CULT CORNER: Dark Age (1987)

Our resident Aussie Cal is here to sing the praises of this Ozploitation classic starring John Jarratt. 

Who made it?: Arch Nicholson (Director), Sonia Borg, Stephen Cross, Tony Morphett (Writers), Basil Appleby (Producer), F.G. Film Productions/FGH/RKO Pictures. 

Who’s in it?: John Jarratt. Nikki Coghill, Max Phipps, Burnham Burnham, David Gulpilil, Ray Meagher. 

Tagline: “Just When You Thought It Was Safe Down Under.”

IMDb rating: 6.2/10.

Before Greg McLean’s 2007 crocodile picture Rogue – and even before the likes of Lake Placid and Killer Crocodile - there was 1987’s Dark Age, which is more or less Australia’s answer to Jaws since it’s a monster movie featuring a giant saltwater crocodile as opposed to a great white shark. An “Ozploitation” classic, this is a fun B-movie in the same vein as 1984’s Razorback, and it certainly works well enough on its own terms to earn a recommendation, especially for Ozploitation fans or horror enthusiasts who enjoy these sorts of productions.

When a large saltwater crocodile begins attacking the inhabitants of the Northern Territory town of Malparinga, wildlife ranger Steve Harris (John Jarratt) is ordered to take care of the problem, despite seeking to protect the endangered crocodile population. The primary concern of local government official Rex Garret (Ray Meagher; known more commonly as Alf Stewart in Home & Away) is the tourism aspect, with Japanese investors in town who may be scared away by the recent attacks. However, local Aboriginal elder Oonabund (Burnam Burnam) explains that the crocodile – known as Numunwari – is a sacred dreaming croc, and it will be impossible for white men to kill it. Harris and his girlfriend, Cathy (Nikki Coghill), find themselves siding with the Aboriginals, hoping to simply move Numunwari to a sanctuary out of harm’s way, and prevent a crew of shotgun-toting hunters led by Besser (Max Phipps) from destroying the ancient reptile.

Dark Age is based on the novel Numunwari by Grahame Webb, with the screenplay credited to Sonia Borg (Storm Boy). Comparisons with Jaws are obvious in a number of areas, but only go so far – despite a few similarities, the movie plots its own path and is uniquely Australian in terms of the on-screen culture. Indeed, it’s particularly refreshing that Steve does not simply seek to kill the croc, and actually does his best to protect it. In addition, Aboriginal culture is deeply ingrained in the narrative, and Dark Age carries a subtle but evident anti-colonial subtext – after all, town officials are more concerned with modernisation and money, showing little regard for the Aboriginal culture and history to which Numunwari is connected. Indeed, it’s the mythological aspect of the crocodile which is most fascinating, and the killing isn’t mindless – he mostly devours hunters, and Oonabund rationalises that a small child eaten by the croc was simply put out of his misery due to crippling health problems. This sort of thematic density distinguishes the movie from more run-of-the-mill monster offerings, and it’s utterly refreshing in a world of less imaginative Z-grade productions like Sharknado or fucking 3-Headed Shark Attack.

Produced for a rather considerable (at the time) sum of AUD $4.8 million (which is still more than most contemporary Australian films, even before adjusting for inflation), Dark Age is not as cheap or nasty as some might expect, though it does look dated in some aspects. The croc itself is for the most part convincing enough, though more cynical viewers will probably be less impressed. Certainly, it does look rubbery at times, but the camera never lingers on the mechanical croc for too long. Attack scenes are tautly edited and violent, not to mention quite unnerving, benefitting from terrific editing courtesy of Adrian Carr, who also makes use of real crocodile footage in certain scenes (much like Jaws) to heighten the realism. Late director Arch Nicholson cut his teeth on a number of Australian productions, and actually carried out second unit duties on the aforementioned Razorback. Dark Age was lensed by late great cinematographer Andrew Lesnie (The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit), and the movie makes great use of the outback locations and bodies of water. However, pacing can be a bit slow from time to time and Nicholson’s style is overly basic, not to mention the synth score is often distractingly dated and doesn’t come close to the intensity of John Williams’ work on Jaws. Acting is on the wooden side as well, and Meagher is cartoonish in his outright villainy, but these are minor shortcomings on the whole.

The Australian distributor for Dark Age went broke during the movie’s post-production, and it subsequently remained unreleased in Australia for a staggering twenty-four years before at long last debuting on DVD in 2011. Filmmaker Quentin Tarantino is a self-professed fan of the film, and possesses his own 35mm print which was actually supplied for the long-delayed Australian premiere. Dark Age is silly and a bit dated, but it’s nevertheless an eminently charming and rewatchable Australian horror movie that stands up much better than its obscurity might imply. Indeed, it’s a real shame that it wasn’t released here back in 1987 as planned, but with the movie now available on both DVD and Blu-ray, it deserves to find a second life.

Best Scene

Maybe not the best per se, but damn indicative of the film as a whole.

Useless Trivia

(Via IMDb)
  • It took until October 2011 for the film to be released for the first time in its home country Australia.
  • Arch Nicholson didn’t do much after the film was completed, but he was a director for five episodes of the 1989 Mission: Impossible revival TV series.
  • John Jarratt got to take the hat used in We Of The Never Never and he wears it again in this film. The actor would go on to wider success and acclaim in the Australian-produced Wolf Creek films and TV series.




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