An explosion of activity in this decade saw more than 50 films produced, mainly low-budget, dramatic features. New ground was broken as film-makers probed discrimination involving same-sex relationships, sexism and racism.
Melanie Read’s feminist features, thriller Trial run (1984) and comedy Send a gorilla (1988), challenged the patriarchy. In the genre-bending thriller Mr Wrong (1985), directed by Gaylene Preston, women take control behind and in front of the camera. Barry Barclay’s Ngati (1987) was the first feature made principally by Māori and the world’s first feature made by an indigenous culture living within a white majority culture. Merata Mita’s Mauri (1988) was the first feature directed and written by a Māori woman and the first from an entirely Māori perspective.
Groundbreaking genre movies
There were also many stylistic and genre firsts, including:
- the first horror, David Blyth’s parodic Death warmed up (1984)
- Pictures (1981), a fictionalised portrayal of pioneering photographers
- Yvonne Mackay’s The silent one (1984), a mythical children’s tale set in Rarotonga, and the first New Zealand feature directed by a woman
- the first science fiction film, Geoff Murphy’s The quiet earth (1985)
- Peter Jackson’s first feature, the home-made Bad taste (1988)
- New Zealand’s first (and, by 2013, only) animated feature, Footrot Flats: the dog’s tale (1986), an Australian–New Zealand co-production directed by Murray Ball and based on his much-loved satirical cartoon strip set in an archetypal farming community.
In 1980 Sons for the return home (1979) and Geoff Murphy's second feature Goodbye pork pie (1980) screened at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival in France, securing New Zealand feature film’s place on the global film-makers’ map.
The scarecrow (1982), Sam Pillsbury’s adaptation, co-written with Michael Heath, of Ronald Hugh Morrieson’s gothic novel, was the first New Zealand film selected to screen in the Director’s Fortnight at Cannes. Vigil (1984), Vincent Ward’s striking, expressionistic depiction of a young country girl’s coming of age, was the first to screen in competition at Cannes.
One of the more surprising international hits in New Zealand movie history is Lincoln county incident (1980). This comedy western was directed by Tony Brittenden while he was an art teacher at Lincoln High School in Christchurch. The cast and crew included more than 100 students of the school. One of them, Shane Simms, played the lead, Samson Peabody-Jones, setting out to conquer the untamed west in 1881. The film screened at Cannes and sold to a number of European countries.
Formerly sceptical audiences began to warm to the idea of local production after seeing Goodbye pork pie, an anarchic comic road movie made largely by the Blerta team. It became the first New Zealand film to recover its costs from the domestic market alone.
In Utu (1983) Murphy created an exuberant action movie version of the 19th-century New Zealand wars.
Roger Donaldson’s tense relationship drama Smash palace (1981) was another early 1980s critical and popular success. The New York Times selected it as one of the year’s 10 best films.
Tax loophole films
In the early 1980s a loophole in tax law gave tax breaks for film production. British, US and Australian companies quickly invested in New Zealand-based co-productions. Most were action or thriller genre stories that brought little cultural benefit to New Zealand. However, several of the films made using the tax-break scheme provided interesting social and cultural perspectives.
In Beyond reasonable doubt (1980) director John Laing dramatised the controversial investigation of murder suspect Pukekawa farmer Arthur Allan Thomas. Michael Black’s Pictures (1981) revisited 19th-century issues of race and representation in a fictionalised biography of photographers the Burton brothers. The British–New Zealand co-production Bad blood (1982), directed by Mike Newell, stylishly re-told the true story of a bloody manhunt on the South Island’s rugged West Coast. In Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence (1984), made mainly in New Zealand by Japanese director Nagisa Oshima, David Bowie stars as an inmate in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp.
Other films made in the 1980s included:
- John Reid’s comedy Carry me back (1982), involving a drunken ferry crossing and a smuggled body
- John Laing’s Other halves (1984), based on Sue McCauley’s autobiographical novel
- Michael Firth’s incest-themed Heart of the stag (1984)
- Geoff Steven’s Strata (1983), an existential drama filmed on the North Island’s atmospheric central plateau and volcanic White Island.
Came a hot Friday (1984), directed by Ian Mune and adapted from the Ronald Hugh Morrieson novel, was memorable for the stand-out performance of comedian Billy T. James. Illustrious energy (1988), an art-house film directed by Leon Narbey, dramatised the hopes, fears and deprivations of the South Island’s Chinese prospectors in the waning days of the 1860s gold rush.
The most ambitious 1980s film was the Australian–New Zealand co-production The navigator: a medieval odyssey (1988). Its director and co-writer, Vincent Ward, was given a five-minute standing ovation at its Cannes screening.