Monday, June 30, 2008

ON DVD : ZIBAHKHANA (HELL'S GROUND)

The excited compliment of "I've never seen anything like it!" is overplayed, but in the case of the Pakistani zombie cum slasher flick Zibahkhana that description is literally true.

There were Pakistani horror films before this. Apparently, the first was the 1967 film The Living Corpse (a.k.a Dracula in Pakistan ... I prefer this title), which is playing on a TV set inside one of the protagonist's rooms in Zibahkhana. However, never has a homemade horror film of this corroded a caliber been produced in Pakistan. It would be like going from Cat People to Dead Alive overnight.

Because of extreme censorship and cultural tug-o-wars between moderates and hardliners in Pakistan's parliament - not to mention the the creeping in of 7th century thugs in cities as large as Peshawar - this ain't exactly the freest of artistic environments to work in. But director Omar Ali Kahn, having created momentum and buzz by taking his film to festivals across America and Europe, finally got his film released in his home country earlier this year.

Having said that, it's hard to separate the accomplishment from the actual art when watching Zibahkhana. You find yourself prematurely giving Ali Kahn a passing grade simply because of the strict environment he had to deal with. Not that Zibahkhana is at all a bad film, but on the surface, it's really nothing more than a homage to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre with a little Night of the Living Dead sprikled in.

Ali Kahn knows his American horror. Perhaps too well: There is a van... there are kids in it... they do drugs... they get lost... they meet some backwoods weirdos on the side of the road... they run up against a cannibalistic family that sells barbecued human flesh... that family has a retarded son that wears a burqa. Wait!... A burqa?!?!

And here is where Zibahkhana gets it's hook.

Despite the obvious lifts, the film is completely original where it dresses up its maniac killer in a bloody burqa. And while Ali Kahn does cautiously shy away from making any direct religious connections, it's impossible to deny the cultural symbolism at play here. When a final female character takes a stake to the the killer, her unhinged rage seems to be directed more at the oppressive covering, rather than the actually maniac behind the cloth.

The current bunch of American and French horror directors have sloppily tried to conflate their gore or sadism with domestic and/or international political tensions, but they continually come off as insincere and, at worst, ignorant. (Xavier Gens' evocation of the 2005 Parisian suburb riots to imply a new type of European fascism, in Fronteir(s), looks ridiculous next to a madman running around in a burqa swinging a medieval flail.) Asia was horror's savior for the late 90's early 00's. Currently, Spain is showing signs of a new wave, but maybe, just maybe, the Middle East will be the next fronteir. Allah willing.

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