We thought they had been buried under the earth for good, but they are now crawling out of every possible cavity. After directors—notably the famed Ramsay brothers—made sporadic attempts to Indianize the zombie in films like 1972’s Do Gaz Zameen Ke Neeche, a bunch of contemporary film-makers has unleashed a splatterfest of movies about “undead” people.
Apart from the 5 April release Rise of the Zombie, there is the zombie comedy Go Goa Gone, which will open on 10 May. Also in the works is Vipin Parashar’s No Exit.
The movie that could have started the zombie takeover of Indian kind has been suspended because of budget problems. In Navdeep Singh’s Rock the Shaadi, starring Abhay Deol, a bunch of dopey-eyed, shuffling, undead characters take over a Punjabi wedding.
Is the zombie subgenre being planted forcibly on Indian soil, especially since millions of Indians cremate their dead? “Our zombies spread more by biting, they don’t come from graves,” Singh says. In his movie, farmer suicides, aided by the consumption of pesticides, trigger the zombie rush.
Luke Kenny, the producer and lead of Rise of the Zombie, says the time is ripe for the very American subgenre in India, especially among audiences which have been fed a steady diet of global popular culture. “The upmarket, urban, globalized and evolved youth are well versed with international popular culture,” Kenny argues. By targeting multiplexes in urban centres, he hopes to cut loose the horror cinema category from its underground, low-budget roots, both in the US, where the genre remains popular, and in India, where undead characters have been staggering through the cheaply produced but undeniably popular Ramsay Bros titles.
“There is a larger audience that has only been fed women in white saris, chudails (female ghouls) and bhatakti aatma (wandering spirit) movies, but we knew that there was an inbuilt audience familiar with the core genre,” Kenny says. Rise of the Zombie, directed by Devaki Singh, is, as its title suggests, a zombie-origin yarn. “It’s the story of a human being and how he became that way,” says Kenny, adding that the 85-minute movie will be the first of a trilogy. “The origin is key because we are building up a genre from the ground.”
Go Goa Gone, produced by and starring Saif Ali Khan, follows the route of double-barrelled comedy-horror movies like Shaun of the Dead and Zombieland. Directed by slacker comedy specialists Krishna D.K. and Raj Nidimoru (99, Shor in the City), the movie started life as a romcom (romantic comedy) rather than a zomcom (zombie comedy), say its directors. “We wanted to do a take on the romcom, but the script that we had would have required some time,” Nidimoru says. “When Saif asked us if we had anything that could be done quicker, we told him we had this ridiculous idea, and we didn’t know who would buy it. He was sold in 15 minutes.”
Indian marquee names usually stay away from horror films, leaving them to lesser-known actors or television performers looking for a big-screen break, so Khan’s involvement will help push the zombie category closer to acceptability. “Saif told us that the movie had to be of international calibre, that we didn’t want zombies that look like jokes,” Krishna says. “The make-up in such films is the most important element, so we got top-notch crews that had worked on prosthetics for films like Star Wars and the Matrix trilogy.”
Mainstream film-makers have experimented with the ghost story over the years, but films like Mahal, Woh Kaun Thi? and Bees Saal Baad are exceptions to the rule that horror cinema is strictly for cheap thrill seekers. “Most of the Ramsay films…never occupied the centre ground of cinema in India,” writes British academic Valentina Vitali in her essay The Evil—Realism And Scopophilia in the Horror Films of the Ramsay Brothers, published in the 2011 anthology Beyond the Boundaries of Bollywood. “Like much horror cinema elsewhere, they were cheaply produced films that circulated at the margins of the industry…their success in a niche market during just over a decade led other film-makers such as Mohan Bhakri and Vinod Talwar to experiment with the genre.”
In cities like Mumbai, Ramsay films would be released in single screens aimed at working-class populations, points out veteran trade analyst Vinod Mirani. Scary movies backed by mainstream producers often need props, such as comedy in the case of the 1965 suspense thriller Gumnaam, Mirani adds.
Film-maker brothers Mukesh and Mahesh Bhatt have relied heavily on popular musical scores to sell their brand of spooky stories. The Bhatts, along with Ram Gopal Varma, gave the genre a patina of respectability in the 2000s. Movies like the superhit Raaz, produced by the Bhatts, and Bhoot, directed by Varma, followed the Hollywood stylebook while sticking to vengeful spirits and possessive ghosts.
Hard-core horror fans in India usually turn to Hollywood to slake their thirst for genuine scares, but censorship has restricted the genre’s spread in India, says Sunil Udhani, distribution head at Multivision Multimedia Pvt. Ltd, which recently distributed the remake of the American horror classic, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. “People shy away from watching Hollywood horror movies in theatres since they tend to be chopped and trimmed,” Udhani says. “While movies like Raaz and Bhoot changed the market for Indian horror movies, many Hollywood releases don’t always work here. However, the market is changing—we find many 15- to 25-year-olds coming into multiplexes to watch such films.”
The recent upsurge in brutality and torture in movies such as the Saw series has either diluted or prevented their release in India. The Central Board of Film Certification demanded so many cuts on the remake of Evil Dead, produced by the original’s director Sam Raimi, that it has been sent for re-certification to the organization’s revising committee, says an industry representative. Scary movies by Indian film-makers might not meet the fanbase’s desire for gore, but in the absence of anything more repulsive than heads rolling off or limbs being chopped out, they will have to do.