Australia and New Zealand have a relatively short but rich horror film tradition, ranging from lowbrow slashers to socially relevant fare, from tense thrillers to outrageous horror comedies.
The Beginning: 1970s
Although horror movies have remained popular in Australia and New Zealand since the early part of the 20th century -- particularly during America's Universal years of the 1930s and Britain's Hammer years of the 1950s and '60s -- it wasn't until the 1970s that self-made Australian horror began to take root. It was during this time that Australian cinema as a whole experienced a resurgence due to increased governmental funding.
Director Peter Weir emerged as a fresh voice with his 1974 debut The Cars That Ate Paris. The quirky film mixed horror with humor while maintaining an art-house flavor that would characterize 1977's The Last Wave. In that film, Weir used Australian Aboriginal mysticism to paint a haunting tale that delved into topical issues of race and culture. Before he moved on to a lengthy, prestigious international career, Weir would also direct a small psychological thriller for television called The Plumber. These early forays into horror and suspense helped propel the director into international stardom as well as aiding in the legitimization of such genre films within Australia.
While Weir's films blended horror with other styles, the first outright Australian horror film might've been 1972's Night of Fear. Originally banned for indecency, this story of a woman terrorized by a loner in the deserted Outback not only foretold 20th century Aussie exploitation fare like Wolf Creek, but it even predated the similarly themed, groundbreaking American hit The Texas Chainsaw Massacre by two years.
Early horror films like Night of Fear, the Western-styled Inn of the Damned (1975) and the nature-runs-amok Long Weekend (1978) utilized Australia's natural, untamed environments to their advantage. The isolation of the undeveloped Outback would go on to play a major part in Australian horror -- and even in action movies from Down Under, like the Mad Max series.
The Explosion: 1980s
As horror movies -- and particularly slashers -- exploded in popularity in the US in the 1980s, so too did Australia witness a healthy surge in the genre during the decade. Director Richard Franklin was one of the leading proponents of Aussie horror during that time, having helmed the 1978 telekinetic film Patrick and the 1981 serial killer road picture Road Games, starring reigning American "scream queen" Jamie Lee Curtis (who was riding high from her successive roles in Halloween, The Fog, Prom Night and Terror Train). Franklin would parlay those efforts into directorial duties for Psycho II in the US and the killer ape flick Link in the UK.
The avalanche of Aussie horror during that time ranged from the vampire film Thirst (1979) to the slasher Dangerous Game (1987) to the exploitation of Escape 2000 (1982) to the post-apocalyptic Dead-End Drive In (1986) to the psychological thriller Cassandra (1986) and the killer boar pic Razorback (1984). Razorback was filmed by renowned director Russell Mulcahy, who, like Peter Weir, made his early name in horror before moving on to bigger films like Highlander, Ricochet and The Shadow. Likewise, Dangerous Game director Stephen Hopkins went on to direct A Nightmare on Elm Street 3 and Predator 2 before branching out into The Ghost and the Darkness and Lost in Space.
The surge of horror in Australia during the '80s is evident in the decision to set the third film in the popular Howling franchise Down Under, featuring marsupial werewolves. Australian made-for-TV fare even tapped into the horror wave, as indicated by the 1986 survivalist tale Fortress, which revolved around the kidnapping of a rural teacher and her schoolchildren by a group of sadistic men. New Zealand also got into the act a bit, with small films like The Scarecrow (1982) and the mad scientist flick Strange Behavior (1981).
By the end of the '80s, however, the quality of Aussie horror movies had become dubious -- somewhat emblematic of the state of the country's cinema as a whole, wherein international icons like Mad Max and Crocodile Dundee had been replaced by the likes of Yahoo Serious and the Energizer battery guy (Oy!). Cheap, cliché-ridden slashers like Houseboat Horror (1989) and Bloodmoon (1990) and thrillers featuring B-grade American stars like Linda Blair (Dead Sleep) and Jan-Michael Vincent (Demonstone) became more and more prevalent.
One exception, though, was 1989's Dead Calm. This tense thriller about murder aboard a yacht in the middle of the ocean stood out amidst a sea of derivative, low-minded fare with its acute psychology, taut action set pieces and superb acting and direction -- all of which combined to help launch the American careers of director Phillip Noyce and actors Nicole Kidman and Sam Neill. This one shining beacon signaled hope that Australian horror and suspense could regain the high quality of the late '70s and early '80s.
In New Zealand, however, the story was quite the opposite. The late '80s and early '90s witnessed the rise of Kiwi director Peter Jackson, whose Lord of the Rings films would later turn him into one of the biggest filmmakers in the world. Jackson made a name for himself in the horror genre with the graphic, campy "splatter" fare Bad Taste (1988), Meet the Feebles (1989) and Dead Alive (1992). His first American co-production, 1996's The Frighteners, remained in the horror-comedy vein, but without all of the gore. Jackson's success no doubt opened the door for a new generation of Kiwi genre filmmakers.