Ozploitation films from the 1970s and 1980s
The term Ozploitation – popularised in Mark Hartley's 2008 documentary Not Quite Hollywood: The Wild, Untold Story of Ozploitation! – refers to Australian low-budget genre filmmaking of the 1970s and 80s.
From bawdy sex comedies like Alvin Purple (Tim Burstall, 1973) to horrors like Patrick (Richard Franklin, 1978), this category of filmmaking is variously characterised by its obsession with excess – exploitative marketing, lewd humour, gratuitous gore, violence and nudity, and idiosyncratic Australian quirks and characteristics.
The prolific output of Australian genre films during the period can also be seen as a response to 2 key developments. These were generous tax concessions that gave enthusiastic producers the incentive to make new movies, and a change in censorship laws with the introduction of the adults-only R-rating classification in Australia in 1971.
Profiled in our Australians & Hollywood exhibition are some influential works from the Ozploitation canon. These include George Miller’s 1979 apocalyptic road movie Mad Max (which has since attained global appeal and enduring cult status) and Ted Kotcheff's psychological thriller Wake in Fright (1971), which has the rare distinction of being officially selected for the Cannes Film festival twice.
The Man From Hong Kong
However, we also focus on some lesser-known works – including the international co-production, The Man from Hong Kong (Brian Trenchard-Smith, 1975). This film blends Eastern and Western action styles and satirises the James Bond and Dirty Harry franchises. The story follows Inspector Fang Sing Leng, played by martial arts star Jimmy Wang Yu (1943–2022), who travels to Sydney from Hong Kong to perform an extradition but becomes embroiled in a battle with the city's most deadly gangster, Jack Wilton (played by ex-James Bond, George Lazenby):
The clip above shows Fang in a blue Chrysler Charger chasing down some of Wilton’s men. Speeding along the country roads, he outmanoeuvres each adversary. As with many of the film's other set-pieces, this sequence is built around hugely risky, wholly insane and wildly entertaining stunts – more than around acting chemistry or narrative message. The sense of speed and danger – fetishised through car-side camera positions, wide-angle lens, aerial imagery and the use of upbeat production music – provides the necessary thrills, spills and talking points for audiences. Such production values were also ideal for open-air drive-in movie theatres, the common reception points for much of Ozploitation cinema.
Listen to this oral history excerpt from Brian Trenchard-Smith for more about the making of the film, including the fraught relationship between director and star Jimmy Wang Yu.
Next of Kin
Another film coinciding with our Ozploitation focus is the horror-thriller Next of Kin (Tony Williams, 1982), which centres on a young woman, Linda Stevens (Jacki Kerin), who inherits her mother's country mansion, Montclare. After reading her mother's diaries, Linda starts to experience strange supernatural occurrences – including lights and taps turning on by themselves, voices in the night and creepy men standing outside her window:
The scene above features her mother’s diary entries (spoken as voice-over) and a scary dream sequence, both of which hint at a disturbing event from Linda's childhood. The 'dolly in and zoom out' technique creates a distorted perspective – with the little girl running down the hallway. This, and the film's general suspenseful mood and tone, recall Stanley's Kubrick's famous horror film The Shining (1980).
Mad Dog Morgan
Also featuring in Australians & Hollywood is Mad Dog Morgan (Philippe Mora, 1976), a revisionist bushranger film based on the life of the infamous Irish outlaw Dan Morgan – with a performance by the iconic American actor Dennis Hopper:
Watch a clip from Mad Dog Morgan featuring Superintendent Cobham (Frank Thring) telling the press that he will not tolerate Morgan if he returns to Victoria. As ASO curator Paul Byrnes notes, the unusual, almost documentary-style approach 'in which characters address the camera directly is used for satirical effect and to foreground questions of historical accuracy'. Following the announcement, Morgan's friend Billy (David Gulpilil) rides back to a hidden camp and relays the news. Morgan's violent reaction gives a glimpse of Hopper's rollicking and unhinged interpretation of the role – an interpretation that he also carried off-screen and is now the stuff of legend in Australian cinema folklore.
As with many other Ozploitation films, Mad Dog Morgan employs a foreign actor in a starring role. This common strategy helped pitch local genre films to international audiences. But sometimes these foreign actors made no cultural or narrative sense and were also the subject of criticism for the perception that they were taking away jobs from local actors. One of the most prominent examples is Richard Franklin’s terrifying 1981 classic Roadgames starring Jamie Lee Curtis (pictured below) and Stacy Keach (both of whom are from the United States).
Paving the way
By the late 1980s, the most generous tax concessions for private investors in filmmaking had been whittled away. Funding bodies had always preferred and supported quality art-house films – such as Picnic at Hanging Rock (Peter Weir, 1975) or My Brilliant Career (Gillian Armstrong) – because of how they reflected Australian culture and values and projected a more refined image of Australia abroad. However, while many disregarded Ozploitation as a cheap imitation of American genre films, there is no denying that the movement contains some of the most daring, over-the-top and hilariously shocking moments on Australian celluloid.
Furthermore, Ozploitation played an essential role in the Australian film revival of the 1970s and paved the way for a whole new generation of successful Australian genre films, including later entries like Wolf Creek (Greg McLean, 2005), The Babadook (Jennifer Kent, 2014), The Invisible Man (Leigh Whannell, 2020) and You Won't Be Alone (Goran Stolevski, 2022).
Main image: publicity still from documentary Not Quite Hollywood (2008) featuring Jimmy Wang Yu in The Man from Hong Kong (1975). NFSA title: 771715