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Wake in Fright (Ted Kotcheff, 1971)


Ted Kotcheff’s first feature Wake in Fright (also known as Outback) is one of the defining Ozploitation movies, but it has only regained its rightful reputation after its restoration in 2009. Tracking the localization process of a clean-cut schoolteacher waylaid in the thriving rural Australia town of Bundayabba, this quirky character study represents a self-defining moment for the nation’s identity. The schoolteacher, John Grant (Gary Bond), stands as a token for civilization on this precipice of wilderness. After he gambles away all of his money and becomes stranded there, Bundayabba, or Yabba as the locals call it, becomes a perverse limbo where Grant serves as witness to and participant in a series of debaucheries. From fucking to drinking to hunting, he is subjected to a series of trials that seem designed to test if he has what it takes to be “a Yabba man” in the outdoor prison that is the Outback.

Though the clash between civilization and country that defined Wake in Fright’s contemporaries such as Deliverance or Straw Dogs is also present here, Kotcheff’s vision, while extreme, is more nuanced than in those films. Grant’s slide into savagery is depicted as a particularly bad bender and a momentary lapse of control that significantly doesn’t come at the expense of the indigenous people. Indeed, they seem to view him not as a threat, but rather as a naïve curiosity whom they corrupt largely for their own entertainment value. Set against the desolate outback, Grant is forced to contend with his submerged masculine anxieties as he moves from one ritualistic ordeal to the next. This process culminates in an extended sequence during which Grant and a batch of locals (Donald Pleasance among them) hunt kangaroos. This brutal slaughter pushes Grant to a breaking point, precipitating his desire to escape from his extended layover.


Wake in Fright revels in its filth and flaunts its flagrant immorality, which is obviously supposed to reveal something of the Australian character. Kotcheff impressively uses both landscape and local color to present Yabba as an otherworld where the rules of civilization scarcely apply, but the final moments of the film demonstrate a fundamental humanity in the locals that alters the tone of what has come before considerably. Ultimately less an examination of the primal horrors of the Outback than an affirmation of the Aussie ability to control such wilderness, Wake in Fright remains powerful both as a portrait of a particular place at a particular time and as a potent assertion of the country’s mindset.



Jeremy Heilman