Hell's bills, it's the Gore from Lahore
A group of youngsters set off in their van to see a rock concert but get lost on the way. Soon they're being picked off, one by one, by crazed zombies and a mace-swinging madman. Nothing unusual there - most gore movies are more or less like that. But this one was made in Pakistan.
Hell's Ground, which advertises itself as 'The Texas Chainsaw Massacre meets the Taleban', screened at the recent New York Asian Film Festival (NYAFF) as part of a one-night tribute to Pakistani exploitation cinema entitled From Lahore With Gore.
Few people know that exploitation cinema even exists in Pakistan. NYAFF organiser Grady Hendrix didn't, until a member of an Asian film forum he regularly logs into set him right. Not only was his online friend Omar Khan an expert on Pakistani B-movies, but he was making one.
'Omar turned out to be the leading film expert on Pakistani exploitation cinema,' says Hendrix. 'By day, he runs two ice-cream shops in Lahore and two in Islamabad. But his real obsession is Pakistani exploitation films. Omar has a big collection of Pakistani film ephemera, mainly exploitation stuff from the 1970s and 80s. He became so immersed in it, he decided to make one himself.'
The film, as Hendrix describes it, seems custom made to anger the mullahs of Pakistan. 'Five pot-smoking, boozing, sex-before-marriage kids want to go and see a rock concert,' says Hendrix. 'They pile into their van, but on the way their path becomes blocked by a protest about polluted drinking water. They take a detour off the highway and encounter some flesh-eating Muslim zombie midgets, and a family of demented hill- billies. These are savage, torturing, demented sadists who pick the kids off, one by one. But the worst horror they face is Burqa-man. He's a retarded guy who swings a mace and wears a bloody burqa.'
Hendrix says that Omar didn't have too much trouble making the film. Even the police lent a hand: 'They told the police that they were making an educational film, so they helped out a bit. But Omar told me that the police knew exactly what the film was really about. They just thought it would be fun to hang out on a film set for a bit. As long as there was a chain of deniability, they didn't really care what went on.'
And the cast and crew? 'They were all from the Pakistani film and theatre scene,' says Hendrix. 'That is very staid, as you can imagine. They relished the chance to do something different, apparently.'
But Hell's Ground hasn't gone completely unnoticed by the authorities in Pakistan, he says. 'They didn't submit the film to censorship, as they figured it would get turned down. They're showing it in video parlours and so on. The censorship laws there are relatively toothless. There's not a lot of enforcement. But Omar has got into a bit of trouble recently with some community leaders. He'll probably get denounced publicly for making trash. But it probably won't lead to him getting imprisoned.'
Hendrix says that, in spite of Pakistan's strict Muslim image, a lot of young people are interested in foreign horror films and American pop culture - which the internet has given them access to.
'Movies help you to see another country and understand it a bit better,' he says. 'My idea of Pakistan was 180 degrees different before I met Omar. I thought that it was just a medieval backwater. I never thought it would have anything like a modern youth culture. But for someone to make a film like this, there has to be something going on there we don't know about.'
The festival, which ended last Sunday, shows more than Pakistani horror films. Its mandate is to screen cutting-edge commercial cinema from Asia. This year's selection includes The Banquet from the mainland, Dog Bite Dog and Exiled from Hong Kong, the smash hit Death Note from Japan, and a slew of films from South Korea. A highlight is an anniversary showing of John Woo's Hard Boiled, which is soon to receive a special DVD release in the US. But Hendrix says that the American interest in Hong Kong films that was sparked by Woo is long gone. 'Hong Kong is over. Hong Kong style got taken on board by Hollywood. It got assimilated. And now it's been crapped out the other end.'
This could be positive, he says. Hendrix points out that Hong Kong movies such as Gordon Chan Ka-seung's action film 2000AD, which was made with an international audience in mind, weren't particularly good.
'If you take away the idea of having a hit in America, Hong Kong filmmakers can concentrate on making films with a local flavour,' he says. 'That's what they do best. Ironically, that's also the kind of Hong Kong film that people like to watch abroad. Now the American dream is dead, there are a lot more good films coming out of Hong Kong.'