Thursday, November 22, 2007

Zinda Laash – review


Directed by: Khwaja Sarfraz

Release date: 1967

Contains spoilers

This Pakistan film, whose title translates to The Living Corpse but is also known as Dracula in Pakistan, is most definitely a curiosity of the genre. It is also has some interesting trivia attached to it and I want to relay the trivia as given by imdb. This was the first X rated movie produced in Pakistan and it was almost banned as Pakistani censors felt it too vulgar. Indeed imdb claim that the movie was so shocking, for its time, that a woman had a heart attack in the theatre – though that sounds apocryphal to me. Its original release had the dance sequences deleted as the censors felt the women were being too sexually provocative – so yes there is dancing, and songs, in this and we’ll look to them again during this review.

searching for the elixir of lifeThe film starts, having claimed basis on Bram Stoker’s Dracula, with a voice over that informs us that only God is the ultimate power, a disclaimer for Islamic sensibilities one feels. The story moves then to one Professor Tabani (Rehan) who is searching for the elixir of life. Having made several attempts he finally cracks it, writes a note and then takes the potion. He falls down dead. His assistant (Nasreen) comes into the room and, after a ponderous moment including some sitting around looking bored and grabbing a drink, she spots his corpse behind the sofa. His note reveals that he has succeeded in his quest but if he should die he must be taken to the coffin in his basement. Once in there he seems to move and though the scene of his awakening in undeath is drawn out it is well done. He goes at once for his assistant, we get a black screen, a scream and then the opening credits roll.

At first glance this has nothing to do with Dracula. One feels, however, that the transformation of Tabani through his own pride in science was meant to move the premise away from areas that the censors in Pakistan might think too risqué. The film, as follows on from the opening, is based on Dracula – kind of. You will be aware that Hammer’s Horror of Dracula (1958), whilst based on the novel, had precious little storyline that matched. This is actually a remake of Horror of Dracula (for remake read rip off), sometimes almost scene for scene, yet injects moments in, occasionally, from the novel that were not in Hammer’s opus and changes the character’s names and relationships to ones consistent with the setting.

A car travels through the countryside and we should note here the music used in the film, and not that used for the song and/or dance routines – not yet. Some of the music used seems rather similar to the James Bernard score written for Horror of Dracula, other pieces are just bizarre and many times ill fitting. During the credits we had a very stylised rendition of The Barber of Seville and as the car travels we get an incredibly bizarre version of La Cucaracha. The car arrives at a mansion and a man, Dr Aqil (Asad Bukhari), gets out and walks into the mansion. I should point out that imdb name the character Aqil Harker but such a surname is not used in the film.

Rehan as TabaniAt first the place seems empty until he is greeted by Tabani, whose entrance is very reminiscent of Lee’s in the earlier movie. Aqil apologises for entering his home but he was curious, the place has a bad reputation and locals claim it is haunted, He doesn’t believe in the superstition but wanted to see for himself. It is haunted, claims Tabani, “by me” and shows Aqil to a room for the night. Here we actually get a ‘children of the night’ moment, but the comment is capped with “but such music will not appeal to city folk like yourself.” Tabani leaves Aqil, who then unpacks a photo of his fiancé Shabnam (Deeba). Tabani re-enters the room to explain he will be away until the next evening but then spots the picture and, as Aqil later notes in his journal, seems fascinated by Shabnam.

I will seduce you with danceIn the night Aqil awakens to the sound of giggling, he follows the sound and finds the assistant, who informs him that she has been waiting for him and asks him to hold her. Now, in the Hammer film, Harker was treated to a story of abuse and given a damsel in distress routine. Aqil, on the other hand, is treated to not one but two dances. To be honest, whilst they are as nothing now, I can see why 1967 Pakistan would cut them from the movie as they are a little suggestive – lots of hips and thrusts.

a baby for a snackShe goes to bite him and he pushes her off, but she has blood at her mouth. Tabani comes in and chastises her, throwing a sack towards her, which is clearly meant to contain a baby ala the novel. The sound effect of the baby crying is a tad loud and clearly dubbed over, making it almost unreal, but that actually adds to the horror of the concept. Tabani then strangles Aqil and is going to bite him but the rising sun forces him to beat a hasty retreat.

the assistant with bloodied mouthAqil awakens and goes back to his room, on the way he trips (literally) over Shabnam’s photo frame – but the picture has gone. Looking in the mirror he realises he has been bitten and so grabs his journal, makes an entry, leaves it outside the door and goes looking for the vampires. Both are in the tomb but, those of you familiar with Hammer’s film will know what mistake he is about to make, he kills the assistant first (how he kills her is new) and thus wakes Tabani and is killed before he can despatch the King Vampire (a title later associated with Tabani). The rest of the film fairly much follows the Hammer plot, though Van Helsing has been replaced by Aqil’s brother (Habib), and so will be intimately familiar to many readers; it is the lore which has changed drastically.

Deeba as ShabnamDespite making Tabani the victim of his own scientific arrogance the film also mentions the idea that evil spirits have possessed the vampires’ bodies. What we do not get, Pakistan being an Islamic country, is any Christian iconography. There is not a cross in sight, for obvious reasons, so there is no holding a couple of candlesticks together either. The methods used to kill the vampires changes to a degree, also.

Shabnam with her nieceThe stake through the heart has been replaced by simply piercing the heart, a knife is the primary weapon of choice, and this allows the tainted blood to be drained from the heart. It is an interesting change of lore and perhaps fits better with Stoker’s work given the use of a knife at the novel’s climax. This change also leads to a disturbing scene of the vampirised Shabnam being repeatedly stabbed in front of her young niece – remember, in Hammer’s version the niece was not present during the kill.

dying in sunlightSunlight is also effective and I have to say that the cracking of Tabani’s face, as the sun finally finishes him off, was really quite effective – well you didn’t think they’d change the story and have him survive did you. The film changes the vampires' faces in a subtle way, they become almost waxy looking when spooking around, and this is effective also.

They are inhumanly strong and both vampire and victim become obsessed with each other. To save someone after an attack they must be given a transfusion and then the second attack must be prevented – otherwise the victim is doomed. A vampire cannot enter a home without an invitation – a plot hole as Tabani enters Shabnam’s home without invite as far as I could tell. From a lore sense, with regards this scene, we should note that Tabani makes the door’s bolt open of its own accord.

Habib as Aqil's brotherThe film is a wonderful curio but it has its problems. Some of the acting, and some of the direction, stinks. At one point Shabnam (before she is attacked) goes missing. Her friend stands there for an inordinate amount of time, trying (and failing) to look worried as the camera lingers and then notices Shabnam’s fainted form at her feet. On the other hand some of the actors, Habib for instance, do a good job and Rehan – for the most part – makes an excellent vampire, though his performance does owe something to Lee.

Let's dance... put on your red shoes and dance the bluesThe other problem lies squarely with the direction and is the pacing. This issue is not related to the dance routines, though to a Western sensibility they do break up the pace and the atmosphere, as with this type of film one must expect that they would be in place. The pacing is just off at times and one example is a car chase at the film’s climax (heading towards the vampire’s mansion) that became plain boring and I found my attention wandering whilst this scene dragged on and on.

I will bite youHaving said all that, the film is most definitely a curio, and also a fascinating look into another culture. Of course the Hammer movies were a very British form of horror and any Hammer fan will want to see this, if for no other reason than to see what other countries made of the Hammer legacy. The film does contain some nicely atmospheric moments, especially in the vampire’s mansion. It is a gem, it is just a pity that it is flawed. 4 out of 10.

The imdb page is here.

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