The creator of Judge Judy wrote a book about a killer boar. It was adapted into a film in Australia in the 1980’s. Because the robotic boar never worked the film became about crazed pet food factory workers and a sign of Australia’s acceptance of its crazed underbelly.
Razorback is often unfairly described and derided as Jaws with a Boar.
Oh, if only it were that simple!
Razorback is barely a film about a giant boar. It is, at times, barely a film about anything. What it is though is an unwitting bridge between the 1971 bleak reality of Wake in Fright to the 1986 smash hit of Crocodile Dundee. Wake in Fright was an unflinching exploration of the nihilistic and drunken Australian psyche as experienced by a stranded school teacher in an outback town. It was a box-office failure and long lost in Australia as it was considered too unflinching in its depiction of the otherwise heavily romanticised Australian outback and inhabitants. Crocodile Dundee is essentially the same story as Wake in Fright but transformed into an extended tourism shoot and embrace of the foreign other with the drunken nihilism white-washed into a blokey fun.
Razorback forms part or all of the model which allowed Crocodile Dundee to make this transformation. Razorback backgrounds the drunkenness and hostility of the people it is populated by and the landscape they inhabit as it focuses upon the phantom dangers of a giant razorback boar. Crocodile Dundee would use the same tactic with the unreasonably ever-present danger of crocodiles.
Arguably this is a lot to lay on Razorback which some would argue is a film which is barely watchable. Directed by an untested Duran Duran and Spandau Ballet music video director it is full of set-pieces which veer dangerously close to proto steam-punk. The
producers passed on Jeff Bridges as the protagonist in favour of the lost to history and very underwhelming Gregory Harrison. The opening scene is a brutal exploitative reference to the Azaria Chamberlain dingo death in a story line which is never quite justified and then promptly abandoned. The eponymous boar, like Bruce the shark in Jaws, was apparently generally faulty and, so, is hardly seen. Instead the films prevalent and larger threat comes from the unpredictable and sexually violent local pet food factory workers.
Despite all this it is a cult classic and features prominently in the schlock aussie film documentary Not Quite Hollywood where Quentin Tarantino claims it is one of his favourite Australian films. Also, to the films merit, almost everyone in the crew (though not the cast) has gone on to have extensive careers in Australian and international film and television.
The most confusing aspect beyond the finished product are the films origins. Judge Judy creator, Peter Brennan, wrote two novels. One was Razorback and another was Sudden Death, a tennis thriller. He also co-authored another novel about the Kennedy brothers. When not writing schlock books he was an American television producer, writer, and journalist most well known for being the creator and executive producer of Judge Judy and its spin-offs as well as Current Affair and Good Day New York.
Filmed in Broken Hill and with many of the same crew from Mad Max 2 the film relies heavily on a hostile Australian outback and its weathered inhabitants for a threatening tone. It’s hard to know what was changed from the source material and assumedly American context of the book and to what degree, if any, the aspects of the township and its inhabitants were tacked on by the Australian film-makers. Unfortunately, and for whatever reason (scarcity, cult appeal, happenstance or price-fixing script-writing errors) copies of the Razorback novel are hard to find and often expensive (some around $150 at time of writing).
The director, Russell Mulcahy, had mainly worked as a music video director until Razorback. He would go on to direct Highlander, one of the Resident Evil films and a swathe of tv. His music video past is obvious in this, his debut. The film often looks like a music video with mist/fog and coloured backlit backgrounds filmed from low camera angles. There is also a hallucinatory dessert sequence that an IMDB review thought worthy enough to describe as ‘one of the most beautiful horror films not made by an Italian giallo master’.
In the absence of a working robotic boar and for story purposes too arbitrary or confusing to go into here the film focuses a lot of its time upon the ambivalently evil brothers Benny and Dicko, and their work in the town’s pet food factory. The factory is
ramshackle, malfunctioning, and mostly abandoned. There is some loose arrangement where local boar hunters supply carcasses to the factory but, judging by the surplus of body parts littered throughout the place, Benny and Dicko don’t seem to know how to process the mutilated offerings. Nonetheless the factory is a perfect place for director Mulcahy to fill with fog and film silhouettes garishly backlight in red and blue. Benny and Dicko are alcoholics who live in a cave, and are constantly changing into ever more outlandish fur coats and hats yet they appear to be the managers of the factory and the skeleton staff of heavy browed labourers. What’s more they take their work seriously. Throughout the film they abandon acts of rape, kidnapping, and murder so they can race back to the gore-ridden factory and hammer furiously at broken steam valves and jumpy conveyor belts.
Within the three films of Wake in Fright, Razorback and Crocodile Dundee a foreign other experiences the Australian outback and witness brutal hunting scenes. The infamous kangaroo hunting scene in Wake in Fright was shot with real kills and real drunken hunters and, not surprisingly, is extremely brutal in its violence and malice. In Razorback the acted drunken hunting is shot through backlit fog and becomes a music video and chance for the story, such as it is, to propel the protagonist towards his stand-in love interest. Crocodile Dundee sets up the same drunken kangaroo hunting scene for the same purpose of character. The drunken hunters are foiled by Mick Dundee at the behest of the shocked reporter. It is a chance for the suddenly honourable protagonist to distance himself from what were previously drunken brethren.
The transformation of the outback from the realism of Wake in Fright into the surrealism of a strange unexplained place in Razorback is also heavily reused in Crocodile Dundee as the hostile landscape takes on a level ambiguous spirituality. Wake in Fright focused upon the plight of an innocent school teacher trapped in the outback town and, so, underserved of the drunken excess he is subjected to. Razorback and Crocodile Dundee alter this dynamic by both using a New York reporter blundering into Australia with a missionary ideal and the hubris of reporting on the savagery of a foreign land. This sin of pride allows Razorback to justify the reporter’s hostile reception as it simultaneously draws upon Wake in Fright in its portrayal of the habitants as lost, drunken and manic within a landscape they exist to ruin.
Benny and Dicko are never really allowed to be evil however so much as psychotic cartoon characters. The rest of the town accepts them just as they accept the boar hunter whose son dies at the beginning of the film and is suspected (like Lindsay Chamberlain) of inventing the creature to cover up murder. It is difficult to know then if in this world all the inhabitants are twisted, or they are simply strangely accepting. Razorback never examines these or other questions long enough to provide any hint of underlying meaning. Similarly, the film refuses to encourage any sort of thematic interpretation in its frenetic pacing and continued priority of style above all else (including horror).
Crocodile Dundee becomes a much more gracious film as it choses to overlook the arrogance of the reporter and, instead, provides Mick Dundee as guide which allows the New Yorker to see and experience beauty in outback Australia and a degree of invented pathos to its isolated pub-going inhabitants.
Which isn’t to say, necessarily, that either Wake in Fright or Crocodile Dundee are morally right or wrong. Each have their problems and their ulterior motives. Wake in Fright wanted to be a frank and brutal look at Australia. Crocodile Dundee wanted to sell Australia to the world and show how foreign visitors could enjoy even its most isolated extremes. Razorback is great because of the fact it does exist in a blank middle-ground. It is a film which is aware of the faults of Australia and any attempt to portray it. But rather than worrying about this the film leans into being as brutal, fast and psychotic as it can in this portrayal. It merges the tropes of American music videos onto the Australian outback and one-pub towns. It doesn’t care about its perception or treatment of Australia, Australians or its overseas visitors and, as a result, and like many the Ozploitation classics is much more interesting and Australian than its mainstream contemporaries or forebears.