A Horror Movie on the Doorstep of the Taliban

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A still from the film Hell's Ground

When it comes to slasher films, most American teenagers know the rules: Make sure the gas tank is full; don't take short cuts through the woods; don't pick up hitchhikers; and don't — ever — split up. But here in Pakistan, where the capital city doesn't even have a movie theater and the country's barely breathing film industry hasn't produced a scary movie since the 1970s, it's hardly surprising that the local kids are new to the genre. So, the script of Zibahkhana, Pakistan's first horror movie in a generation, could allow its teenage cast to make every fundamental mistake the genre allows.

The movie, which premiered in Islamabad Sunday night at a private golf club for lack of a better venue, is the work of local cafe owner Omar Ali Khan, a horror-movie fanatic who went to film school in the U.S. but never really did anything with his degree — until now.

Zibahkhana means slaughterhouse in Urdu, but the English title is Hell's Ground. Either title works for 78 minutes of voodoo creepiness, cannibalism, zombies — one of them a midget — gore, disfiguring diseases and a seriously messed up mother-son relationship. Khan wanted his first full-length feature to be a tribute to the formative films of his youth: Psycho, Evil Dead, The Exorcist, maybe a little Rocky Horror Picture Show. "I want this to be the first mindless midnight cult movie Pakistan has ever had," he told an attentive audience. He's well on his way. If Leatherface, Freddy Krueger, Michael Myers, Norman Bates and the guy who knows what you did last summer got together for a Friday the 13th party in Islamabad, Zibahkhana would be the result.

It starts with five teenagers skipping school to attend a rock concert: a popular, pouty flirt; a pious Muslim girl; a scholarship kid; the uptight organizer and a sexy stoner boy. No points for correctly guessing who goes down first. A mysterious disease is plaguing the capital and people are protesting, but the teenagers are blithely unconcerned about the darkening world around them. They have more important things to worry about, like being late for the concert. So they take a shortcut through the woods.

Khan seems to have crammed every horror movie cliché known to Western audiences into Zibahkhana, but it's the distinctly Pakistani touches that keep the film rollicking along. The mysterious passenger picked up and asked for directions is a dreadlocked Muslim mystic of the kind usually seen only at Sufi shrines, stoned out of their heads. The film's protective talisman is a charm that says Allah. And then there is the freaky teashop owner, a cameo appearance by Pakistan's very own Dracula, recruited from the cast of the classic 1970s Lahore knockoff. "Bwahahaha"� sounds far more terrifying in Urdu.

But for Khan, the scariest local touch is the sadistic cannibalistic killer that wears a burqa. "It's not a political statement," he says, "They just terrified me as a kid."

Zibahkhana is an independent film, whose budget would make the Blair Witch Project look like a Hollywood bankbuster. The cast was assembled from high school auditions and the Islamabad theater scene. Props were improvised and, because half the cast was still in school, the movie had to be shot in the summer in a deserted wasteland just outside the capital. "The conditions were awful," says Khan. "We had roaches, snakes, monitor lizards and dead bodies. Yeah, two dead bodies. They pulled them out of the hut the day after we wrapped filming. Some kind of murder I guess."

Zibahkhana will be shopped around internationally this summer, starting at the New York Asian Film Festival on July 3. "I may not need to leave any space on my mantle for a trophy," he concedes. "We'll go for the people's award." His only regret? "I think we underused Burqa Man. Move over Freddy, Jason, and Leatherface. Now it's time for Burqa Man." Zibahkhana may end up emulating its Western cousins in one other, crucial way: You can expect a sequel.