Zombies breathe life into Pakistani film

[15 June 2007]

By Kim Barker

Chicago Tribune (MCT)

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan—This horror movie has everything—a midget zombie, human entrails, doll heads and a Mace-wielding, burqa-wearing killer.

But “Zibahkhana,” known in English as “Hell’s Ground,” is much more than just another low-budget gore-fest. It’s Pakistan’s first stab at the slasher genre. It’s also an attempt to revive the dying Pakistani film industry, or at least show there’s more to movies than song and dance. There is, for instance, lowbrow comedy and a high body count.

“We’re completely trying to blow away the idea that everything has to be serious,” said director Omar Ali Khan, 45, a film buff who also runs a chain of ice cream shops in Lahore, Karachi and Islamabad. “I haven’t made any space on my mantel for awards, that’s for sure. We’ll go for the people’s award.”

His film, shot in a month in and around Islamabad last summer, faced every possible challenge. Shooting was supposed to start in fall 2005, but a devastating earthquake put the movie on hold. Last summer the cast had to battle the stultifying heat, cockroaches, snakes and lizards. The budget was so low that Khan improvised, freezing a dead crow he had found for two weeks before it was needed. And in a bizarre case of life imitating art, the day after filming finished, two real dead bodies were pulled from behind a movie set in the forest.

That was only the beginning. There is no distributor in Pakistan yet, and strict censors here are unlikely to allow mass distribution. There is also no real market for horror movies in Pakistan. In Islamabad, the country’s capital, there isn’t even a real movie theater. Two state-owned theaters were shut down after financial losses, and another was burned down by a fundamentalist mob.

The Pakistani movie industry, known as “Lollywood” after its base in Lahore, can be described as somewhere between fledgling and pathetic. The number of films being produced in Pakistan has plummeted 80 percent since the heady 1970s, to 40 movies last year. The number of theaters has dropped to 250 from 750 in the last 30 years.

Pressure from religious fundamentalists has played a role, along with government restrictions. But experts say the Pakistani industry is also at fault, for failing to compete with rival India’s vast film powerhouse.

“Hell’s Ground,” which has English subtitles, didn’t even debut in Pakistan. It premiered in Denmark and moved on to Philadelphia before showing at a film festival in Lahore, where the appetite was so huge that the movie had to be shown on five screens simultaneously.

The film debuted Sunday in Islamabad, at the Islamabad Club, on a stage where plays usually are performed. So many people wanted to see the movie, almost 600, they crammed onto the theater stairs. Khan told the crowd that he wants this film to be the “first mindless cult movie that Pakistan has ever had.”

“This is one of the first Pakistani movies I’ve seen in a long time, because Pakistani cinema is so bad,” said moviegoer Tamreez Inam, 22.

From the opening credits to the movie’s end, the audience clapped, laughed and cheered, even at the sight of zombies munching on people. The story of “Hell’s Ground” is a familiar one, of teenagers who lie to their parents to go to a rock show and tempt fate by not fueling up on gas and then taking a shortcut.

There is ominous music, chirping crickets, a full moon, a spider, contaminated water, newspaper warnings of a vague plague—but the five hapless teens either smoke hashish or worry about their lies, oblivious to the fate that clearly awaits them.

They violate almost every rule of surviving a horror film. They ignore the warning of a creepy tea-shop owner to be good Muslims and discount his maniacal laugh. The teens wander off alone. They fail to notice that their friend, bitten by an undefined creature, is turning into a zombie. They fail to roll up their van windows during a slow onslaught of zombies. They run out of gas in a dark forest. They walk into a questionable butcher shop in the middle of the dark forest.

Although there are a plethora of bad guys, the baddest is definitely the man neutered by his mother who wanted a daughter. He dons a shabby white burqa, the garment worn by conservative Muslim women that covers everything, even a woman’s eyes. Khan said he was not making a political statement. He simply feared two things when he was a child—a woman in a burqa, and the tinny sound of the call to prayer when dehumanized over speakers. He called his killer Burqa Man.

“We underused Burqa Man,” Khan admitted.

But there is always next time. The movie, more campy than scary, ends on a cliffhanger. Cast members are hoping for a sequel.

“I surprisingly felt quite at home playing the character of a zombie,” said Osman Khalid Butt, 21, whose character is the first to meet a bad end. “For me, the best part in the movie was when I got sick and started vomiting. I liked puking blood.”

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