Morbidly Beautiful

Your Home for Horror


Resolve to expand your cinematic horizons this year, starting with a rollicking crash course in the (mostly) proud history of Australian exploitation.

 I didn’t know what I was going to write about for this Shudder Sunday until Twitter made me cry.

I don’t remember the words, really. They didn’t add anything to the two pictures they headlined. Not that they even could.

The first picture was a still from Mad Max Fury Road, when the chrome-plated caravan charges headlong into an apocalyptic duststorm. Even in a time when the only hard currency is clean water, the Earth looks angrier than normal. Red. Blistered. A horizon scorched orange through the suffocating haze.

The second picture was the one you probably saw on a front page somewhere. A boy in a raft off the Australian coast, under a sky the same color as the end of the world.

I didn’t quite sob so much as crack.

The way an amateur criminal does just before the end credits, when he realizes that easy cash to Look The Other Way has compounded with inevitable, homicidal interest.

Two things struck me about the pictures. The natural, howlingly bleak immediate concern was that we’re too far gone on this rock. The second, more insidious concern was that it took a comparison to a car chase movie, peerless though it may be, for the catastrophic weight to properly slump my shoulders. A car chase movie in a franchise that remains unjustly simplistic cultural shorthand, like Crocodile Dundee alongside it, for the whole of a continent.

“People know nothing about Australia except what is handed out in the travel brochures,” says James Mason in a newsreel interview from 1968 that could still easily play most markets in the United States today, or at least a few weeks ago.

There is more to Australia than Mad Max.

There’s more to it than the red clay desert that always seems to sweep the anamorphic screen. There’s more to it than the three-odd movies we can all name when somebody mentions The Outback. In our meme-ified age, when an entire continent is regularly reduced to jokes about universally murderous wildlife, it’s easy to miss the people for the punchline.

Not Quite Hollywood: The Wild, Untold Story of Ozploitation! is a lot more fun than my introduction would have you believe. Like writer-director Mark Hartley’s later love letter to the ’80s reign of Cannon Films, Not Quite Hollywood is as much a documentary as it is a cocktail party. Plenty of car crashes. A dash of low-budget horror. Two giant hogs, one an animatronic boar and the other John Holmes.

There’s something for everyone, provided everyone is old enough to see an R-rated movie and recognize the past as the past.

Despite my admonishment to appreciate beyond the punchline, Australian exploitation cinema pretty much started as a joke at its own expense.

The Adventures of Barry McKenzie represented an older Ozzie stereotype: the almighty ocker. Not the first example — 1971’s Stork was the New Wave’s earliest round-the-block hit — but easily the purest. Rude, crude, and on an endless quest for beer and bikinis. It also happened to be one of the first films made by and for Australians, even if the makers in question intended to mock the intellectual degeneracy of certain Australians.

The targeted yobbos — that’s “proudly dim bulbs” to my fellow Americans — took it as endorsement instead of condemnation, regrettably, and cheered loud enough for a second Barry McKenzie outing with twice the vomit and timely homophobia.

“It only really grows on decaying things because culture is, after all, cheese,” says McKenzie creator Barry Humphries, “…or yogurt.” And he has a point. Australian culture was getting mighty moldy at the time.

War, the kind with a capital W and no scheduled end, loomed for the teens and young adults raised in the no-nonsense ’50s and ’60s.

What was the point of all the rules if a lottery pull was the difference between life and death? So they waged their own wars on their own terms. Feminism flourished. Free love found few objections. Bodies of every shape, size, and sunburn flopped about with proud, reckless abandon.

As society loosened its collective collar, so did the Australian censorship board, resulting in the dawn of Ozploitation.

In other words, Porky’s-grade smut.

“I thought that we were demystifying the female body,” says Cindy Raymond, one of a dozen actresses waxing nostalgic through gritted teeth. Movies were bought, sold, and written off in lazy Saturday afternoons on the basis of good ol’ gratuitous nudity.

It may not be high art — Fantasm, Antony I. Ginnane’s America-shot opus featuring John Holmes’s legendary genitals, at least counts as some kind of historical document — but it was the first time Australian audiences showed up for Australian-made movies, even if they weren’t paying much attention to them at the drive-in.

“Without these vulgar films, we wouldn’t really have an industry,” admits critic Phillip Adams with a wistful wince. “Our cultural anonymity would’ve been utter.”

Trouble was, the high-brow crowd feared Australia would only be known for its skin-crazed yahoos. The self-conscious solution was simple: Let the Peter Weir types have their Picnics at Hanging Rock, while the lowly genre filmmakers classed up their nudity with more kitchen knives and slightly less nudity.

Australian horror is hard to come by on any streaming service, but thankfully Shudder provides this crash course.  

The comatose shocker Patrick, which a caffeinated Tarantino gleefully admits he cribbed for Kill Bill. The ice cream truck-based thriller Snapshot, which was shamelessly shipped to America as The Day After Halloween to steal a little of Carpenter’s thunder. The Survivor, the first ever million-dollar Australian production that opens with the most violent plane crash you’ve ever witnessed. Next of Kin, a rare pretender to The Shining throne. Highlander helmer Russell Mulcahy’s big pig epic Razorback, a stunningly photographed flop that was critically crucified for an aesthetic that modern indie horror would worship.

Just about the only one I’ve personally seen is Roadgames, a transplant of Rear Window from an apartment to a semi, and any self-respecting horror fan should beg or borrow or buy (don’t steal, please) a copy as soon as they can. Director Richard Franklin would borrow from Hitch again a few years later with Psycho II, and screenwriter Everett De Roche is responsible for some of the best movies in the whole documentary.

If there seems to be a recurring motif of, well, gentle theft, it’s intentional.

As the Mad Max mad man himself, George Miller, admits, Australian cinema became a hybrid of European — the artsy stuff — and American – the grindhouse gunk. Australians and Americans shared a similar appreciation for cars at the time — big, loud, and roomy enough to lose a virginity between the seats. It was only a matter of time before our mutual love of exploitation met our mutual love of vehicular mayhem.

I’d recommend Not Quite Hollywood just to see Miller’s Australian contemporaries call his apocalyptic opus unoriginal. Each talking head is more brutally, casually honest than the last, especially as the chase pictures give way to pure action.

Seminal genre filmmaker Brian Trenchard-Smith set himself on fire to prove George Lazenby could do the same, only for a mishap in the stunt to inspire the actor to punch out the director. The great, gravelly Steve Railsback recalls being shot at with live ammunition on Turkey Shoot like an underpaid tour of duty. I’m not saying it was smart, safe, or even legal, but I would gladly watch another hour of the survivors fondly complaining about it.

Around the mid-80s, as the budgets swelled and box office spiraled, the tax breaks that funded so much genre gold and lesser metals dried up.

Why pay for salacious shlock that wasn’t even making its money back in the far-off countries it was ostensibly made for? Why pay for something so Un-Australian?

The good news is, the high-brow didn’t win for long. Not Quite Hollywood ends with its chin-up for a new generation.

In 2009, the future for Australian genre filmmaking looked bright. Eleven years later, two of our modern masters of horror — James Wan and Leigh Whannell — are proudly Australian. Eleven years later, Not Quite Hollywood plays as much like a celebration of Ozploitation as national identity. Not comprehensively, not that it ever tries to be, but a country’s comfort food says a lot more than its capital-C Culture.

One of my resolutions for 2020 is a better appreciation for foreign films, especially the spooky kind. Shudder is a wonderful resource for it.

Last year alone, just for this column, I fell in subtitled love with stories from France, Mexico, and Japan. And that’s only three countries out of… a lot more countries. Australian B-movies may not need little words across the screen, but they still speak volumes about the people who made them and the people who made out while watching them.

In retrospect, one movie sticks out of the bunch in ways nobody would’ve put money on when audiences ignored it in 1979. Long Weekend follows an Australian couple on a holiday into the outback, where they roundly ruin any piece of nature they can find. Not maliciously, necessarily. Just out of cozy disrespect. Ashing cigarettes in dry grass. Blanketing their campsite with chemical pesticide. Killing animals for the heck of it. Before long, nature repays their cruelty with its own.

Audiences at the time found the very concept preposterous. Tarantino deems it a hidden gem still begging for rediscovery. He’s probably right; modern viewers wouldn’t have as much trouble suspending their disbelief.

The history lesson that Not Quite Hollywood offers, no matter how brief, is worth its weight in empathy in our world on fire.

We’re all on this rock together. And no matter what the little words across a screen might have you believe, we all speak the same language: art. Car crashes included.

Overall Rating (Out of 5 Butterflies): 5


If you want to help out with the brushfires, there are plenty of lists with every which way you can, but for a start, here are links to the respective Victoria and New South Wales fire departments who could use all the funding they can get right now:

Victoria Fire Department

New South Wales Fire Department