The movie begins with a prologue which is not to be found in Stoker's novel: in turn-of-the-20th-century Pakistan, the good-natured Dr. Tabani is performing SCIENCE! over various cone-shaped flasks. He is searching for the formula that will give him eternal life. Standing by, and looking bored, is his lovely young assistant, who has (if possible) even less to do than her Western counterparts. But Tabani's experiments take longer than he had anticipated; thus he's alone when he finally hits on exactly the right combination of baking soda and vinegar.
The exultant Tabani is about to drink his elixir, when a sudden misgiving comes over him (noodly clarinet music in the soundtrack is supposed to suggest to us that very bad things are about to happen, though it sounds to me more like they're about to begin a polka party). The doctor pauses to write some instructions for his assistant, in case anything should go wrong, and then swigs the brew. For a moment, everything's fine, and Tabani starts to walk out with a spring in his step. Then, suddenly, he collapses in agony and dies.
Tabani's assistant comes in. Thinking that she's alone, she's about to steal a sip of something Tabani keeps in his study (possibly some forbidden alcohol!) when she catches sight of the dead man's legs sprawled out from behind the sofa. She screams...
Now this prologue, leading up to Tabani's burial in the basement and his subsequent rising as a vampire, serves two purposes. First, it gives Pakistani audiences a reason why Tabani should have become a monster. Pakistan apparently doesn't have any native legends about vampires, so some sort of back-story was needed. The important thing for Western viewers to consider here is that it is not necessarily the potion that has turned Tabani into a monster. Otherwise there is no good explanation for his ability to transmit the infection, the way a traditional Western vampire does. Rather, Tabani has "tampered in Allah's domain" by creating the formula; he has attempted to steal the gift of life from God's hands. And God has responded. Tabani is struck dead for his hubris, and then granted a ghastly parody of the extended life he'd sought.
The second point of the prologue is to establish the moral theme of the movie, without which it would never have passed the censors: the actions of man without God are sinful, and lead to death; only the actions of God will save us.
Next we have the opening credits, which play out over a montage of scenes from the film to come. Once the credits have stopped, we see a car speeding through the Pakistani countryside at dusk. The music here is supposed to signal a significant lightening of the tone of the movie... and to Western ears, it does: it's a particularly broad arrangement of La Cucaracha.
The car stops by a large and apparently abandoned mansion -- we understand it to be Tabani's house, though it doesn't really look like the place we saw in the prologue -- and out of the car steps a man we will learn later is Dr. Aqil. Aqil wanders through the grounds, and once again the music suggests a change in mood. I think the music sounds vaguely sinister to Pakistani listeners. Unfortunately, to a Western audience it sounds tranquil and peaceful... which is appropriate, since it's the Overture from Otto Nicolai's comic opera The Merry Wives of Windsor.
Aqil finds himself in a grand hallway. The house itself seems to be as unnatural as its owner: the balusters on the staircase are twisted, and the perspective of the landing at the top of the stairs looks wrong, as though the floor were crooked. It's on this dangerous-looking landing that Tabani appears, looking very much like Christopher Lee in Hammer's Horror of Dracula. Tabani seems delighted to receive a guest, even an unexpected and uninvited one. He asks Aqil to stay overnight. As Aqil settles into his room, Tabani catches sight of a photograph of his guest's finacée and is captivated by it... much to Aqil's discomfort. Tabani then bids him good night, adding that he will be gone most of the next day, and that Aqil should not expect him until nightfall.
But Dr. Aqil has not stumbled into Tabani's home by accident. Once Tabani has left him alone, Aqil goes to investigate the shadowy old house. Thinking he has heard a voice calling his name, he suddenly finds himself face to face with... Tabani's assistant! When last we saw her, she seemed like a stolid and lifeless character, a mere prop. Not any more: undeath has done wonders for her. The most significant change in her appearance is that her makeup is no longer as heavy. In the West, we used to have the term "painted hussy", to describe a woman who used makeup to enhance her sexual attractiveness... but here we have an "unpainted hussy"! We tend to forget that makeup can be used to enforce modesty, almost like a mask, and that it can blunt the expressiveness of the face rather than enhance it.
The vampire girl pleads with Aqil to rescue her and take her away from Tabani's house. Then, she attempts to seduce him... not by throwing herself into his arms, as you might expect, but by dancing.
OK: this is the point at which many Western viewers may be tempted to give up on Zinda Laash. First of all, where did the orchestra come from? Aside from this technical problem, the dancing itself is very highly stylized, relying on hand gestures and body movements that are very unlike what we're used to in the West. Then, of course, I should also point out that they like their women zaftig in Pakistan. This may come as a shock to American horror fans, who are used to their vampires being fashionably svelte.
But don't be fooled by the apparent absurdity of the vampiress's dance! It's really an excellent way of suggesting things that may not be shown. We not really allowed to see the girl seducing Aqil, but there's no mistaking the emotions behind her dance, nor what the stylized movements are meant to suggest to us.
Just as the girl gets ready to sink her teeth into the stunned Aqil's neck, Tabani returns. The furious vampire orders the girl away, giving her instead the bundled body of a small child to be her food. OK, it's obviously a doll, but as the DVD liner notes point out, it's one of the first times this shocking moment from Stoker's novel was presented as written. With the girl out of the way, Tabani turns on his uninvited guest...
This should all seem familiar, not just to people who have read Dracula, but also to fans of Hammer's Horror of Dracula. Just as in Terence Fisher's masterful film, and in a significant departure from the book, the intrepid vampire hunter is eventually able to destroy the girl-monster; but the master vampire is too strong for him, and Aqil ends up a vampire himself.
This means it's time for a new hero, and in Zinda Laash it's Aqil's brother who steps into the fight. First, though, there's a little dance club interlude straight out of Jess Franco, with a jazz band and a featured dancer who looks startlingly like the young Barbra Streisand. The dancer does most of her act facing the camera, with the audience behind her, which might seem a little strange... until you get a good look at some of the men in the audience. Anyway: When Aqil fails to turn up at the appointed time, his brother becomes worried. He goes out to the shunned house, where he finds Aqil's luggage and journal. Inside, he finds his brother resting in the coffin where Aqil had killed Tabani's vampire bride. Now he's in the unenviable position of having to a.) kill his undead brother; b.) go back and tell Aqil's fiancée and family what has happened; and c.) find what's happened to Tabani before he can put the bite on anyone else.
The late Aqil's fiancée is named Shabnam, and she's the movie's Lucy Westenra character. Although Shabnam is of marriageable age, she's shown as barely more mature than her eight-year-old niece. When Aqil's brother brings his incredible story to Shabnam's older brother (who also happens to be his brother-in-law!), he insists that they not say anything to the poor girl. As it happens, Shabnam's niece has stolen Aqil's picture from Shabnam's room, and is playing keep-away with it just as Aqil's brother is conferring with the family. The little girl trips, and the photograph falls at Aqil's brother's feet. The camera pans up to the man's shocked face...
Shabnam's brother refuses to believe these ridiculous stories of vampires, and insists on going out to the haunted mahal at once to see Aqil's body. Naturally, when they get there, the place is deserted. End Part I.
Up until this point, in spite of one or two surprising gestures, Zinda Laash has been about what you might expect it to be: a seriously intended horror movie from a part of the world that had no tradition of horror movies. To Western eyes, it's been a mix of low-intensity horror and unintentional humor in more or less equal portions. But with the end of the intermission, something very strange happens: the movie starts to get really, really good.
One of the surprising highlights of the second half is Shabnam's big song-and-dance number. She sings with her friends about how good it is to be alive, and young, and in love. Of course, we know what's happened to Aqil, and we've got a pretty good idea of what's going to happen to her as well. This chilling knowledge completely changes the meaning of her carefree dance, and makes her innocent happiness almost unbearable.
Then, there's what happens when Tabani catches up with Shabnam. All at once, something changes in this innocent young girl. She becomes pale and restless. She begins to scheme to get her concerned family out of her room at night; and she's always waiting for something or someone just out of vision. Worst of all, she begins to stare hungrily at her little niece, in a way that makes the poor girl very upset. Shabnam's transformation is genuinely shocking: she lusts after death, and both Tabani and the film's director stretch out her agony as long as they can. Even if her craving for Tabani's bite is presented in terms that are acceptable to the censors, it's still strong stuff.
And it just gets worse after Shabnam surrenders to Tabani. One of the most disturbing things about Stoker's Dracula was what happened to Lucy after her death: she became the "bloofer lady", not only a vampire, but a child-molesting vampire at that. This aspect is almost always glossed over in the movie versions of the book... but not here. Sweet, innocent Shabnam has become something truly vile, and the actress Deeba does a very good job in each stage of the transformation.
The climax of the film parallels Horror of Dracula in its major details. It winds up with a furious chase (in cars rather than coaches) as Tabani attempts to carry his latest victim back to his lair (this time, the music is Rossini's overture to Barber of Seville; the way it's played, it at least sounds like chase music). In the very end, we even have the literal soundtrack of the Hammer film accompanying the final showdown! If you listen, you can hear the sound of Van Helsing's candleholders sliding against each other, and Christopher Lee's voice howling in agony. However, as might be expected, there are no crosses in Zinda Laash. Instead, the hero calls out to God for help, and just at that moment (as though by accident), he dislodges a screen from a window... allowing the morning sun to stream through and destroy Tabani. The inference is that our hero has not defeated the evil by himself; he is not guilty of the hubris that damned Tabani to walking death. Rather, God has stepped in and set things right.
Many thanks are due to Pete Tombs, whose research for his Mondo Macabro book inspired Pakistani film scholar Omar Khan to start looking for the long-lost film. Now available on the Mondo Macabro DVD label, Zinda Laash has been restored so well it's hard to believe the film has languished unseen for over thirty years. It may not be to everyone's tastes, since for all its borrowings it's really completely different from anything Western audiences are used to. In fact, it may be as bizarre and off-putting to some mainstream viewers as the Dracula story itself may have been to Pakistani viewers all those years ago (according to the director, one woman died of fright while watching Zinda Laash, a reaction which is unlikely to be repeated today). But forget all your expectations, psitive or negative, and enjoy Zinda Laash for what it is: a film with a remarkable amount of respect both for its source material and for its audience, made very well on a limited budget, in an excpetional time and place. Considering what kind of films Pakistan is now known for, it stands out as something of a miracle.
Mondo Macabro US: support these folks. They deserve it.
The Hot Spot: The world's greatest ice cream/video parlor,
with locations in Islamabad, Lahore and Karachi, Pakistan
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