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Hell's Ground
cast: Ashfaq Bhatti, Sultan Billa, Kunwar Ali Roshan, Rooshanie Ejaz, and Rubya Chaudhry

director: Omar Ali Khan

77 minutes (18) 2007
widescreen ratio 1.77:1
Danger After Dark DVD Region 2 retail
[released 4 August]

RATING: 5/10
reviewed by Paul Higson
Omar Ali Khan's horror film Hell's Ground (aka: Zibahkhana) has been successful in obtaining a certain amount of attention including a feature article in The Guardian and a slot at the Bradford fantastic film weekend. Touted as something new in horror, a full-blooded Pakistani exploitation horror flick, the truth is inevitably disappointing. Producers, Andy Starke and Pete Tombs, breaking into feature fiction production, had the best of intentions, to revive the schlock and gore age of horror by re-birthing it on new turf. But as vivid, lurid and alive as Hell's Ground is, so successfully recalling the video era excitement of 24 years before, it is a film that whittles away that nostalgic assurance until you are only reminded that the period was also rich with cheap, shabby rubbish. Starke and Tombs have served exploitation cinema and fans well over the years, firstly with the series Mondo Macabro accompanied on Channel 4 with a single feature from each country covered. A feature-length documentary on Jesus Franco, They Call Me Jess (2002) followed. The Mondo Macabro run included an episode on Lollywood, the Pakistani cinema scene, and the film selected to air with the programme was the then recent Kodi Ramkrishna's Ammoru: The Mother Goddess (1995) an unnecessary two-and-a-half hour epic, a supernatural drama with CGI effects that lifted it above the norm for the region's output.

Hell's Ground rebelliously disagrees with the traditionally long movie running-times and goes to the happier extreme of telling it in a mere 77 minutes. In those 77 minutes it includes as much material as the usual 'bolly' or 'jelly' film normally does. Though the musical number is not as important an element in Pakistani cinema, one might at first think Hell's Ground has ditched song and dance completely, but cheekily music makes an important chirpy contribution to the film, in particular with a Stephen Thrower score (Thrower was the former editor of Eyeball and a member of phenomenal musical experimentalists Coil). Thrower's music blends well with the other music, largely contracted in (by among others, melody queen Noor Jehan, and Billa and the Burquetta), presumably some of it of some vintage. Thrower's rare offerings are as vintage and remote themselves, and yet as near and demanding, as some jingle riff trying to sell you exotic ices in a cinema in the 1970s... before you've had time to come down from the Pearl and Dean theme.

Hell's Ground looks scratchy and chucked together, an on-the-hoof production, made with determination and belief and one really wants to like it more. To its merit the film never stops, indeed, in its short running time, does not have time to stop. It is colour drenched and unreasoning but is too much of a hodgepodge of other classically hijacked subgenre details, with no intelligent engine, only ciphers and incidents to take the film to its suddenly upon us conclusion. This UK and Pakistan co-production, shot in the Urdu language with occasional spurts of English, is harmless enough, and could well spark a new movement in horror film making in a remote country, but is no more than a cheap splatter party. It is not quite as bizarre in its ideas and plotting as an Alfredo Zacharias film, is as everywhere and nowhere as a Herb Freed film and, as a result, may have a few old school admirers but will be given short shrift by a modern western horror audience.

The plot is neither here nor there. Four teenagers fib about their weekend's destination to their parents and guardians, and head out for several days of partying and mischief but instead take an accursed path leading them into the company of zombies that nip the flesh of one of their number, the brassy horror fan Vicky (a male character, played by Kunwar Ali Roshan), who will spume blue and green before joining the undead at the end of their vehicle's journey. At times the film sports an uber-amateur style, with fisheye lens, occasional shadows in the four corners as if shot on 8mm. There is Evil Dead lighting, and Raimi-esque camera angles; it feels like a Pakistani spaghetti western, a shoddier cousin to Tears Of The Black Tiger or more honest version of Planet Terror.

They pick up a lunatic guru who insists on bringing a decapitated head into the van with him, which fails to go down well with the young folk. They run him over. Their journey comes to end with a man in a ratty burka, bloodily hacking and crunching them. The good girl, Ayesha (Rooshania Ejaz) looks to the 'Old Lady of the Forest' (Najma Malik) for assistance, though, of course, she is connected with everything that is wrong in the forest on both a familial and magical level. The charnel house will appeal to some, the huge mace in the skull of the dull young male lead a bonus, and Rubya Ejaz is quite likeable and lively as Roxy, the girl who puts the bad into Islamabad. The horror geek, you bet, has an on-screen DVD collection. It includes the 1967 horror film Zinda Laash (aka: Dracula In Pakistan/ The Living Corpse), and its star Rehan pops up to sell them benighted food and warn them off the road ahead.

Forgiveness is ever likely over repeat screenings and there is also some promise from the participants for the future as director and producers. Hell's Ground is a case of deliberate carelessness taken too far. It's a nearly ran and hopefully is the first rung on a ladder for more productive and effective work to come from all involved. The producers are set to continue their globetrotting slate of horrors by returning to the Philippines (the subject of Mondo Macabro series episode 'Thrillers from Manila') for their next film Rico Maria Llarde's 'Killdroid'.

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