When I heard that Mondo Macabro was getting into the filmmaking game, I was extremely excited. For the past 6 years they’ve provided me with hours and hours of weird and wild world cinema that I thought I’d never be able to see. When I found out they would be going to Pakistan for the film, in essence providing the country with their first homegrown gore film, I was even more intrigued. Hell’s Ground borrows heavily from US horror films, which isn’t surprising since it’s all they’ve had to learn from, but the film has enough of its own countries flavor to make it quite the unique experience.
A group of five friends decide to trek across Pakistan in a rented van to see a rock show, lying to their parents as to their whereabouts. It’s not the wisest of times to plan a trip, as the country is currently embroiled in a drinking water epidemic that is making the locals sick with disease, but when you’re a teenager, these things are second to having a good time. On their way to the show, they make a pit-stop at a chai tea shop where one of the kids named OJ hears they sell laddoos made with weed. Once there, the proprietor of the shop tells them they should turn around as they’re treading on “Hell’s Ground”. Figuring he’s just a local wacko, they continue on their way.
They decide to take a short cut to make up some time, but have to stop again when OJ becomes sick from the laddoos. While alone in the woods, he’s bitten by a human-looking creature, and by the time he makes it back to the van, a horde of zombies swarms them. They successfully make their escape, but OJ’s condition progressively becomes worse and they decide to head for a hospital. Before making it back to the main road, the van runs out of gas, and the group is stuck in the forest. When they spot some lights off in the distance, they think they’ve found the help they’ve been looking for. Unfortunately for them, the lights are coming from a slaughterhouse, and the menu isn’t animals.
As you may have surmised from the synopsis, Hell’s Ground has a love affair with Tobe Hooper’s seminal classic (and this reviewers personal favorite horror film of all time), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Hell, it wouldn’t have been a stretch to have titled the film "The Pakistani Chainsaw Massacre"…well, there’s no chainsaws, so maybe not. But you will find similarities in many other areas of the film, such as a group of kids travelling by van, picking up a hitchhiker-like individual and tossing him out once he gets too crazy, a madman that butchers unsuspecting victims to sell their meat, escaping the madman only to run into the arms of a family member, and so on. Normally, this would have me shaking my head in plagiaristic disgust, but the charm of Pakistan’s first Slasher/gore film is undeniable. You can’t really hold it against the filmmakers, as it’s all they know thanks to their own countries reluctance to produce any of their own horror-centric films. It also never feels intentionally uninspired; the film exudes a real love for the genre not seen in most other derivative fare.
You’ll notice some other nods to genre films sprinkled throughout as well. The zombie scenes are very reminiscent of Lucio Fulci’s better work, with visceral, in-your-face gut-munching, and the atmospheric fog is some of the best I’ve seen since Evil Dead. But amidst all of the stuff you’ve seen before, you can’t help but appreciate that you’re watching a body count film from Pakistan. Hell’s Ground is one of the rare occasions where a setting completely trumps any familiar ground tread by the narrative. Helping matters along is that there’s enough cultural themes infused in the film to keep it fresh, from the classic-sounding Indian soundtrack to heavy doses of Pakistani mysticism. There’s also the comic book-style transitions used at key points in the story that were wholly unexpected, and is something I don’t think I’ve ever seen used before in a horror film outside of anthology flicks like Creepshow.
The best thing about Hell’s Ground is that director Omar Khan has somehow managed to create a new villainous madman that is actually pretty damn effective and memorable. Thanks to the unfamiliar locale, he was able to craft a menacing lunatic the likes we haven’t seen before. Draped in a dirty, bloodstained burqa and wielding a mace on a chain, "Baby" owes much to the frantic mania of Leatherface, but feels altogether foreign. One of the most effective techniques of horror films is praying on the fear of the unknown, and I’m sure many that see this film in the US don’t have an intimate knowledge of Pakistan, so Baby will surely make them sit up and take notice.
The only major downfall of the film is the zombie plot that begins the film. You’ll be led to believe for the first 30 or so minutes that you’re about to watch a Pakistani zombie film. The idea of the polluted water is a good one, considering Pakistan’s real-life drinking water crisis, but once the kids get lost in the woods and meet up with Baby, the zombies are forgotten in favor of that ordeal. Baby and the family aren’t zombies, nor is there any inclination given that they command any of the zombies through black magic as you’ll never see another one until the tail end of the film, which feels pretty out of place because I had honestly forgotten all about them. Thinking back, the zombie portions of the film come off pretty contrary when taking the rest of the film into account, and they could have probably been left on the cutting room floor.
Overall, I found Hell’s Ground to be a wildly fun ride through the forests of Pakistan. The setting alone sets it apart, regardless of the unoriginality of some elements, and fans of Mondo Macabro’s brand of weird world cinema will find much to appreciate (if you’ve seen The Living Corpse, Dracula himself has a cameo!) From all accounts, the film was a surprise success in Pakistan, lasting 10 weeks in theatres, so I’ll be keeping my fingers crossed that Pakistani filmmakers see that as an encouraging sign for genre films in their country. At the very least, I hope Omar Kahn is given the opportunity for a sequel, because Baby deserves more than being put in a corner.
Oddly enough, TLA’s Danger After Dark label has released Hell’s Ground on DVD, and not Mondo Macabro themselves. The film is presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen, and looks really good for a film shot on HD. At times, it actually looks like true film, which is pretty impressive. Colors pop off the screen, and being a dark film, things never look murky, although it would have been nice if it wasn't interlaced. The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track is great, with some excellent ambient noises coming from the rear speakers, and the English subs for the portions of the film spoken in Urdu are near-flawless.
The main extra of the disc is a documentary called "Ice Cream Zombieland", where director Omar Khan talks about how he funded the film through his chain of ice cream shops, and the struggle of getting a film of this nature into Pakistani theatres. You can see how much of a film fan Khan is, as his ice cream shops are decked out with tons of awesome vintage movie posters. A short featurette with footage from the film's premiere at LUMS Business College is also included, with reaction from the cast and those in attendance. The disc is rounded off with director’s commentary, a musical promo of the film with music from the band Zuj, and the film's original trailer.
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