is a transvestite much desired among his fellow detainees). The film is even less an exploitation picture - shot with a cold, steely view, the film assumes an almost documentary quality, and Hillcoat handles the material with mature restraint, rationing out the violence only when necessary lending the film a sharper edge. Another device Hillcoat uses to frustrate his audience are the abstract wisps of voice over which emanate from a prisoner kept in a filthy solitary confinement cell, musing about his life of incarceration.
Much of the film's success rests on it's cast. Among the players, Hillcoat recruited a number of non-professional actors from a pool of ex-convicts and ex-security guards, who all bring a certain look to the film, a kind of prison physiology that makes the film all the more startling. Notable among the cast is Nick Cave, as a newly transferred psychotic murderer, inking out perverse drawings with his blood, and finally tipping the prison population over the edge with his insane rantings. Cave was featured heavily in the film's promotion, but his appearance in the film is rather minor, appearing only in two scenes. More significantly Cave contributed to the writing of the film, and along with fellow Bad Seed Mick Harvey and Einstürzende Neubauten frontman Blixa Bargeld, scored the atmospheric soundtrack which also features the creepy baby-doll crooning of Anita Lane.
Ghosts...of the Civil Dead might have been entirely fictitious but the film had a certain providence, the Central Industrial prison with it's endless corridors of barbed wire eerily anticipates the Guantanamo Bay detention camp, a facitiliy which justified the use of illegal torture methods to scupper terrorist activities, a state of affairs which many people reluctantly agreed to, such was the fear of Islamic extremism. Ultimately Hillcoat's film remains a disquieting work, right down to the final unnerving shot of the film, the tone of film, not so much cynicism but one of concern for the future of the prison system and the enormous problem of rehabilitating the ghosts back into society. See it and worry.
Australian label Umbrella's all-region DVD from 2003 features a good transfer of Ghosts...of the Civil Dead, presented in 1:33, the fullscreen picture close enough to how the film was originally shot. The image looks somewhat grainy and grungy, as was the low budget of the film, with decent colors and for the most part a sharp, detailed image. Audio is good enough, the score sounds excellent, but some dialogue tends to sound blunted at times and you might find out yourself struggling with some of the Australian accents. Sadly, no subtitles are provided. Where the disc scores high are the extras. Hillcoat doesn't provide an audio commentary but he's interviewed extensively about the film, as are the production team, cast members as well as Nick Cave, Mick Harvey and Blixa Bargeld. As well as video interviews, the disc features audio interviews, some 20mins worth of the soundtrack CD plus various items like promotional materials and John Hillcoat's storyboards and production notes.