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Australia’s underbelly

Fond memories of the lurid world of “Ozploitation” cinema
<strong>Not Quite Hollywood (18)</strong>

We can no more choose the films that ignite our youthful excitement than we can pick our relatives. Might it be that La Règle du jeu and Andrei Rublev turn up on lists of favourite movies not only because they are brilliant, but because they act as cultural air-fresheners, concealing the stench of a disreputable early love, a Truck Stop Women or a Frankenhooker?

In an age where our guilty pleasures can be sold back to us under cover of irony, it is nice to find the documentary Not Quite Hollywood taking tacky cinema at face value. If the gratuitous gore and nudity on display are familiar, the cultural context is not – the subject is Australian genre film-making from the 1970s and 1980s, that period during which the country was better known for prestigious dramas such as Picnic at Hanging Rock and My Brilliant Career. The lurid “Ozploitation” industry, geared towards drive-in audiences, had begun thriving after the introduction in 1971 of the R rating. It bubbled away profitably, drawing thrill-seeking weekend crowds, while the accolades and acclaim went to respectable Australian New Wave directors, including Peter Weir (whose pre-Picnic at Hanging Rock horror comedy The Cars That Ate Paris is inexplicably omitted here).

The selection of 1970s cinema ads for interval munchies that plays under the opening credits of Not Quite Hollywood may provide the most evocative moment, even for viewers who have never frequented a drive-in, or visited Australia, or felt compelled to eat a damp frankfurter drizzled with synthetic mustard. From there, the writer-director Mark Hartley takes us on a fond tour of Ozploitation, beginning with beer-splashed sex comedies before progressing – though that’s the wrong word – to biker movies, splatter horror and post-apocalyptic chillers.

Barry Humphries pleads satire when quizzed about The Adventures of Barry McKenzie, which he co-wrote and starred in. (He also whipped up the “chunder” used in the vomiting scenes.) Humphries claims to have detested the laddish, drunken “Ocker” type at the film’s centre but, in a case of what might be termed Alf Garnett syndrome, it was precisely those people who made Barry McKenzie a hit. This only proves that sophisticated notions invariably curdle on contact with exploitation. Junk should be enjoyed straight, without inverted commas and cultural superiority, or not at all.

While the film highlights the good work that came out of Ozploitation (Patrick, Roadgames) as well as the bad (Snapshot, about an evil Mr Whippy van – “Pretty light on subtext,” admits its maker), it draws a discreet veil over the ugly. One actress remembers the 1974 biker hit Stone as being “as sexist in its production as the world it portrayed”. It’s disappointing that Hartley, committed to a celebratory tone, with interviewees’ comments largely filleted into soundbites, can’t delve any deeper than that.

He is occasionally guilty, too, of tilting the emphasis away from Australia. Giving ten minutes of screen time to anecdotes about Dennis Hopper’s drug-fuelled tomfoolery on the set of Mad Dog Morgan shows as much deference to Hollywood as the endless recourse to Quentin Tarantino’s overexcitable endorsements. Where there are B-movies, Tarantino is never likely to be far away. His participation probably helped get Not Quite Hollywood made, but enthusiasm applied without discernment quickly becomes exhausting and untrustworthy. “Nobody shoots a car like the Aussies do, with that fetishistic lens that just makes you wanna jerk off,” he raves. Ozploitation comes out of the film looking vivid and lively, but Tarantino sounds like the president of the Jeremy Clarkson Fan Club.

He does make the point that, unlike the Australian New Wave, an Ozploitation film (the name was coined retrospectively) did not advertise its nationality. Indeed, I was surprised to see excerpts here from Turkey Shoot, which I hadn’t even realised was Australian. This gruesome film takes place in a post-apocalyptic future where human beings are hunted for sport. In fact, 93 per cent of videos available to rent in the early 1980s shared this plot. I watched it on scratchy VHS at the age of 12 when my parents were out. It didn’t make much sense to me then, so discovering now that the producers tore fistfuls of pages from the script at random and blew half the budget at the racetrack provides some vindication, however tardy.

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dir: José Luis Guerín
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Wendy and Lucy (15))
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Hush (15)
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Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article first appeared in the 16 March 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The year of the crowd