Down, dirty and explosively entertaining, the Ozploitation movement of the 70s and 80s produced some sensationally good films
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Crash! Screech! Kaboom! These are some of the sounds of Ozploitation movies: an explosively entertaining category of cinema that offered a very different experience to the more vaunted “Australian new wave” (although some films could be categorised as both).
I have limited the scope of the titles below to adult-oriented genre films (the kind that wouldn’t look out of place at a drive cinema) produced in the 70s and 80s. From sexcapades to car movies and a creature feature, here are the very best.
15. Alvin Purple (1973) and The Naked Bunyip (1970)
The sexploitation film is a subgenre of Ozploitation, soiling bedsheets and outraging prudes since the early 70s. Graeme Blundell stars in the two all-time greatest – drawing a dead heat in this list. In Alvin Purple, Blundell plays a man who tries to avoid sex but whom all women find irresistible; in The Naked Bunyip he’s hired by an advertising agency to conduct a survey on sex in Australia.
The latter became the stuff of legend when the censors banned several scenes; in response, director John B Murray and producer Phillip Adams blacked out the screen and inserted footage of a cartoon bunyip.
14. Mad Dog Morgan (1976)
Few things in human history have been as wild as Dennis Hopper after a bottle of spirits. Anecdotes about the making of Philippe Mora’s bushranger action-drama, starring a fake beard-wearing Hopper as the all-guns-blazin’ protagonist, are almost as entertaining as the film itself. Beginning as a penal colony-era prison movie, Mad Dog Morgan morphs into a story of friendship (between Morgan and his partner in crime, played by David Gulpilil) then one of proto-celebrity – or perhaps “notoriety” is a better way to put it. The film’s scratchy, earthy vibes suits its bush settings.
13. Stone (1974)
In 1998, to mark Stone’s 25th anniversary, more than 30,000 bikers congregated in Sydney to recreate the film’s iconic funeral scene – speaking to the enduring legacy and intense if niche fandom associated with Sandy Harbutt’s scrappy classic. Biker gang The Gravediggers allow a detective (Ken Shorter) to go undercover with them, in order to investigate the murder of gang members. The plot structure is haphazard and the ride, so to speak, is bumpy. But the film’s energy prevails, and it’s full of small moments of visual innovation.
12. The Return of Captain Invincible (1983)
In this fabulously flaky superhero outing Alan Arkin plays the titular character, who, in a proto-Hancock and The Incredibles-esque plotline, fights Nazis and busts up bootleggers until the US government takes him to court for wearing undies in public. The Cap buggers off to Australia and becomes a hopeless alcoholic, but ultimately takes up the fight against Christopher Lee’s nefarious supervillain. The film is a musical (because of course it is) with songs written by The Rocky Horror Picture Show’s Richard O’Brien, including this irresistible rumination on the nature of good and evil:
11. Turkey Shoot (1982)
Before Squid Game and The Hunger Games there was this batshit crazy tournament movie, full of splatter and carnage, set in an Orwellian future where the underclass are prey for a sport played by wealthy sadists, determined to chase and kill them before sundown. Nothing was too weird for this deliriously harebrained narrative, which includes a toe-eating werewolf-like monster and one of the most breathtakingly evil prison guards in cinema history – played by shiny-scalped legend Roger Ward.
10. The Man From Hong Kong (1975)
Brian Trenchard-Smith’s characteristically energetic martial arts movie plus car movie plus cop movie plus all-round action explodapalooza follows a Chinese special agent (Jimmy Wang Yu) who infiltrates a criminal network led by a gangster played by George Lazenby – aka “the Australian 007.” There are great stunts, a cracking pace and very well staged sequences, including a thrilling eight-and-a-half-minute car chase that would surely have inspired George Miller’s Mad Max movies.
9. Inn of the Damned (1975)
Terry Bourke’s meat pie western never achieved all that much street cred, which is a shame because the film is top notch – beginning in jaunty Sergio Leone mode and culminating with a magnificently suspenseful finale. In the titular inn, circa the late 1800s, guests are murdered in their sleep by its maniacal owners (Dame Judith Anderson and Joseph Fürst), making the place a kind of Bates Motel Down Under. Determined to outsmart them, the hero (Alex Cord) must stay awake in a room fitted out with a bed that doubles as an elaborate death machine.
8. The Cars That Ate Paris (1974)
In director Peter Weir’s feature debut, a young crash survivor (Terry Camilleri) is stranded in a small town where the economy relies on a steady supply of wrecked vehicles – a premise ripe with satirical and allegorical undertones. There’s intergenerational tension between the town’s lead-footed young hotheads, who drive freaky chunks of twisted metal, and the older folk, as well as a mayor (John Meillon) who declares that nobody is ever allowed to leave. The meaning of the film is cryptic, adding a serious, curious subtext under the bonnet.
7. Razorback (1984)
The animatronic pig in Russell Mulcahy’s style-saturated creature feature isn’t great – but, like in Jaws, this forced the director to cut around it and innovate elsewhere, resulting in a film that succeeds magnificently despite its limitations. The plot is thin, involving a grizzled man (Bill Kerr) as dedicated to finding the boar that took his grandson as Captain Ahab was to nailing Moby Dick. But its artery-choking atmosphere is so thick you could cut it with a knife.
6. Patrick (1978)
A new nurse (Susan Penhaligon) at a private Melbourne hospital is warned that “the salary’s minimal, the hours abominable”. But nothing could prepare her for Patrick: the titular character who is an intensely … horizontal presence, lying in bed comatose throughout the experience, with the ability to make all kinds of bad things happen due to his psychokinetic powers. Richard Franklin’s unforgettable midnight movie is a great example of creating a lot from a little, and wringing suspense by cutting around a villain.
5. Road Games (1981)
Another stroke of genius from Richard Franklin, here in full-blown Hitchcockian mode, delivering a shrewdly calibrated thriller. A truck driver (Stacey Keach) en route from Melbourne to Perth passes the time by imagining the stories of strangers on the road. When he comes to believe another driver might be a killer, is he imagining it, or is he on to something? Quentin Tarantino was on the money when he said: “You could remake Road Games tomorrow and not change a damn word for it and it would scare the hell out of everybody.”
4. Long Weekend (1978)
It’s not difficult to introduce a scary villain: just put some dude in a mask and give ’em a chainsaw. The tantalising question at the heart of Colin Eggleston’s sort of horror, sort of relationship drama is whether there even is a villain in the first place. A bickering couple (John Hargreaves and Briony Behets) disrespect the environment on their camping trip, tossing a cigarette butt out the window and killing a dugong. So Mother Nature brings together birds, insects and animals to take them down. Or … is it all just a coincidence? The menace is everywhere and nowhere: in the trees, in the water, in the sand, and HOLY HELL IT’S RIGHT BEHIND YOU!
3. Dead End Drive-in (1986)
A dystopian social allegory set in a drive-in cinema doubling as a microcosm of society? Genius! When a young man (Ned Manning) borrows his brother’s vintage car to impress his girlfriend (Natalie McCurry) at said drive-in, they find themselves unable to leave, discovering the drive-in is a society unto itself – with its own economy (even its own currency) and political factions. The protagonist’s determination to bust out leads one of Ozploitation’s most iconic images: a Great Escape-like moment involving bright lights, broken timber and a sensationally airborne vehicle.
2. Mad Max (1979) and Mad Max: The Road Warrior (1981)
The first two of George Miller’s face-melting classics have been lumped into one hellzapoppin entry. After the director introduced his road warrior to audiences in 1979, action cinema was never the same. For a long time the original – a wild revenge movie and origin story for Mel Gibson’s angry antihero – was the most profitable feature film made anywhere in the world. The sequel cranked up the production values, with more spectacular BDSM-like outfits and one of the greatest chase scenes of all time.
1. Wake in Fright (1971)
Ted Kotcheff’s 1971 masterpiece – for decades considered lost until eventually found in a box marked for destruction – is so damn good, and so damn ’strayan, it both epitomises and transcends the Ozploitation genre, offering the midnight movie crowd something seriously brilliant to chew over.
Following an English high school teacher (John Grant) who is driven to madness in a small outback town, Kotcheff builds a dread-inducing atmosphere, clogged full of dust and sweat. You don’t so much watch this film as feel it; pressing “play” is like opening an oven door and getting hit with a blast of hot air.