Thank GOD for DVD. No, seriously. All substandard barebones Hollywood hack product aside, the digital format has acted like a literal cinematic archeologist, digging deep into the filmmaking firmament both here and abroad to unearth some amazing movie masterworks. Without the new technology, it's a safe bet that few would have witnessed the brilliance of the Plaga Zombie films, the blasphemous creativity of Coffin Joe, the unhinged horrors of French films like Ils and Inside, or the psychedelic spaghetti westernism of The Legend of God's Gun. Indeed, DVD does such a great job of generating buzz where none exists that any "blu" update will have a lot to live up to. Take Hell's Ground, for example. YouTube has been feasting on the trailer for Omar Ali Khan's homage to the fright flicks he grew up loving as a youth in Pakistan. Now, he gives Lollywood its first zombie splatter slasher film, and the results are resplendent - and thanks to digital, readily available for our entertainment consumption.
Defying their parents, five Pakistani teens decide to head out to see the country's leading rock band. Along the way, they stop off at a famous tea shop for some chai and a few orange pastries. There, they are warned by the shopkeeper - continue on this path, and they will find themselves in Hell's Ground. Ignoring his words, they head out. Soon, they are running into zombies (the byproduct of polluted rivers nearby), madmen, a psychotic shaman, and a masked killer with terror on his mind and a mace in his hand. One by one, our travelers come face to face with fear so undeniable and so grotesque they may not last the night...if that.
Hell's Ground is one of the most unique motion picture macabres ever made. Not for what it does as part of the genre, however. Nothing here is technically new. We still get the lost teens, the morbid warnings, the harbingers of doom, the unexpected hitchhiker, the percolating first victim, and the last act appearance of a clocked killer with various weapons of mass personal destruction at his or her disposal. No, what's most fascinating about this exceptional movie is watching director/co-writer Omar Ali Khan balance his love of old school fear, the mandates of his Muslin society, the censorship inherent in Pakistan's film industry, and the changing face of his adolescent audience, all in one blood-soaked romp. Watching him wade through Raimi revisionism while still keeping one foot clearly in the Koran is one the movie's main delights. In fact, one can infer an even deeper message than the 'children shouldn't play with dead things' dilemma your standard terror tale delivers. If the '80s slice and dice was mired in teen morality, the disrespectful kids at the heart of this narrative are just asking for a good fundamentalist smack down.
Indeed, the subtext involved in Hell's Ground has everything to do with mocking authority, doing drugs, lying to your parents, and purposefully flaunting the religious rules desperate to keep you on the straight and very narrow. OJ's love of pot makes him perfect fear fodder, while Roxy's disrespectful attitude (and propensity toward pop music) puts her square in scare's sites. Naturally, she must have an innocent opposite, and Ayesha handles that "I Love Allah" required role well. With ancillary victim silage like Simon skirting around the edges, and a wealth of weirdness from the residents supporting our burqa-wearing Jason, the end result is something akin to every Saturday night you spent with a group of friends and a collection of VHS tapes. And yet, the experience has elements that keep it completely foreign, that marks Khan a social commentator as well as a first rate horror maestro. He doesn't just wear his influences on his sleeves - he truly understands both the psychological and biological nature of the genre. This is why Hell's Ground is so great. It respects the past while applying it gingerly, graciously, and when necessary, grossly. Fans of arterial spray will not be disappointed here.
From the moment we see the Romero inspired zombies (including an all important dwarf!), to all the Tobe Hooper hints of a road trip gone very, very bad, Hell's Ground never lets up. Some may think the first 15 minutes are a tad too character driven, such a set up not necessary for what will end up being a random splat-a-thon, but the truth remains that Khan considers his audience to be more mature than that. He wants to invest his potential victims with as much heft as possible, that way their eventual demise will resonate further. In addition, one needs to mention the man's work behind the lens. Though it looks like a lo-fi production at times, Hell's Ground actually maintains an unsettling ambiance, a mood enhanced by spooky locations and atmospheric lighting. There are genuine scares o'plenty, as well as a few moments of telegraphed terror - and even better, Khan doesn't give us a clear cut conclusion. He doesn't rely on the old "killer's not dead" dynamic. Instead, he leaves characters in limbo (and as a result, the possibility of a sequel...YEAH!) and infers the frights to be found in the whole "family meat business" backstory. Here's hoping he can find a way to 'franchise' this remarkable movie. Hell's Ground definitely deserves it.
Offered by TLA Releasing as part of the Danger After Dark imprint, Hell's Ground gets a wonderful DVD presentation. The 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen image is carefully controlled, any grain or flaring kept to a very bare minimum. Khan loves to flatten out his colors with harsh lighting, but there is still enough of the rampant red stuff to satiate our gorehound needs.
On the sound side, the Dolby Digital 5.1 mix is masterful. There are lots of errant noises gurgling in the back speakers, and the standard horror score comes across with flare. Be warned, however. The actors speak in a combination of their native tongue and English, the subtitles dropping out whenever they launch into said Western lingo. Thick accents aside, they are quite easy to understand, but the juxtaposition can be jarring...at least, at first.
As for added content, TLA does fright fans a massive favor by allowing Khan to comment on the production and problems of his first feature film. The discussion is dense, the director desperate to get as much information out on the record as possible. Similarly, there is a documentary which highlights Khan's love of horror, his ice cream 'shoppe', his inability to get Hell's Ground released in Pakistan, and the reaction to the film worldwide. In addition, there's a look at the LUMS Premiere, a Zuj music video, and several sensational trailers. While it may seem like a paltry selection of bonus features, each one adds an integral layer of understanding to how Khan came to make this amazing movie.
This one's easy. Hell's Ground is so compelling, so capable of creating a warm and fuzzy fright feeling in the hardened heart of even the most cynical creepshow enthusiast that a Highly Recommended rating is just a starting point. With a few more extras, and some of the information contained on Khan's Hot Spot website (check it out HERE), this would be a clear candidate for Collector's Series consideration. In a world racked with political unrest and pragmatic conflict, it's nice to see that certain things remain constant. Whether you're from a big city suburb in the middle of America, or a carefully controlled society several thousand miles away, the feeling of being afraid spans all races, all religions, all creeds. And when it comes to stellar scares, nothing can beat the reference heavy heroism of Hell's Ground. Here's hoping Omar Ali Khan can find a way to continue making movies. His is a voice clearly connected to, and complementary of, the genre's masters - and we can thank DVD for it.