A couple of years ago, one of the courses I took in the seemingly endless quest for my degree in religious studies focused on religion and horror films. Most people I mentioned this to were perplexed, thinking that horror cinema and religion have little or nothing to do with each other—with the obvious exception of The Exorcist. Most people perceived the two phenomena as utterly antithetical. But as my professor, Douglas Cowan, explains in Sacred Terror: Religion and Horror on the Silver Screen, his terrific book on the subject, they actually have everything to do with each other. There is a natural, even inextricable relationship between horror and religion. For one thing, what we fear—or don’t—tells us a great deal about what we believe. For another, as he points out, “[a]ll but ubiquitous in horror cinema, whether tormented, at rest, or the object of supernatural conflict, the soul is an explicitly religious concept, one that makes little sense apart from the various frameworks in which it comes embedded.” (These are just a couple of examples; go read his book for the full picture. It’s very readable; while it is a scholarly book, it’s not the mind-numbing kind.)
Interested, as always, in the cross-cultural dimensions of religion, I found it fascinating when Dr. Cowan explained to us that fear is a social phenomenon, and as such it is not only personal but culturally conditioned. Cultures that believe in reincarnation are going to have a very different response to, or understanding of, zombie films compared to cultures that don’t. This got me wondering about horror films from Muslim countries. Were there any? And if so, what did they say about their respective societies? I’d never encountered any, but I’d also never really looked. It turned out that it really varies according to the country in question, and to a large degree, depends on whether that country has a thriving film industry in the first place. Indonesia apparently produces quite a lot of horror films; Saudi Arabia, not so much (i.e., none that I could find). I found a Turkish film here, a couple of Pakistani films there…and apparently there was a Pashto horror boom in the 1990s. Who knew? There’s a whole dissertation right there, waiting to be written, on the relationship between the rise of the Taliban and the surge in Pashto horror film.
What I remember from my research into Indonesian horror films were claims (which I haven't verified) that horror was actually the predominant film genre in Indonesia, and that a lot of the movies revolve around the theme of Islamic clerics and imams battling the forces of evil. And apparently there’s frequent controversy over these films in Indonesia, with strong opposition from censors, hardline Islamic organizations, and even Muslim vigilante groups. Some of the most recent hullaballoo (halalaballoo?) was over a soft-porn horror flick called Hantu Puncak Datang Bulan' (The Menstruating Ghost of Puncak), which sounds like a classic example of the sociophobics Cowan explores.
However, I couldn’t get hold of any Indonesian films at the time, so I kept looking. I stumbled across the 2007 movie Zibahkhana (“Slaughterhouse” in Urdu, but the English title is Hell’s Ground), billed as Pakistan’s first gore film. It’s a slasher pic featuring five college students from Islamabad who sneak off to a rock concert when naturally, things go awry, and they encounter zombies, a freaky fakir, and eventually, a psychotic, burqa-wearing man named Baby, and pretty soon it’s the Rawalpindi Morningstar Massacre. Omar Khan, the film’s director, is the owner of a popular Islamabad ice cream shop, and a lover of classic horror cinema who was so obsessed with one of Pakistan’s very few other horror films, the 1967 black and white classic Zinda Laash (in English: The Living Corpse—more on which in a minute) that he wanted to make his own contribution to horror cinema in Urdu. Khan says,
Let there be no mistake. Zibahkhana is a scuzzy, rough edged, cheesy little horror film. I call it a midnight movie. If people are expecting the slickness of something like Krrish [a Bollywood blockbuster] or the profundity of some documentary from Iran, they're going to be flabbergasted.
Although the director downplays the film quite a bit, Zibahkhana was quite ambitious in several ways. For one thing, it was completely self-funded. For another, although I don’t think it was the director’s primary intention, the film can be read (without any straining) as a pretty strong commentary on class inequities and social injustice in Pakistan. There’s actually quite a lot going on in this film apart from all the cheese and the blood. If you're interested in more background on the film, read the very long and detailed two-part interview with director Khan and producer Pete Toombs (of Mondo Macabro) on Cinema Strikes Back: Part 1 and Part 2.
Zibahkhana features a cameo by an actor named Rehan—who starred as Dracula in Zinda Laash (1967). Zibahkhana is crammed full of all kinds of sly nods and clever references to Lollywood, Bollywood, and Hollywood cinema history. Rehan’s appearance as a bizarre chai shop owner is just one of these, but it’s the one that leads us most solidly back to Zinda Laash, which is sometimes billed as Dracula in Pakistan as well as The Living Corpse. This film had a somewhat larger budget and higher production values, and it was purportedly the first X-rated Pakistani film (some sources say R-rated; I haven’t been able to ascertain that Pakistani censors actually used this rating system but the film was issued with an “Adults Only” certificate).
There’s an excellent article called “From Zinda Laash to Zibahkhana: Violence and Horror in Pakistani Cinema” by Ali Khan and Ali Nobil Ahmad which appeared earlier this year in Third Text, a scholarly journal of visual culture. In it, they describe the social context for Pakistani filmmakers:
The state’s attitude towards film-making is exemplified by the comments of a Pakistani government Minister of Industry in 1949: “In principle Muslims should not get involved in film-making. Being the work of lust and lure, it should be left to infidels.” Film-making, in other words, is an activity to be tolerated (and taxed) but not celebrated or supported. The Pakistani Censor Board – a wasteful and corrupt body of bureaucrats that justifies its existence by recourse to hypocritical doctrines of social and religious conservatism – has plagued generations of directors and stands accused of taking direct bribes to pass films.
As tame as it looks to Western eyes in the 21st century, Zinda Laash only passed the censor board with several cuts and much resistance. Khan and Ahmad, the authors of this article, note that it’s “ostensibly framed by religious discourse” (with a prologue that warns “the actions of man without God are sinful, and lead to death; only the actions of God will save us” and a conclusion that pleads with God for help) which placated censors. But they see it as a “largely secular tale in which religious symbolism remains marginal.” In contrast, they describe Zibahkhana as “replete with religious symbols and dilemmas about cultural and religious identity conflicts.” I would argue that the absence of obvious and overt religious symbolism isn’t indicative of whether or not the narrative is religious; you have to look at the themes and messages to determine that. Both these films are entertaining morality tales from a particular religious/cultural context. But Zibahkhana is the one that's more identifiably from a Muslim context.
Zinda Laash (which, I promise you, is not nearly as lurid and cheesy as this DVD cover suggests; it's much more German Expressionist in look and feel) contains several of the requisite dance numbers, which are very un-German Expressionist but were probably necessary to ensure some degree of commercial success in its particular context. From my perspective there’s no getting past their incongruity in a horror film. They are curiously engaging, though; you can watch them all on YouTube (here, here, here, and here). The other, far more hilariously incongruous element is the soundtrack: some of the musical choices are truly bizarre, particularly “La Cucaracha,” the overture from the opera The Merry Wives of Windsor, and Rossini’s overture for The Barber of Seville. I can offer no explanation for this.
Both Zibahkhana and Zinda Laash are available on DVD with some good extra features and are worth seeing if you have the chance. Neither is the pinnacle of cinematic artistry, but both have much to recommend them, and they make a great double bill. Grab a big handful of your favourite Hallowe’en snacks and hunker down for some halal-ish horror. Check these trailers if you need more convincing: