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Australian (and New Zealand) Horror Films


by Robert Hood

First published in The Scream Factory (US) in June/July 1994; ed. Bob Morrish; also published in Sirius, 1994 (over two issues); ed. Garry Wyatt.

A Brief History of the Film Industry in Australia and New Zealand

The Australian film industry began early, very early. Feature film production flourished from 1906 to 1912, pre-dating that of any other country. Though the first continuous story line film was not Australian, what might be considered the first feature film was. The Story of the Kelly Gang (made in 1906) is typical Aussie fare in that it concerned that legendary anti-establishment 'larrikin', Ned Kelly, and because it was about bushranging. Tales of the colonial bush and bushranging would dominate the Australian film industry for some time to come.

After 1912 there was a severe decline in the number of Australian films being made, mainly because an exhibition and distribution combine called Australasian Films/Union Theatres established a monopoly and its management displayed little interest in local production. Even when American companies managed to break the monoply, after 1920, it made no difference to the local industry's prospects. Distribution was a major problem for decades. As Andrew Pike summarises it: "Filmmaking after 1912 remained fragmented and defensive, and companies rose and fell as producers sought ways around the commercial barrier".

The most significant way around the commercial barrier was not properly exploited until 1970, when the federal government introduced more workable types of subsidisation than had been managed up to that point. Until then, quota systems at a state level had been unsuccessful in encouraging local production, mainly because they emphasised distribution and did not help provide increasingly expensive studio and technical facilities nor tackle the need for high levels of financing. There were temporary upsurges of activity now and then, such as in the 1930s, but from the mid-1940s there were very few films made in Australia. Collaborative efforts between Australian filmmakers and American interests occurred during the 1950s and 1960s, but none of the films produced were horror films and there weren't many anyway.

In 1969, however, a report written by Phillip Adams for the Australia Council Film Committee recommended government action, and the Prime Minister of the day, John Gorton, pushed the recommendations, legislating in 1970 for an Australian Film and Television Development Corporation (later the Australian Film Commission) and for an experimental film fund. An Australian Film and Television School was created under the subsequent Whitlam government. Other measures freed up distribution and exhibition channels. Suddenly government finance was made available for investment in film production and a buffer was set up to help cushion the effects of possible commercial failure. A flurry of activity followed which has lasted for twenty years, with ups and downs, of course.

The result is an indigenous industry which has been able to develop talent, and pursue artistic excellence (at times) as well as commercial marketability. Though genre film making has been patchy and the results often lacking in a real understanding of the requirements of the generic form, there have also been conspicuous successes. As anywhere, there are good and bad.

The situation was similar in New Zealand. After an initial rush of blood to the head, feature film production came to a halt the 1940s, there being only three feature films produced between then and 1970, all by the same company, Pacific Films Ltd. In the mid 1970s, however, two films did very well at the box office — Roger Donaldson's Sleeping Dogs and Geoff Murphy's Wild Man. Their success in particular encouraged representatives of the independent film industry to lobby for the establishment of a film commission. Once it happened, it happened quickly. In October 1977 the Interim Film Commission was established and a year later the New Zealand Film Commission was formed by act of parliament, to "encourage, and also to participate and assist in the making, promotion, distribution, and exhibition of films".

There followed various periods of ups and downs, but at least New Zealand feature films were being made, leading to this year's Academy Award success, Jane Campion's The Piano. From 1990 to 1993, in fact, there were 26 films made in New Zealand — and of those, several were horror films. Moreover, New Zealand can boast one horror film director who remains in the country, yet is a major success overseas — Peter Jackson (see main text).


  • Hardy, P. The Aurum Film Encyclopedia of Horror, London: Aurum, 1993.
  • Hardy, P. The Aurum Film Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, London: Aurum, 1991.
  • Murray, S (ed.), The New Australian Cinema, Melbourne: Thomas Nelson Australia, 1980.
  • Murray, S. (ed.), Australian Film 1978-1993, Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1993.
  • Pike, A. and R. Cooper, Australian Film 1900-1977: a Guide to Feature Film Production, Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1980.
  • Shirley, G. and B. Adams, Australian Cinema: The First Eighty Years, Sydney: Angus and Robertson and Currency Press, 1983.
  • "New Zealand Supplement", Cinema Papers, No. 97/98, April 1994.
  • "New Zealand Supplement", Cinema Papers, No. 27, May-June 1980.

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