Saturday, April 26, 2008

Ghosts...Of The Civil Dead (1988)

Horror. Real life horror. This is story of what fear is made of in our society. This is a real horror movie because this is something that really happens all the time. Anyone could wind up in a prison like this one. In fact, most maximum security prisons, in America or elsewhere, are even worse than the one portrayed in the film.
Starring Nick Cave, who also made the soundtrack, Ghosts of the Civil Dead is the story of ten months inside a maximum security prison in an Australia. It is narrated mostly by one of the guards and told from the point of view of several inmates and correctional officers. Over the course of the year we see the usual prison violence and the administration react by taking away the few possessions the inmates have. First they crack down on drugs and the various forms of chemicals that keep the general population sedated and docile. Then they cut off their TVs. Then they take away all personal property. Then they take away recreation time. Nobody is the hero and nobody is the bad guy. The guards hate the administrations actions almost as much as the inmates do because these vices are what keep the violence at bay. Some guards resign and one kills himself. The inmates kill each other and sometimes the guards. Everybody is just doing their job.
In one of the climax scenes, a prisoner retaliates by stabbing a guard 56 times. I was not counting, but I'm pretty sure they show all 56 stabs happening. The prisoner then turns on two other guards, who take refuge by cowering inside a cell, erupts into a frenzy of violence that I can only describe as animalistic. The guard working the electric cell block doors does nothing to help the two officers because he is on the floor puking and crying, frozen with fear.
The inmates are put in these prisons as killers, and return to society as more efficient killers. And when they return to society and kill again, they are just doing their job, the same way the prison guards are doing their job and the police are doing theirs. It creates fear in our society so things stay the same, and our military-industrial-prison complex gets stronger. They let the inmates out so they can kill innocent people. Then the innocent people are afraid of each other because of them. Then the innocent people want the police and the military to have more power.
There is very little soundtrack, and the overall feel is one of dread and sorrow. The film is presented in the same dreary, fluorescent bulb-lit lighting as the inside of the facility. This film should be mandatory viewing for anyone studying criminal justice or corrections, as it does not stray from the subject of prison itself the way many mainstream prison movies do such as The Shawshank Redemption or Cool Hand Luke. It was also of interest to me as a horror movie fan because it is a look at the real life horror show we call the penitentiary. Personally, I would much rather confront Freddy Kreuger or Michael Myers than serve a sentence in a place like this.
Of all the films I've reviewed on this site, this one is probably the hardest to obtain a copy of in the United States because it has never been released here on home video. You can buy it on an Australian PAL Region 4 DVD if you have a PAL region-free DVD player.

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