Road Kill

Road Kill

Whether it’s a Kingswood on a killing spree or the muscle car menace, an unlawful lingering lorry truck or the homicidal motorcycle, regardless of form, vehicles have long been the weapon of choice for filmmakers and villains alike when it comes to terrorising rural roads within the Australian horror genre.

Explored through the fetishized lens of such post-revival pioneers as Peter Weir, George Miller and Brian Trenchard-Smith, transportation takes a back seat when the humble automobile is given a new primary function as the tool for torture and mayhem. Jason has a knife (yes Dundee, this actually IS a knife), Kruger has his claws but when compared to the killing capacity of the car they are nothing more than shiny decorations that dangle from the rear view mirrors of the Cars That Ate Paris.

Mad Max (1979)Mad Max (1979), dir. George Miller

In a country that boasts as much open space as Australia, the vehicle is a useful tool for accelerating the rate of any chase by transcending the limitations of the body. When cars take to the screen they offer all the tormented pleasures of a suspenseful chase between hunter and prey while bypassing those boorish limitations of the human body that sees a protagonist prone to sneezing at the most inappropriate of times.

Human spirit is retained of course as the will to live still serves as the driving force behind a desperate escape but the stakes become higher when travelling at 150 kilometres an hour. Suddenly soft pink flesh is replaced by a rusted metal bonnet and one wrong turn is all it takes for the skies to rain glass and rubber in a spectacular display of death. Just think about it: what killer needs a mask to conceal their identity when they’ve got windows tinted black? And why choose the cigar as a universal symbol of notoriety when the exhaust pipe of a diesel engine releases fumes so noxious that it contributes to the destruction of the environment and within time, all of humanity.

Come on Mr Bad Guy, forget those sexually rampant teens: rent yourself a Hummer and step up to the big leagues.

Road Games (1981)Road Games (1981), dir. Richard Franklin

Vehicles perform a number of roles that subvert traditional elements of horror. By rethinking the use of confined space or by elevating the everyday object of the car to role of primary villain, we can see how Aussie filmmakers etch a sense of national cinema out of a universal genre. As I have mentioned, cars, bikes and trucks (not to mentions the ice-cream van) all make use of the vast amounts of open roads that the Outback has to offer. This means that the notion of claustrophobic space is replaced by an overwhelming sense of grandeur.

This image of the barren landscape is a reoccurring visual motif in Australian horror films and it works to ensure that while a protagonist may flee in any direction to escape the immediate presence of danger, never will they find a place worth running to. Drawing on this same theme, the vastness of the Australian wilderness does little to provide a sense of relief for audience and protagonist alike. This type of open space does not represent salvation as it does in claustrophobic settings.

Instead we are made painfully aware that any distance the open space puts between crazed killer and desperate victim is only a fleeting illusion of security because if we have learnt from Wolf Creek, it is that no one out manoeuvres the scope on a rifle (also avoid larrikin humour and idiosyncratic laughter). A second and more relevant message is that open spaces prompt a need for vehicular transportation. For the victim it comes as a means of escape, for the menace it is used as the perfect killing machine and for the filmmaker a vehicle on screen serves as a way of exploring Australia’s distinctly recognisable landscape.

Wolf Creek (1981)Wolf Creek (2005), dir. Greg Mclean

As any backpacker will tell you, no one Down Under actually drinks Fosters, crisps are referred to as chips and the best way to ‘discover’ Australia is by renting a car and venturing into the wilderness. This same principle is recognised by Aussie filmmakers who see the advantage of setting a vehicle related premise against the backdrop of the country’s unique natural features.

The desert, shrub and bushland that make up the countries red centre has become the iconic portrait of Australia and the go-to toolkit of National Cinema. Australian filmmakers deconstruct the elements of fear relevant to the country’s environment and redistribute themes such as isolation, dangerous nature and a heavy reliance of vehicles in rural areas, in the form of an Australian genre film.

Nope. There is nothing quite as poetic as watching two tons of high-octane metal carve its way across the screen to dissect a postcard portrait of Outback Australia. Whether we are flung into the passenger seat, strapped to the hood of a car or come face to face with a bonnet, the vehicle has fastened its place as a feature of Australian genre cinema.

And on this note I leave you with the wisdom of Quentin Tarantino: ‘Nobody shoots a car the way Aussies do. They manage to shoot cars with this fetishistic lens that just makes you want to jerk off’.

About Tyson James Yates

Tyson James Yates

Tyson Yates has spent most of his life living in Australia which is where he received both a healthy tan and a degree in Communications and Media from Griffith University, Brisbane. Upon graduating Tyson relocated to Edinburgh where he now spends most of his free time trying to keep warm which is a feat that fortunately does not get in the way of watching films.

There are however two things that Tyson loves more than film. One is reading short biographies about himself that are written in the third person and published online. The other is publicly shaming a Hollywood Blockbuster in the company of people who want nothing more than to enjoy it for the mind numbing entertainment that it is. Sound pretentious? Well so is having a thing for reading short biographies about himself that are written in the third person and published online.