Many nations have deliberately re-conceived the horror film – think of the surreal Italians who cast away logic to overwhelm viewers with atmospheric chills. But “Hell’s Ground,” likely the goriest film yet to come from Pakistan (!), is content to immerse itself in staple horror film conventions. In unashamed devotion, this film mixes in devices from the slasher, zombie, Poverty Row, and Hammer genres. With web-ascending spiders and other obvious gothic trappings, the Universal Studios tradition also gets tossed into the blender.
First-time Director Omar Ali Khan sets up a horror plot as standard as they come: a pack of teens head for a rock concert in a tripped-out van (in this case Pakistani style, painted with South Asian comic-book images). When they run into locals protesting a chemically polluted river, we can smell a fresh zombie trapping headed our way. And soon enough the ghouls appear, though Khan has enough sense to go tongue-in-cheek by making them thoroughly Pakistani in dress and manner. More humor is served with a dwarf zombie, who as you’d imagine, can get into the nooks and crannies that the others cannot.
After the teens escape, and before you can register that the zombie convention has been cast away, Khan seemingly moves to a plot centered around a cult. The teens come across what appears to be a witch doctor promising to direct them back to the main road. Don’t ask why they let him in the van – at this point Khan is obviously out to run through in-jokes for his audience, as the van soon breaks down to encounter a psychotic family in the woods. But in this case, the family’s “son” dons a Burqa and wields a bizarre choice of weapons: a mace, usually saved for medieval productions.
As obvious as it may sound, “Hell’s Ground” plays well by keeping things goofy. While spilling plenty of gore (a scene of zombie-feasting shows a fetishistic love of Fulci) and providing a few chills, Khan remembers that a tense horror audience is always ripe for a laugh, and has the control to include many gags. True, a few may not be intentional, but hasn’t accidental humor made some of the best camp horror moments?
Though committed to lampooning his genre, Khan also has the eye for effective visuals, and creates a strong nighttime atmosphere with hardly any resources. One shot of an approaching young woman, slowly filling a distant light source, pulls emotions back into suspense after some laughs. Later, a chase sequence shows that Khan loved watching Leatherface tailing the girl through woods in the moonlight.
There are no attempts to re-imagine horror in a South Asian mindset, but Khan blends in Muslim religious guilt that leaves a strange taste of doom to the whole affair. Overall, a measured mix of clichéd horror bits and wit to joke about them keeps “Hell’s Ground” even for a horror audience.