Dark Age (1987)

Author: Brett Gallman
Submitted by: Brett Gallman   Date : 2018-07-28 16:52

Dark Age (1987)
Studio: Umbrella Entertainment
Release date: September 6th, 2017

Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)

The movie:

Itís beyond obvious at this point, but it bears repeating that Jaws was a seismic event whose influence rippled throughout the filmmaking business for years. Case in point: even over a decade after Spielberg's blockbuster was released, legendary Ozploitation producer Antony I. Ginnane looked to ride its wave to schlock glory with Dark Age, a killer crocodile riff on the theme. Denied a theatrical release in its native land, itís gone on to become a cult classic, thanks in some part to Quentin Tarantinoís effusive praise for it over the years. And rightfully soóif you assume (like me) that any equation that involves Ozploitation and killer crocs has to yield something worthwhile, then you are correct. Dark Age is every bit as gnarly and exploitative as you might expect; however, its pronounced streak of social consciousness allows it to double as an unexpectedly sharp critique of colonialism to boot.

Donít worry: a giant crocodile still devours numerous victims, too, and does so early and often. Australiaís Northern Territory is practically under siege by an abnormally large beast, much to the chagrin of Steve Harris (John Jarratt), a ranger tasked with tracking and preserving the species in the region. As the crocodile rampages downriver, claiming the lives of both poachers and an Aboriginal child, Harris faces mounting pressure from his superiors to hunt down and kill the beast. A $5,000 bounty only complicates matters further, as Harris soon finds himself joined by disreputable poachers eager to blow away anything in their path. Of lesser interest to just about everyone involved are the concerns raised by the Aboriginal natives, who call the crocodile Numunwari, a god carrying the spirit of their ancestors. With this in mind, Harris finds himself walking a tightrope in an effort to appease both his superiors and respect the rich heritage of the local tribes.

For about half its runtime, Dark Age feels like a speed read of Jaws, only with an enormous crocodile instead of a man-eating shark. It breezes through the expected beats, only taking the time to shuffle and scum up the particulars: instead of featuring an innocent swimmer being eaten alive, the opening here allows the pleasure of watching a crocodile tear a bunch of asshole poachers from limb-to-limb. Less appealing is director Arch Nicholsonís approach to capturing this filmís unsettling death of a child: where Spielberg shot Alex Kitnerís demise with a distanced long shot, Nicholsonís camera enters the fray, lingering on the ill-fated childís paralyzed reaction to the crocodile emerging from the river with a widening maw. It doesnít flinch as a Harrisís ex-girlfriend Cathy (Nikki Coghill) tries in vain to rescue the boy, only to watch on in horror as the crocodile swallows him whole in a nightmarish sequence that registers on the same fucked-up scale as Pet Sematary, especially for parents of small children.

That scene in particular also doubles as Nicholsonís announcement that Dark Age isnít afraid to get nasty. Falling right in line with the greasy Ozploitation tradition, the film revels in a sweltering sort of violence, as these Aussie backwaters are twisted into a horrific, blood-soaked landscape. At times, it feels like an otherworldly descent into some kind of hell, with scenes featuring characters patrolling the river at night proving to be especially eerie. Nicholson is unafraid to lean into the perception that this is some kind of untamed backwoods: in one staggering scene that recalls the shark hunt free-for-all in Jaws, a band of poachers joins Harris on the waters in search of the giant beast, only to pump bullets into every crocodile they encounter in a grisly display of mangled reptile flesh and exploding heads. Suddenly, Dark Age becomes unsettling for an entirely different reason altogether, as Nicholson slyly begins to maneuver your sympathies towards these endangered animals.

As such, Harrisís struggle becomes more palpable: heís essentially the Chief Brody here, an everyman do-gooder facing a seemingly impossible task. Considering heís now best known as Wolf Creek madman Mick Taylor, Jarratt is uncannily affable in the role, doing his best to juggle the obvious need to keep the waters safe with his desire to also protect its wildlife. Like Brody, the biggest thorn in his side is his uncooperative supervisors, who are more worried about the public relations ramifications. After all, that Japanese conglomerate probably wonít have much interest in building a huge condominium complex if the areaís best known for its killer crocodile attacks. The areaópointedly its valuable landómust be protected at all costs so it can be exploited. Nevermind both the wildlife and the indigenous people who reside there.

Slowly but surely, Dark Age develops a conscience over these issues. Just when it looks like itíll just be a straight-up Jaws rip-off, it circles around to connect with the eco-horror cycle that surrounded Spielbergís blockbuster in the 70s. Not only is it concerned with the fate of the crocodiles, but it also takes interest in the Aboriginal people who have sworn to protect their customs, so much so that their main representative Oondabund (Burnam Burnam) slyly becomes the protagonist during the last third of the film. When heís first introduced, you peg him for the Quint analogóan old, grizzled expert on crocodiles who will surely be called into duty to help slay the beast.

But thatís not quite what happens: instead, Oondabund emerges as the filmís conscience in his attempt to convince Harris to capture Numunwari, touching off a delirious climax that finds the group of conservationists fleeing the rival poachers with the 25-foot beast in tow. Some terrific effects work (the crocodile is truly a sight to behold), a brutal car stunt (Iím not sure how everyone involved walked away unscathed), and a violent showdown between the two sides help to solidify the filmís grindhouse credentials by satisfying the audienceís lizard brain bloodlust.

Whatís more striking, however, is its insistence that Aboriginal culture is victimized here, effectively shedding light on an under-exposed chapter in human history. Here in the States, weíre of course familiar with Native American genocide and African colonialism, but the Aboriginal people of Australia remain a footnote, their struggles underrepresented in both classrooms and popular culture. Dark Age attempts to rectify this, even if it does so in unexpected fashion. You perhaps expect an Ozploitation killer crocodile film to be excellent trash; you perhaps donít expect the crocodile to be an avatar of Aboriginal vengeance, an ancestral remnant of the countryís indigenous past, returned now to haunt the men who stole this land. Indeed, Dark Age is one of the most subversive films to emerge from Down Under: where most Ozploitation efforts depict Australia as a wild, untamed death trap that will kill you by hook or crook, this one rightfully posits that the white man has been the continentís most brutal influence.

The disc:

While Dark Age is still unavailable in the United States, curious genre fans need not worry, as Aussie out Umbrella Entertainment has recently emerged as yet another terrific label dedicated to this sort of fare. In fact, Dark Age is part of an entire line dedicated exclusively to Ozploitation classics, which has seen some of the countryís most notorious output lovingly restored on Blu-ray. This release in particular is outstanding, as the film looks downright immaculate, an impressive feat considering it never played in theaters and was largely forgotten for years.

Umbrella has also outfitted the disc with numerous supplements, including Jarratt and Ginnaneís uncut interviews from Ozploitation doc Not Quite Hollywood, wherein both men recount their experiences on Dark Age (Jarratt also mentions his stint on Rogue, a role that sort of brought his career full circle). Both men also appear for an audio commentary. A 25-minute panel discussion with genre experts Lee Gambin, Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, Emma Westwood, and Sally Christie further explores the filmís historical context and themes, with the usual promotional material (trailers and image galleries) serving to round out the release. The disc also includes Living With Crocodiles, a 1986 documentary featuring Grahame Webb, author of the book that inspired Dark Age, making this a truly exhaustive, definitive release. Perhaps most importantly, itís a region-free release, easily available and ready to be loaded into your Blu-ray player. Even if it were a bare bones disc, it'd be among my favorite discoveries in recent memory. Dark Age is the goods: a nasty, gnarly nature-run-amok film with an eye trained towards social justice.
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