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Thirst (1979)


Advertising executive Kate Davis (Chantal Contouri) is kidnapped by the Hyma Brotherhood, a secret society of blood drinkers led by Dr Fraser (David Hemmings). Held at the group’s country headquarters where blood is extracted from zombie-like ‘donors’, Kate is told that she is a descendant of Countess Elizabeth Bathory, the sect’s spiritual guide. The brotherhood’s leaders disagree over the best way to bring Kate into the fold. Fraser believes in persuasion but his associates, Mrs Barker (Shirley Cameron), Dr Gauss (Henry Silva) and Hodge (Max Phipps), decide to use intense indoctrination aimed at forcing Kate to desire blood. When it appears she has acquired the ‘thirst’, Kate is allowed to return to her boyfriend, Derek Whitelaw (Rod Mullinar). But the indoctrination wears off, Kate rebels and is taken back to the compound with Derek. With all hope seemingly lost, Kate and Derek have no option but to trust Dr Fraser when he offers to help them escape.

Curator’s notes

A tasty little horror thriller filmed in widescreen, Thirst is a highlight of the ‘Ozploitation’ films made in the late 1970s and early 80s when lucrative domestic tax incentives and a booming international home video market sparked an upsurge in Australian feature film production. Australia’s only postmodern vampire movie, Thirst is one of two dozen films produced between 1978 and 1988 by the indefatigable Antony I Ginnane. A shrewd showman in the Roger Corman mould and still very active, Ginnane’s sharp eye for new talent and highly commercial subject matter was drawn to the screenplay by journalist John Pinkney. Rod Hardy, an experienced director of Crawfords television productions, was given his first feature assignment. To bolster international marketing potential, Ginnane secured the services of British actor David Hemmings (Deep Red, 1975) and veteran American heavy Henry Silva (The Manchurian Candidate, 1962) in support roles. Like many of Ginnane’s productions during this period, Thirst was not successful in Australia. Local audiences had little interest in homegrown genre movies at the time and the film performed much better overseas.

Well mounted on a modest budget and even sporting a degree of artistry in the extended dream sequence (see clip three), Thirst is an entertaining amalgamation of traditional vampire movie and modern medical shocker. Bearing a passing resemblance to the 1973 French thriller Traitement de choc (about a health clinic using human blood), Thirst strips the supernatural away from vampirism and depicts blood drinking as 'the ultimate aristocratic act’ of a secret international society (see clip two). Anything but the shapeshifting creatures imagined by Bram Stoker, Dr Fraser, Mrs Barker, Dr Gauss and Hodge are slick corporate types who dress for blood drinking rituals like civilised society dresses for a night at the opera. By placing its villains in plain sight and giving them a philosophy – Shirley Cameron’s wonderfully reptilian Mrs Barker takes the honours in this department (see clip two) – Thirst adds an intriguing element of seduction to Kate’s ordeal. The brotherhood cannot kill her; she is their royalty-in-waiting and must somehow be persuaded or coerced into accepting her ‘inheritance’.

Thirst builds tension impressively and Pinkney’s script offers some fresh departures from vampire movie conventions. Fangs are accessories used only for special occasions. Blood extraction is an industrial process; half-dead ‘donors’ are lined up like cows with pumps draining blood from their necks into cartons on a conveyor belt. In one darkly comic scene a cheery tour guide extols the germ-free purity of the factory’s product to a group of happy-snapping visitors. Organic vampires, perhaps? Whether taken at face value or interpreted as a metaphor for oppression of the working class, inventive scenes such as these make Thirst stand out from the average fright film. It does not disappoint in good old-fashioned shock value either, with Kate’s blood-drenched shower scene and a spectacular death involving a helicopter and powerlines among the highlights. The inspired choice of location for the sect’s headquarters was Montsalvat, an artists’ colony built in Eltham on the outskirts of Melbourne in the 1930s. A dramatic collection of stone buildings, manicured lawns and tree-lined ponds, it evokes gothic atmosphere worthy of a Hammer movie and proves a splendid venue for ancient evil to mingle with hi-tech horror. After being trapped in distribution limbo for many years, Thirst has begun to reappear on DVD around the world and is a strong candidate for any retrospective of Australia’s forgotten genre film history.

Thirst was released in Australian cinemas on 1 November 1979.