VHS Visions: Ghosts… Of The Civil Dead

Published on November 3rd, 2015 in: Movies, Retrovirus, Underground/Cult, VHS, VHS Visions |

By Tim Murr


When it comes to growth industries, nothing touches the prison industrial complex in the United States. 2.2 million Americans rotting away, many I’m sure quite deservedly so, but there has to be something dreadfully wrong when there has been a 500 percent increase in the number of prisoners in the last 30 years.

To add insult to injury, prison sentences don’t even curb crime, with a vast number of people serving sentences for non-violent offenses and coming out of prison worse than when they went in, contributing to a recidivism rate well over 50%. Sometime in the 1980s, justice got lost, or confused, and we became something very ugly, something quite unrecognizable from the country that believed in life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Based on actual events that occurred in American and Australian prisons, writer/director John Hillcoat and writer/producer Evan English crafted a harrowing, transgressive, uncompromising, and terrifying film called Ghosts… Of The Civil Dead. Starring David Field, Mike Bishop, and Nick Cave, among others, Ghosts is about a near future super max prison that is on lock down following an outbreak of violence. For all it’s cleanliness, calming colors, and mass surveillance, Central Industrial Prison is nothing more than a boiling pot of barbarism, with civil liberties stripped away and a population of men pushed to the brink of insanity. And then Nick Cave’s character, Maynard, is thrown in.

Ghosts… Of The Civil Dead is such a brutal and frightening film, because it’s happened. Hillcoat and Evans don’t turn the camera away, don’t try to be diplomatic, and don’t try to spare the viewer. Ghosts terrorizes the viewer in ways A Nightmare on Elm Street never could. We should be terrified by our prison system of 2.2 MILLION people incarcerated. It’s not that we don’t need prisons; it’s more that we should ask what kind of world have we created that we need prisons turned up to 11? How did we settle on the notion that simply throwing a man or woman in a cell was better than trying to rehabilitate them (which is cheaper and more effective than imprisonment)?

The hyper-confrontational approach of Ghosts guarantees an uncomfortable and emotional viewing. And considering that lives are at stake in the real world, it’s as it should be. I wonder though, considering this film was made in 1988, if the filmmakers may see Ghosts as a bit soft in light of how much we’ve sank in the last 27 years. (I’m kidding a little; there’s nothing soft about Ghosts.)

So, to sum it up, yes, you should see Ghosts… Of The Civil Dead. If you can. As of right now it is not available for purchase anywhere, and is completely out of print. It is on YouTube, in part at least. I have a second-generation bootleg on VHS that’s about 16 years old. Considering what a talent Hillcoat is (The Road, Lawless) and that it stars Nick Cave, I find it unbelievable that the film has no distribution. But if the demand exists the market will eventually deliver (think about the Cabal Cut of Clive Barker’s Nightbreed).

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