(SHOULD BE A) CULT FILM Pakistan: land of the Markhor goat (a twisty-horned national animal), major software industry, ancient civilizations, field hockey, purported terrorist training cells, and extremely good-looking people of both sexes. The latter, at least, was suggested by those who went to my midwestern university a couple decades back: they were terribly urbane, funny, and cool. Admittedly, they were the next-generation cream of the country’s privileged-liberal economic elite. But they endeared me to a country that, at least as they reflected it, couldn’t harbor anything too religio-fanatical. Could it?
Such first impressions linger never mind that I have since become slightly less of an overgeneralizing idiot. Proof that Pakistan retains a freethinking, Western-influenced minority no insult intended against its more conservative Muslim majority arrives in the unexpected form of Hell’s Ground (a.k.a. Zibahkhana), which plays the Hypnodrome as a Dead Channels presentation. Omar Ali Khan’s debut feature is a frantic pileup of horror genre tropes whose energy never flags. Purportedly Pakistan’s first gore film, it’s funny as well as grotesquely over-the-top.
Much as the movie might strike some as proof of the Great Satan’s poisonous cultural influence and indeed it offers shameless tribute to the accumulated clichés of Western horror trash it nonetheless hews to the genre’s most essential moral conservatism. (And unlike traditional slashers, no T&A is bared to justify lethal punishment.) Among the film’s quintet of teens sneaking out of town to a rock concert they’ll never reach, who do you think is gonna survive? I wouldn’t place bets on the amiable pothead, jaded party girl, or overgroomed stud. Poor virtuous scholarship student Simon? Good girl Ayesha (nicknamed Ash, à la Evil Dead‘s Bruce Campbell), who wears a "God Is Great" pendant? Maybe.
After someone has the bright idea of taking a dirt road shortcut, the fivesome run across zombies (including midget undead), then the freaky inbred family of a mystery-meat-selling matriarch whose offspring are Texas Chainsaw Massacre brethren reincarnated way off the Bible Belt. The crazy hitcher guy is now a long-haired religious fanatic; as in Tobe Hooper’s 1974 original, he’s got an unpleasant surprise to spring once he gets in the van. Khan’s Leatherface equivalent substitutes a blood-spattered burqa and a lethally wielded mace for a dried-human-skin-mask and a buzz saw.
Funded by entrepreneur Khan’s Lahore ice cream parlors, Hell’s Ground is a fun and accomplished tree-shaking of Pakistan’s once-lively, now largely moribund "Lollywood" film industry. It did well when the country’s censorship board finally approved its theatrical release early this year. It emerges stateside this month via TLA Releasing, a normally gay-centric DVD distributor whose Danger After Dark label has recently given exposure to a gamut of international horror, fantasy, and suspense films. So far they’ve ranged from cheesily enjoyable (Greece’s first zombie flick, 2005’s Evil) to brilliant (Simon Rumley’s 2006 Brit madness portrait The Living and the Dead).
Despite all of the English comic bookpanel intertitles ("Little did they know … ") and nods to Western horror classics, Hell’s Ground is shot through with Pakistani cultural totems (like a glimpse of hijiras, transvestite eunuchs), vintage pop, and in-jokes. Not least is the cameo by long-retired actor Rahan of 1967 Pakistani cult smash The Living Corpse. As a chai shop proprietor, he warns our hapless youngsters that they’ve already "strayed off the right road" and that "good Muslims should be getting ready for evening prayers." Later he’s heard pronouncing "You’re on the road to hell my children. Ha ha ha. HA HA HA!"
"The characters in Zibahkhana are part of the urban elite," Khan said in an interview with British newspaper the Guardian. "It’s true that class lives in a privileged bubble. The real, frightening, ‘unknown’ Pakistan is out there in the countryside, and that is why in the film it is when the kids leave the city that they starting encountering trouble."
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