Zibahkhana (a/k/a Hell’s Ground) (2007)

When a movie’s billed as “Pakistan’s first gore film,” you immediately want to love it. Even if it’s about zombies. The same zombies that have been crowding mainstream culture to a state of critical mass. Did the world really need Zombie Strippers? Was Robert Englund really that hard up for cash? Tito Ortiz I can understand, he wants to be an actor. Jenna Jameson I can understand, she wants to be an actress. But Englund? Freddy himself? Seeing how far the zombie had fallen, in such a short time (only six years separates 28 Days Later from Zombie Strippers?), I was real excited to view Pakistan’s contribution to the mythos.

Only it’s not a zombie movie at all…

While it’s also supposedly Pakistan’s first gore film, it is also, for better or worse, the first Pakistani film shot totally in HDV. I’m not sure whether I dislike digital video images lack of grain, or director Omar Ali Khan’s choice to shoot everything in close-ups and mids. Sure, it’s very modern and full-frame can’t exactly hurt a film with little chance of a theatrical release, but it still bothers me.

Luckily, one of the first thing’s you hear is a father disparaging his son’s college education as “scholar-SHIT.” Which, after six Octobers straight of nothing but “bad” movies, is the greatest line I’ve heard yet.

This son, Simon (Haider Raza), and his friends are following the time-honored horror tradition of breaking social taboos, and thus setting themselves up for retribution. First, the concert they’re sneaking out to attend is located in a neighborhood called, “Hell’s Ground.” A condition that every stranger they meet points out. One going so far as to mention that “good Muslim” would be preparing for their evening prayers, not studying roadmaps; looking for shortcuts.

Shortcuts which inevitably lead to disaster (just as the cast of 2005’s House of Wax). Predictably, the kids get lost. So they look for some help. And as any fan of the Texas Chainsaw Massacres could tell you, gas stations off the beaten track are not to be trusted. So instead they pick up a “hitchhiker,” Baley (Salim Meraj), who they find living in a tent in the woods; a tent, it should be noted, decorated with dead birds. (Is he really a hitchhiker though? I mean, they pick him up, and ask him for directions. All he wanted to do was murder birds.)

Needless to say, Baley goes nuts. First demanding water, and then, when they don’t have any, threatening to drink their blood. To emphasize this point, the hitchhiker pulls a decapitated head out of his backpack. In case you hadn’t figured out he was crazy yet.

Funny note about this film: I don’t know if it’s more due to the director sees things, or just Pakistan operates, but the women do very little in the beginning. So little, in fact, in the hitchhiker scene that the van has to actually stop, so that Simon can climb out of the front seat, enter the back of the van, and throw the hitchhiker out. Rather than just have the girls do it themselves.

These girls aren’t helpless though. When the van breaks down one scene later, it’s Ayesha (Rooshanie Ejaz), the good girl of the group, who figures out the cause: “Have you checked the gas?”

Again, I don’t know how things work in Pakistan, but if I run up on a house with lumps of meat left rotting out on the porch, I’ll probably keep walking. Maybe even just camp out in the van, safely surrounded by my friends, for the night. I certainly wouldn’t enter said house.

And thus I would naturally never meet “Baby.” “Baby” is “Burqaman” (Sultan Billa), Pakistan’s answer to Leatherface circa Texas Chainsaw Massacre: the Next Generation. Yes, somehow Matthew McConaughey’s cross-dressing adversary made a bigger cultural impression in Pakistan than Gunnar Hansen.

As his name indicates, Burqaman wears attire his own mother confirms isn’t for men. Thus leading into a backstory as flimsy and shallow as the HDV it was recorded on. We’re treated to a sequence of childhood photos of the murderous family, seeing Burqaman at various stages of development until he’s gone, replaced with a she. At least, that’s how it’s supposed to work.

Except these are childhood photos shown at night, making details tough to make out. Never mind the fact that we’re supposed to be tracking changes in a family whom we don’t know. Which creates a lot of guessing to who or what Burqaman is. So when the mother, Bari Bua (Najma Malik), tells Roxy (Rubya Chaudry) that “men don’t wear burqas,” we’re really confused.

While it’s nice to see progressive mothers on-screen, supporting their cross-dressing, gender bending, murderous offspring, if you’re not going to invest in a proper backstory, then it’s probably best to keep the film superficial.

Similar to Leatherface, Burqaman steals his victim’s organs, only he wears a ghost-white burqa instead of a makeshift flesh-suit. He also swings a flail; the unlikeliest of all serial killing weapons. As you have to swing a flail rapidly, it’s practically useless within the confines of a house, or a jungle. Yet Burqaman uses one, even though his kills clearly come easier when he puts it down and uses a knife.

The knife also works best because you have to be close to use it, a lack of distance that’s best suited for HDV. I’m assuming here that modern film’s obsession with close-ups is due to the use of digital video. One assumes that as with Super 8 before it, its cheapness comes at the cost of depth of vision. Making close-ups, and, in this case, night shots a must, as there’s little else the camera can shoot that’ll look good.

All at the cost of any semblance of tension, as alternating close-up shots of heads bobbing in a run isn’t quite as effective in scaring an audience then actually showing the killer is to his prey. Burqaman could be right on top of Ayesha, or a quarter mile away; we’ll never know from these shots!

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