On Ozploitation

It’s hard to believe now, but there was a time when Australia dared to make films that were entertaining. Mark Hartley‘s new documentary Not Quite Hollywood takes a loving looks at all the horror, thrillers, science-fiction/supernatural features, action films and sex comedies that were abundant during the 1970s and ’80s, films which have recently been collectively branded as “Ozploitation”.

The term “exploitation picture” originates around the 1950s, when small independent producers would make cheap films to cash in on popular trends. These weren’t B-pics, which were also produced by the studios, but something cheaper and rougher. Intended for drive-ins and fleapit cinemas, they would often exploit current concerns or fads, getting their films to the screen before the polished studio pics had a chance. Sometimes they would use misleading titles, or ride the anticipation generated by highly advertised studio product – Invaders From Mars cashing in on Paramount’s War Of The Worlds (1953), for example, or Beyond The Time Barrier opening during promotion for The Time Machine (1960).

Later the term became more specific – the Sexploitation pictures of the 1960s (such as I Am Curious (Yellow)) or the Blaxploitation films of the 1970s (created in the wake of Melvin Van PeeblesSweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song). Other sub-genres include Nunsploitation, Nazisploitation, Eschploitation (apocalyptic Christian end-times thrillers), Pinku Eiga (“Pink Film” – Japanese sexploitation), Pornochanchada (Brazilian softcore) and Cat III (named after Hong Kong’s equivalent of the R classification)>

The name “exploitation” implies these films were parasites on “real” cinema, yet in truth a symbiotic relationship emerged. The studios were happy to steal ideas back from the grindhouse (Paramount’s Shaft, for example) and Roger Corman productions offered a pool of new talent, including Martin Scorcese, Francis Ford Coppola, Ron Howard, Jonathan Demme and James Cameron (one of Corman‘s favourite quips was “if you do a good job for me you’ll never have to work for me again”). In recent years Corman has made a fortune selling the remake rights of these flicks back to Hollywood, including The Fast And The Furious (1955, 2001) and Deathrace 2000 (1975, 2008). When Corman was in Melbourne in 2003 he lamented that all studio films are B-pics now, leaving no room for former exploitation kings.

Which brings us to the term “Ozploitation”. It seems to refer to any Australian genre film – anything that doesn’t feature two hours of a moody teenage staring out a window can be included. I don’t know when the phrase “Ozploitation” emerged – I suspect it may have been in the publicity pack for this film – but it’s a good title, and I’m happy to stick with it. (No-one in the film uses the term, although the term “Aussiesploitation” gets a guernsey).

Not Quite Hollywood succeeds on many levels. It looks great, aiming for a slick, low-key visual class in it’s interviews, allowing the films to shine in all their lurid glory. There’s excellent use of archival clips and split screens, and exceptional editing throughout. The opening credits alone are the most exciting thing you will see in a cinema this year. Some have complained the film is slightly too long, but this is probably due to structure more than content – unavoidably episodic, it attempts to group sub-genres, allowing an overview of rough categories like horror and thriller. Hartley crams as much as he can into 102 minutes, with interviews continuing even under the end credits.

Anyone who went near a camera in the period seems to be interviewed for the film – the impressive list includes George Miller, Jamie Lee Curtis, Sigrid Thornton, Brian Trenchard-Smith, Fred Schepisi, Russell MulcahyBarry Humphries appears in particularly fine form. Among the surprise interviewees in Not Quite Hollywood are Quentin Tarantino, who turns out to know more about Australian film history than Phillip Adams, and Phillip Adams, who doesn’t. Phillip Adams and Bob Ellis come not to praise these films, but to bury them and they exemplify the kind of art-snobbishness the film-makers were working against at the time. The only obvious omission is Peter Weir, although there are clips from The Cars That Ate Paris.

Speaking of cars, Tarantino points there’s two things you learn about Australia from these movies – the first is that the country is full of deserts populated by evil bikers. The second is that Australia has a particular skill in filming cars. “They manage to shoot cars with this fetishistic lens that makes you want to jerk off”. This comment is followed by a near pornographic action montage of cars – shiny, glistening cars – as they thrust past each other, into each other, penetrating houses and caravans, exploding in climaxes of heat and light. It’s hard to see what Tarantino is talking about…

Hartley has said he made the film because many of these films (and film-makers) had been eradicated from Australia’s film history. They were often absent from film books, and when they were mentioned it was in passing, disparagingly.

Indeed, even the media coverage of Not Quite Hollywood has often used a smirking “guilty pleasure” angle, a “so-bad-they’re-good” approach. Yet Tarantino – a man unconnected to the making of any of these films – argues that these films aren’t “so-bad-they’re-good”. They’re actually good. You’re not supposed to be ask if Crosstalk is as good as Citizen Kane – the question is whether Crosstalk is as good as Computer Killers (aka Horror Hospital)? These films were totally aware of their audiences, and their expectations, and they (mostly) succeeded in their artistic goals – you could argue they didn’t aim high enough, but most weren’t intending to be cerebral exercises.

If anything, it’s the acting that often lets the films down. Was film acting such a new thing back in the ’70s? Watching these films you get the feeling that Australia had theatre actors, and non-actors, but very rarely do you see the casual, naturalistic performances we now expect in the cinema. Jack Thomson and Steve Bisley stand out, with cheeky and masculine personas that for many define the ideal of the Australian male. Curiously, the worst actors in all of these films tend to be the US and UK ring-ins, the actors brought in to add “international appeal”. Joseph Cotton, George Peppard, Robert Powell wander through these films in a daze, uncertain where they are or what they’re doing – a perpetual jet-lag. And the most gruesome thing in Turkey Shoot isn’t the gore, it’s Steve Railsback chewing through his dialogue as though he learnt it phonetically.

For those of us who have only seen these films on rental videotape – poorly telecined and cut to fit television – the clips in Not Quite Hollywood are a revelation. Presented in bright, pristine prints in their original format ratios, they look exciting and dynamic. You certainly couldn’t fault the cinematography in these features – even Bob Ellis begrudgingly admits they were shot well. Many were shot by future Academy-Award winner John Seale, and the frequent use of cinemascope makes them look so much more… well cinematic than Australian films today.

It’s hard to believe in these days of half-arsed pseudo-euro artfilms – Book Of Revelation, Somersault, Candy – there was actually a time when Australian films were inspiring people overseas. Quentin Tarantino gleefully points to a section of Kill Bill that is a straight steal from Patrick (a film which also spawned it’s own knock-off sequel in Italy, Patrick Vive Ancora). And without a doubt, the most influential Australian film of all time – the only one to ever spawn an international sub-genre – is Mad Max 2 (Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone, Steel Dawn, Stryker, The New Barbarians, Equalizer 2000, Exterminators in the Year 3000, Waterworld, to name but a few).

The Ozploitation boom came as a result of many factors – the creation of the R classification in 1971 allowed films to be more overt with nudity and violence, and producers had the opportunity to provide content for distribution channels like drive-in theatres and the US grindhouses. But the biggest reason was 10BA, the tax system that allowed film investors to claim 150% of their involvement against tax. (Film was only one of the investment options under 10BADavid Stratton referenced one of the others in the title of his book about 1980s film production, The Avocado Plantation).

One of the biggest criticisms of the 10BA period is that most of the films were terrible. This opinion misses a most obvious fact – most of ALL films are terrible. The majority of Australian films in the last decade have been terrible – it would be hard to argue that we’re making any more great films now that we were thirty years ago. What has changed is that we now make a much smaller selection of films.

Somehow we reached a consensus that we no longer make science fiction films, no longer make thrillers. Action films have gone, as have many types of comedy. A “middlebrow syndrome” has overtaken the film industry, a blanding of all genres. Our comedies aren’t funny enough, our dramas not dramatic. There’s a sense we make films intended less for enjoyment, and more for approval at dinner parties. No longer are we conquering heroes, or victims of supernatural forces. Our stories have become small, mundane. We’ve never been a nation of subtext, and the sustained focus of the art film has revealed we’re not really an introspective nation either. Our films now seem clumsy and dull, and have never been more out-of-touch with the film-going audience.

Ozploitation films were exciting and popular. I remember as a child desperately wanting to see Turkey Shoot and Dead End Drive-In – how many Aussie kids would be excited about an upcoming Aussie film now? They also kept people in work. The film industry was exactly that – an industry, as opposed to the Australian Film Hobby we have today. Our films were sold overseas, and even influenced others. They operated as a training ground for technicians, writers and actors to practice their craft, in exactly the same way Roger Corman‘s films did in the US.

One of the things Not Quite Hollywood does is finally give recognition to Brian Trenchard-Smith. The director of Dead End Drive-In, BMX Bandits, Turkey Shoot (aka Blood Camp Thatcher!) and The Man from Hong Kong, Trenchard-Smith is so rarely mentioned in Australia that I was under the assumption he was retired, possibly running a B&B in Adelaide, bothering small children with his stories of the old days. (“I set George Lazenby on fire once, you know.” “Sure you did, grandpa”.) A glimpse at IMDB, though, and I am proved totally wrong – Trenchard-Smith is quite possibly the most successful Australian director of all time. For the last 20 years he’s been living in Hollywood, directing motion pictures and television. Sure, they’re a bunch of titles you’ve never heard of (including the third and fourth films in the Leprechaun series) but he’s working, he’s making the sort of films he’s best known for, and he’s undoubtedly having a lot of fun. He’s not living on government grants and development junkets, making a small-but-dull film every five years – he’s actually a film director, and with Not Quite Hollywood he gets the recognition he deserves.

Not Quite Hollywood opens on August 28th. You can visit the official website here, and Brian Trenchard-Smith‘s blog can be read here.

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14 Responses to On Ozploitation

  1. Excellent stuff. The paragraphs between the Stunt Rock and Dead End Drive In posters read exactoly as if they have come from the mouth of John Hargraves’ character in Emerald City. Great points, perfectly uttered. You should head Screen Australia; not this Kiwi blow-in.

  2. Or Chris Haywood’s… need to watch that film again.

  3. Paul Martin says:

    Yes, a very nice article, indeed. I don’t think Not Quite Hollywood is a particularly good documentary, yet somehow it’s importance seems to exceed itself. It draws attention to a neglected genre, a part of our history that has been ignored, and does it in appropriate style.

    Damn, I had fun watching Dead End Drive-In. Trash cinema at it’s very finest, and thoroughly enjoyable. It’s a pity they didn’t screen Patrick at MIFF. That’s probably the one film covered by NQH that I’d most like to see. Maybe ACMI will screen it as part of their Australian Perspectives program.

  4. Finally caught up with this astute review of NQH. Thanks for the kind words. Yes, I am still alive and kicking. Although ageism curtails many a career, film makers actually get better with age. Practice makes perfect. If you are waiting for your feature finance to come through, make a short film with friends, or a doco. Keep practicing the craft, you never stop learning. Hopefully I will still be making popcorn for the young at heart in 20 years, when a new generation of Australians are introduced to NQH as the classic cultural documentary from a bygone era that changed the focus of the Australian film industry at a crucial juncture in its development. And, you know, everyone should give the “Kiwi blow-in” a chance. She may surprise you. Let’s put aside past recriminations with the old guard, and start afresh with an open mind. Today we stand at the dawn of a new era in Australian Film. We’ve had the Renaissance, followed by Tax Shelter Cinema, followed by The Doldrums. Now we face the New Media Era. Let’s be smart, forward thinking and above all – collaborative.

  5. PS: It’s Gearge Lazenby, not Roger.
    Then again that might have been the author’s way of creating the illusion of dotage…

  6. outlandinstitute says:

    Bloody hell! It’s Brian Trenchard-Smith! If I’d known you were coming I would’ve put out the nice tea-cups…

    Yes Brian, it was a clever literary device (actually I fixed it a little while ago and hoped I’d got away with it. Damn your keen eye. Also, I feel bad for George Lazenby – imagine being James Bond and people on the internet still get your name wrong. I’d be livid. “I was James Bond, you oik!”. I bet George Lazenby says “oik” a lot).

    I love your rousing speech to the new Australian cinema, it’s quite Spartacus. And I deperately want someone to bring out a book entitled “Australia: Tax Shelter Cinema”.

    Paul: I loved Dead End Drive-In too (it feels a bit sucky saying that now that Brian’s around). I wanted to see it when I was 14 and felt sure I’d probably be disappointed, but no… I thought it was a perfect blend of 80s teen movie, dystopian sci-fi and social commentary. A slick American genre film in a totally Aussie vernacular (the scene where the heroes first go to the drive-in concession stand was brilliant). Now I’m just waiting for that Kids In The Kitchen revival to kick in.

  7. Glenn says:

    I must say that I LOVED this review. Every word of it is true. And like Syms I thought the para between “Stunt Rock” and “Drive-In” was spot on.

    And I must say that “Dead End Drive-In” is my favourite of the “ozploitation” films that I have actually seen. I’m gradually making my way through the list. I watched “Thirst” the other night” and that mighty entertaining and so original for vampire flick. But I’ve been mentioning “Dead End Drive-In” any chance I get at my own blog and the sight of Brian Trenchard-Smith here is amazing. I feel starstruck even though it is but mere words on a screen.

  8. Janet says:

    Yay! NQH has just received four stars from Margaret and three and a half from David. What more could you ask for?

  9. Janet says:

    By the way, Messrs Trenchard-Smith and Richards, regarding the whole George Lazenby business, you both got it wrong. BT-S (Gearge? – missed by a letter) and JR (well, you know what you did – were you having a Bond moment?).

    But I have to give thanks to Mark Hartley for reminding me of my misspent youth (I loved Not Quite Hollywood) and to Mr Trenchard-Smith for contributing to it. It was great to see them all again and I’m now waiting on my copy of ‘Dead End Drive In’ to arrive from Amazon. Bit of a shame I couldn’t buy it here though. It’s a good thing we’ve got Madman and Umbrella for the rest.

  10. outlandinstitute says:

    I was thinking of buying a copy from Amazon too, but was still hoping someone local might release it (I’d just prefer to have it in PAL format).

    Glenn: Where did you see Thirst? Is that one available on DVD? I wonder if anyone has a list of which films are available – I went looking for a copy of Crosstalk and sadly that’s nowhere to be seen.

    Oh, and ACMI has a few more Ozploitation-ish films coming up, including Brian Trenchard-Smith’s Kung Fu Killers, the documentary The Naked Bunyip (which in many ways started it all, and has a great appearance by Edna Everage, who I think was still Mrs back then), and Howling III: The Marsupials.

    Read more here: http://www.acmi.net.au/australian_perspectives.aspx

  11. Glenn says:

    Outland, “Thirst” is available on DVD. I was able to get a hand on a copy through Quickflix. If you use that service I got it as soon as I put it at the top of my queue.

    I purchased my DVD copy of “Dead End Drive-In” through eBay for something like $10 inc postage. It was a double disc that came with “Drive-In” as well as “Cut and Run”, an Italian horror flick. For some reason they stuck them together. Trenchard-Smith gives a great commentary though for “Drive-In”. Mark Hartley said at a Q&A that they’re planning a two-disc special edition of it though later in the year, so that’d be awesome.

  12. Janet says:

    Thirst is being rereleased on October 28th according to Amazon.

    John: In answer to a question raised earlier about whether there were film actors in the 1970’s the answer is no, not really. After the Royal Commission into the state of the Australian movie industry (1927-28) our government allowed the American film industry through the Exhibitors’ Combine to monopolise Australian screens for the next thirty odd years. If it hadn’t been for people such as Raymond Longford, Chips Rafferty, Charles and Elsa Chauvel and Ken G Hall (and others) we would have had even less. When researching a paper earlier this year on cinematic depictions of the WWI Anzacs, I discovered that only seven full-length features were made between 1960 and 1966 and the most features made in any single year of that decade was seven in 1969. But 1960 was a particularly bad year because the British and American film companies that had propped up what was left of the Oz film industry withdrew from Australia that year. Features were replaced by corporate and government funded shorts or featurettes (those around in the seventies would remember them!) and between 1961 and 1962, six hundred and ten were made.

    It’s not surprising then that Aussies actors were perhaps a little ‘stiff’ when all they were doing were voiceovers.

  13. Enjoyed the article. I think that “middlebrow syndrome” you talk about that permeates the Australian film industry sadly is also endemic across most of the performing arts industry in Australia. Theatre in Australia for example is about as artistically adventurous as an Australian Idol runner-up. Is it Brian Trenchard Smith in the Ozploitation trailer who talks about filming car chases without “police permission, anything. We just shot it”. It is this uniquely (?) Australian approach to things which is being lost in large part perhaps to excessive bureaucratic limitations & overbearing corporate considerations. Unbridled creativity is somewhat frowned upon in the current climate.

    I watched Dead End Drive-In for the first time during MIFF and while it was not even remotely close to how I imagined the Peter Carey short story, it nevertheless was undoubtedly original in its realization and brimming with an energy and attitude that leaves much of Australia’s current film efforts embarrassingly tame by comparison. Perhaps film makers today are concerned predominantly with nothing more than “the dull compulsions of the economic” and less about original, challenging ideas and true uninhibited creativity.

    Just watching the trailer of Ozploitation I was overcome with a sense of pride which brought a tear to my eye. Somethings been lost. Perhaps it may inspire a new generation of film makers to push the limits again.

  14. CORRECTION: I meant ‘Not Quite Hollywood” rather than “Ozploitation”. Apologies.

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