Settling Australian and New Zealand Horror Movies on the Map

Alex de Borba

Alex de Borba

This Australasian horror editorial is an important step forward in putting Australian and New Zealand horror movies on the map of film and cinema studies as a subject worthy of intellectual debate.

This month’s issue is partially devoted to the academic discussion of Australasian horror movies. While an Australian horror movie tradition has produced numerous titles since the 1970s achieving commercial success and cult popularity worldwide, the horror genre is mainly missing from Australian film history.

While there have been occasional essays on standout titles such as ‘Wolf Creek’ (Mclean, 2005), an increasing number of articles on “Ozploitation” movies, and irregular discussion about Australian Gothic, overall the nature of Australian horror as a genre remains poorly understood.

In terms of New Zealand, the debate has tended to revolve around “Kiwi Gothic” and of course Peter Jackon’s early splatter films, rather than Kiwi horror as a specific filmmaking tradition.

This issue also contributes to the growing body of scholarship on the internationalisation of the horror genre. Horror movies from the United States, Britain and to a lesser extent Italy, have long dominated mainstream markets worldwide, while most “international” titles have circulated in cult markets.

The landscape, however, has changed dramatically over the last decade. Although the United States remains a dominant player, international titles are increasingly circulating widely in worldwide markets.

In many cases, horror filmmaking is emerging in countries such as China, India and Turkey where local traditions have primarily been nonexistent. Genre studies’ preoccupation with North American horror has played a part in international horror’s anonymity. However, a growing volume of research is beginning to investigate numerous national horror cinemas, and is questioning horror scholarship’s immutable canon of predominantly United States titles.

The future collection of published articles will be exploring issues across texts, industry, and theory provides insight into two of the more significant English-language horror traditions outside the United States and Britain.

To focus on the Australian side of the coin for a moment, analysis of Australian horror movies directs attention towards commercial filmmaking dynamics. Within Australian cinema studies, the term “Industry 2” refers to filmmaking engaging with popular movie genres, targeting international markets and commercial returns, with little concern for authentic representations of culture or national identity.

Such filmmaking has been defined in opposition to cultural art-house films produced predominantly for domestic audiences –– tending to value social realism and Australian stories over commercialism (“Industry 1”). However, our knowledge of Industry 2 is limited.

Consequently, the finance, production and distribution models of Australian genre movies, as well as markets and audiences, are under researched and poorly understood. As a commercial, genre-based, internationally oriented production sector, Australian horror represents an important case study.

Related to this issue is the question of genre and Australian cinema. The documentary ‘Not Quite Hollywood’ (Hartley, 2008) is mainly responsible for motivating recent academic interest in Australian genre cinema, or as it is popularly referred to, “Ozploitation”.

Throughout film history, Australian cinema has largely resisted popular movie genres in an attempt to differentiate itself from Hollywood. The study of Australian cinema has tended to focus on the analysis of uniquely Australian genres such as Australian Gothic, Male Ensemble Film, the AFC Genre, and so on.

The term Ozploitation has arisen in recent years to fill this gap. However, as a broad catch-all term lumping together an extremely diverse range of films –– across a spectrum of non-generic/experimental, popular genre and exploitation genre movies with little in common –– this term sheds little light on the characteristics of individual movie genres such as action, horror, and road movies etc.

This issue lays foundations for the ongoing analysis of issues such as the generic boundaries of the horror genre in Australia, stylistic and aesthetic characteristics, and develops a precedent for more detailed understandings of other popular movie genres falling under the rubric of Ozploitation.

In terms of New Zealand horror movies, much debate has focussed on the early horrors of Peter Jackson. While Jackson has become a high-profile Hollywood filmmaker following the phenomenal success of the ‘Lord of the Rings’ trilogy (2001; 2002; 2003), his filmmaking career began with the schlock splatter of ‘Bad Taste’ (1987) and ‘Brain Dead’ (1992).

From a flesh-eating alien incursion to a house party turned splatter-fest, Jackson’s quirky gore-charged titles have been accepted into the canon of the international cult film. On the other hand, the latest breed of Kiwi horror led by ‘Black Sheep’ (King, 2006) and ‘The Tattooist’ (Burger, 2007) has received less critical attention. Nor has there been a great deal of debate about how New Zealand horror movies engage with an international marketplace, their cultural themes and generic elements, and how these films comprise a unique filmmaking tradition.

The horror movie holds up a mirror to dark or unpleasant aspects of any given culture, cultural fears and anxieties, issues of cultural and social taboo, and delivers moral parables in the guise of our worst nightmares.

The study of Australian and New Zealand horror films, therefore, raises questions about culture and national identity not always addressed through the lens of “indigenous” genres such as the AFC as mentioned earlier genre or Male Ensemble Film, or more critically respected genres such as comedy and drama.

What are the unique social and cultural messages of local horror movies? What do the Australian and New Zealand nations fear and why? What does this tell us about nationhood, culture and society? How have these fears evolved over history? What does this tell us about the national psyche? The insight gained from such questions adds complexity to national identity and cinema debates, augmenting knowledge beyond issues of representation, authenticity, and diversity.

This issue advances our understanding of many of these issues. Adrian Martin’s article critically examines Ozploitation’s meteorite rise as a critical term synonymous with Australian genre cinema.

The essay argues that the collection of titles labelled as ‘Ozploitation’ is subjective and excludes a number of prominent local trash and genre movies –– a narrowness which poses a challenge to film studies.

My own article attempts to measure the extent of the recent Australian horror movie boom, and delineates the finance, production and distribution models of the high and low ends of Australian horror. Catherine Simpson examines how the representation of monstrous animals relates to nationhood and the Australian Psyche. She argues that this relationship reveals a post-colonial anxiety towards landscape and belonging.

Alan Cameron explores contemporary New Zealand horror movies and questions arising concerning national identity. The article highlights difficulties local horror films experience within New Zealand cinema –– not too dissimilar to the problems Australian horror movies experience within a publicly funded national cinema –– and investigates issues around their local and international cultural identities.

Deb Verhoeven’s short piece frames the many controversies surrounding the production of the 1980s schlock horror movie ‘Turkey Shoot’ (Trenchard Smith, 1982) –– regarded as one of Australia’s most disreputable movies of all time.

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