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NYC Film Festivals

Hell's a Poppin'

By S.T. VanAirsdale

It was just about midnight July 4 by the time Omar Ali Khan's Pakistani splatter exercise Hell's Ground (Zibahkhana) flickered to life onscreen at the New York Asian Film Festival, getting both an early start on the pyrotechnics to follow much later in the day and assuring viewers in attendance that no fireworks, barbecues or general holiday revelry would surpass the bedlam imported that night to IFC Center. The preceding clip reel of highlights from the golden age of Pakistani exploitation cinema -- D-grade fare featuring the likes giant-syringe-wielding killers and chunky Spandex-clad sirens, all seemingly directed, shot and edited by blind men -- warmed the crowd up for the bloodshed to follow: the first modern Pakistani horror film, with a van full of half-witted teens picked off one-by-one by both flesh-eating zombies and a masked killer.

Hell's Ground director Omar Ali Khan shares one of the handpainted posters for his film; an auction of the artwork raised $300 for the NY Asian Film Festival (Photo: STV)

Of course, it's not just any old masked killer swinging his mace into thick young crania, but a burqa-wearing madman in the weedy outskirts of Islamabad. Yet as director (and full-time ice cream vendor) Khan told the wired crowd after the screening, the burqa is not -- he repeats, is not -- some cheap, thinly veiled political statement.

"I'd be happy to go back there in one piece," said Khan, a London native who recalled the terror he experienced as a 5-year-old seeing a burqa for the first time. "Despite what's happening in the news today, this film was written years ago. In a way, almost by accident, it's become chillingly prophetic because in Islamabad, I called up this morning and we've got a scenario where a van of burqa-clad schoolgirls are holding the entire government (hostage) in a way. We've got Taliban, burqa-clad females going around arresting people without any sort of legal basis for doing so, and it's quite frightening to be in that scenario. But this had nothing to do with that. The hugest influence on me was the masked killer --after Halloween and all the spin-offs that came. I thought, 'OK, Michael Myers and Jason and Freddy and Leatherface -- they've had their time. And now it's time for a new monster on the scene.' "

Not only that, Khan added, but it was time for a new depiction of Pakistan -- a bloody break from the trite industry machine mass-producing confections from its base in Lahore. "I'm asked, 'What is it about a film like this that is hitting a chord with young people in Pakistan?' " Khan said. "And I think it is that there is so much repression that kids aren't allowed to express themselves as they might. I tried to be as honest as I could in the depiction of the characters that you see onscreen. They're completely imperfect -- they don't know how to react, for example, when a boy finds himself with a girl. We still have a lot of single-sex schools; we don't know how to react in certain situations. The swearing -- we never have any swearing, but in Pakistan you simply have to go out into the street for five minutes and you're surrounded by swearing all day long. Yet we don't show any of it in any of our films. The drug use! I'm sorry to say that most young people whom I come across from the age of 16 to 30 are just so bored out of their minds that I'm afraid it's absolute fact that they're doped up all day long. Of course we pretend marijuana doesn't exist in Pakistan. This was never supposed to be a picture-postcard projecting Pakistan the way the government would like to see the country. It was a no-BS view of the way it is, really."

Wringing tricks from sources ranging from the spectral first-person POV of The Evil Dead to the van-centric carnage of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (one of the movie-obsessed victims even has a poster of Bill Lustig's grindhouse classic Maniac mounted conspicuously over his bed), Hell's Ground most closely adheres to its predecessor's gritty, system-subverting DIY tenets. Entire villages came to watch the micro-budget production, which employed mostly non-professional actors. Khan said he spent two years scouting sets for a shoot that lasted a little over a month. Permits and government endorsements were never even an option.

"We side-stepped the red-tape thing," he said. "Generally in Pakistan, people are so afraid and so insecure about being in that position that no one is willing to make that decision. If I'd gone and been upfront about what this film was going to depict, they would never have been into this. You know, 2007 is supposed be 'Visit Pakistan' year; The government would not have approved of flesh-eating zombies. Although we had marijuana plants, which I think would have done something for tourism."

Posted at July 4, 2007 11:19 PM

Comments (1)

i love this movie

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