(Sandy Harbutt, Australia, 1974)


Here's a good way to start a movie.

Signs on beaches warn of extreme pollution. A biker gang roars down the road. Environmentalists gather at an outdoor political rally. A drug-tripping biker has deformed visions of the sculptures outside the Art Gallery of New South Wales. A sinister sniper waits for his moment, fires and raises mass hysteria. And this entire, chaotic montage is drenched in psychedelic optical effects, feedback guitar noise and gruesome special effects.

If this were a new movie, critics would compare it to Natural Born Killers (1994). But it is not Oliver Stone but Stone – a unique Australian film which got to celebrate its 21st anniversary with a theatrical re-release. Sandy Harbutt's film (he wrote, directed, produced and stars in it) has carved out an indelible space for itself in Australian popular culture – despite being given short shrift in most serious books on our national cinema.

As Oliver Stone regularly does, Harbutt has taken this re-release opportunity to deliver a new version, a director's cut. But where Stone likes to lengthen his epics second time around, Harbutt has shortened his sole feature film by almost thirty minutes – and it is a welcome improvement.

The plot idea is simple but very effective. We observe the enclosed, secret world of a Sydney biker gang called The Grave Diggers – their lair, their rituals, their encounters with citizens of 'straight' society. When members of the gang are brutally killed, an undercover cop (Ken Shorter) ingratiates himself into this circle and is reborn as Stone.

The film is a high-energy ramble through various scenes of violence and vulgarity, employing an almost agit-prop style of sledgehammer social commentary. It effortlessly achieves a level of streetwise realism, narrative drive and rambunctious humour missing from many subsequent local productions.

Stone has aged extremely well. In a single blow, it resurrects for us a great era in low-budget exploitation filmmaking. The exhilarating scenes of bike riding set to rock music recall Easy Rider. Hilarious glimpses of the milieu of drugs and free love evoke Roger Corman's 'counter-cultural' quickies. The matter-of-fact inclusion of an Aboriginal biker corresponds to the multicultural vibrancy of many American B movies of the period.

The film also provides a fascinating and entertaining road map to the Australian cinema that followed it – perhaps not the official history enshrined in books, but maybe a more important and vital one.

Editor Ian Barry went on to direct the excellent futuristic action movie The Chain Reaction (1980). Those outrageously flamboyant performers Hugh Keays-Byrne and Vincent Gil enlivened genre-twisters from Mad Max (1979) to Body Melt (1994). And anarchistic films about low life quietly flourished, from Pure S (1975) and Going Down (1983) to Dogs in Space (1987) and Nirvana Street Murder (1991).

These days, attempts at exploitation cinema often choke on their own mannered self-consciousness. Stone hails from a happy period when B movies were messier, more direct, sure of their connection with their outlaw or subcultural audiences – and unashamed to give straights like me a few indecent, vicarious thrills.

© Adrian Martin November 1995

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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