Zinda Laash

By Chris Hyde

November 11, 2003

I'm confused. Is she the living corpse or is he?

The most recent Mondo Macabro release offers a look at a rare 1960s horror film from Lollywood.

Though it is little but a weak sister to India's powerhouse film industry, through the years Pakistan's movie operations have carved out a bit of their own territory in making films mainly in Urdu and Punjabi for audiences across that Asian nation. Primarily based in the city of Lahore, these operations are engaged in making a full range of entertainment for film fans in southeast Asia -- though the production values as a whole tend to be at a somewhat lower level than their juggernaut rival next door. Still, Lollywood has proven in the past that it can produce quality pictures that are capable of standing on their own merits, though few of these are ever seen by Western eyes. Luckily for us, the trailblazers at Mondo Macabro have gone and rescued a Pakistani take on the Dracula legend from the very brink of destruction, preserving for the ages the strange and wonderful spectacular that is Zinda Laash (aka The Living Corpse).

As there is no tradition of vampires in Pakistani legend, the form of the tale here is somewhat different than in Bram Stoker's tale of Transylvanian bloodsucking -- though most of the main characters from that classic novel are recognizable even in this altered version. The Count Dracula figure (played in great fashion by the actor Rehan) is initially introduced as Professor Tabani, a scientist working on a mysterious substance who is quickly laid low by his experimentation and turned into a fanged madman with a serious taste for the red stuff. Following a credit interlude that implies that over the years he has proceeded to wreak mayhem on the local population, a young doctor named Aqil finds his way into the lair of this villain and is welcomed by this member of the now undead. Once ensconced in the home of Tabani, this man ends up paying the price for his curiosity about the legendary monster that lives in this gloomy manse. First the professor takes an unseemly interest in the photo of his gorgeous fiancée that Aqil has brought along, and then later that same night the poor patsy finds himself enthralled by the vampiric seductions of the hosts' former assistant. With his fate more or less sealed, Aqil quickly finds himself with chomp marks on his neck and on his way to vampiredom -- though he does manage to dispatch the female member of this sanguinary tag team prior to joining the legions of the undead.

Eventually, Aqil's brother goes looking for him and unhappily stumbles upon his fraternal relation's horrible fate. He manages to force himself to free Aqil's soul with a few stabs to the heart (the wooden stake required to kill a vampire in eastern European lore has here been replaced by the need to drain the evil one's body of its own precious fluids) but he misses out on getting rid of Professor Tabani as well. Returning to the family of his brother's fiancée, he desperately attempts to convince them of what has happened but they are unable to believe his seemingly insane story. This disbelief later turns out to be a big mistake, as the vampire's previously scopophiliac attraction to the young woman's picture draws him to her and he begins to prey on the family for sustenance. From here, things proceed much in the tradition of classic vampire films, as Aqil's brother unravels what exactly needs to be done (aided by the help of a local innkeeper who stands in for the van Helsing role of Stoker's story) and wraps things up in suitably Harkeresque fashion -- though not without a bit more bloodletting along the way.

The attractions of Zinda Laash are many and varied, from the somewhat cheesy and exotic elements to the higher quality aspects that really make the film a worthwhile find. As with all films from this part of the world, there are a number of song and dance scenes, something that will seem slightly odd to those of Western bent but without which audiences on the subcontinent simply would not accept a film as a film. A couple of these are traditionally Pakistani in form, but there's even one amazing sequence where the music seems to come to Asia via the California beaches. Even stranger are some moments of what seem to be utterly inappropriate audio, such as the eerie forest scene that is accompanied by jaunty Western-style music seemingly more suited for being played at the party of some '60s jet-setting beautiful people.

Setting aside the more bizarre soundtrack bits, however, there's a lot more in Zinda Laash to be admired than laughed at. The suitably atmospheric setting is brilliantly delineated (and as is mentioned in the commentary track, is certainly patterned on the rubric of Hammer's 1958 Horror of Dracula), and though the quality of the cast is varied, there are some really nice performances in the film that really help to make it work. Especially of note are Habib (the lead character), the woman who plays the fiancée who becomes victim and the aforementioned Rehan, who takes on the Draculaesque role of Professor Tabani. This actor actually claims to have never seen the original Lugosi work prior to his playing this character, but if that's really true then he must have undoubtedly gotten some secondhand instructions on how suavely that child of Austria and Hungary inhabited the role. There are some really nice turns of dramatic work that Rehan puts out during the runtime of Zinda Laash, with my personal favorite being the haughty and disdainful way he wheels his car during the film's incredibly cool night-for-night climactic car chase. Without the sort of efficient stagecraft that is evidenced here and elsewhere by the rest of the crew throughout the film, The Living Corpse would be much more curiosity than effective movie-making -- but as it is, the quality of the filmmaking manages to turn this genre effort into something more lasting than mere exotica.

Since Mondo Macabro seem to truly have saved this film just shortly before it vanished into the dustbin of history, a note should be made of just how great the whole piece looks. The transfer is beautifully crisp black and white, and though there are a few flaws (a small portion about halfway through the movie has the image wobble for a minute or two), for the most part the visuals look stunningly great for a three-decade-old film that was likely not stored in optimum archival conditions. Along with the careful restoration work, the company has packaged Zinda Laash with a host of extras that add plenty of value to this special edition. There's a great documentary on South Asian horror films, containing astonishing clips of lots of other films that we can only hope end up with their own domestic DVDs. Additionally, there's a brief featurette called "Dracula in Pakistan" which focuses directly on The Living Corpse itself, as well as the usual poster, still, and lobby card galleries and a short (seemingly new) trailer for the movie. Last -- but certainly not least -- is a fascinating commentary track by MM's own Pete Tombs with critic Omar Khan, which details much about the Pakistani film industry and this particular film and crew. This track is just a treasure trove of information on a part of the movie world that is very little known outside of its local milieu, and this portion of the release alone is worth the purchase price of the disk for anyone who wants a peek inside an industry whose product is rarely seen outside the borders of Pakistan.

By digging into cinema's rich global history, the folks at Mondo Macabro have proved time and time again that they are naught but pioneering cinematic archaeologists tirelessly working to unearth previously neglected shards of culture and preserve them for posterity. With Zinda Laash, they have now uncovered a bit of Lollywood stratigraphy for those of us here in the West who tend to see very little of what passes for entertainment in Pakistan, and it's extremely interesting to see just how Dracula looks when filtered through the prism of a completely different traditional viewpoint. But what's most exceptional about Mondo Macabro's approach to the cultural output of other countries, however, is the utter lack of the sort of patronizing attitude that too often colors the perception of goods produced by non-Western societies. Instead, there's a healthy respect for the abilities of talented and committed people working locally to create movies like The Living Corpse, and while there's no denial of the sometimes-cheesier aspects of these productions there's also no trace of a deprecating sneer in their overarching vision. With every release from this outfit a different facet of the world's multivariate celluloid past is unveiled in all its glory, and it's simply phenomenal that they continue to reveal little known works from all over the planet. Only time will tell what dusty and forgotten gem they'll pull from the cinematic detritus next, but one thing's for sure: I'll be watching.



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