No Zombies in Gaza: Horror in Arabic Cinema
By: Yazan al-Saadi
Published Wednesday, October 31, 2012
Morbid synthesized music accompanied by a slow, almost heartbeat-paced rhythm thrums from the screen. A group of indistinguishable beings cloaked in black shuffle along the periphery of a white circle in the center of a dark room. They murmur incantations in honor of an unknown dark lord. Credits, crudely written in blood red Arabic, appear and vanish again. The music metamorphoses into a faster, intense tempo; notes are unleashed by an electric guitar, as the creeping circle breaks apart into a choreographed dance of the macabre. Now the group chants about fear and horror. A cut away to a concealed face. We can only see the mouth. The lips are red, the teeth unnervingly white. The mouth breaks into song, and as it sings, its fangs grow larger and sharper. So begins the Egyptian 1981 cult classic horror film, Anyab (Fangs) by Mohammed Fouad Shebl.
Horror’s appeal is universal, deeply rooted in our common primordial desire to experience a controlled state of fear. The experience is essentially cathartic.
We, the audience, bear witness to our individual and social anxieties brought to form, whether in an over-the-top or subtle manner. We are titillated and disturbed by the spooky sights seen and startling sounds heard. And as the movies ends and the lights come back on, we eagerly return to reality – unharmed and confident that these fictional terrors are safely locked behind a silver screen.
Whether it’s serial killers or radioactive monsters, torture porn or cerebral chillers, what actually frightens us depends largely on the contexts we arise from. When examining the international breadth of horror cinema tropes, one can begin to see that each respective society develops and excels in its own unique flavor of horror. Horror films that become immense commercial or critical successes tend to cleverly invoke relatable anxieties lingering within the sub-conscious gorge of the audiences’ minds.
The tale of Arabic horror cinema is no different. But like all worthy tales, there is more buried below. Not only is the story of Arabic horror cinema about what can frighten most Arab audiences, it is also a chronicle of the abnormalities and dysfunctions lacing the underbelly of Arabic cinema as a whole.
Horror and Arab Audience: A Fondness of the Unseen
Egypt was, and to some degree still is, an influential hub for Arabic cinema arising from its immense cultural import to the rest of the region. Unsurprisingly then, Egyptians have also developed and produced most of the last century’s Arabic horror films.
What may be more intriguing is that the majority of Arabic horror films produced in the past century that were not merely crude carbon-copies of foreign, mainly American, horror plots involve supernatural elements, such as jinn, demons and ghosts.
“Supernatural tropes are common in our horrors.This makes sense when dealing with what subconsciously scares our societies. It is within the foundation of Islam – and even among Arab Christians in a cultural sense. It’s not something you can grow out of. People grow old and still believe in exorcisms,” Tarek Jammal, a Lebanese filmmaker and hardcore movie enthusiast, explained to Al-Akhbar.
He pointed to the example of zombies, popular figures in American horror, to clarify his point. “Why are there no zombies in Gaza?” he asked.
“Zombies are not as terrifying as an Israeli bombing, and other real life horrors and tragedies. Zombies are commonly representative of various fears arising within affluent societies. People who are under constant attack by Israelis or whomever else aren’t going to be frightened by zombies.”
Jassim al-Nofaly, Egyptian-Omani filmmaker and zealous horror buff, shared a similar viewpoint during a separate conversation with Al-Akhbar:
“Jinn and black magic are foundational to our cultural beliefs. We are afraid of what we do not understand and what we do not see. Some people educate their children from the point of view of an omnipresent invisible being that is constantly watching you; quite horrifying when you think about it,” he said.
“There was an Egyptian movie called Camp, about a serial killer who was killing people in a camp. It flopped because the public needed something that they did not understand. Al-Ins wal-Jinn (The Human and the Jinn), made in 1985, which starred Adel Imam was the perfect horror film for me. It worked because it represented superstitions in our society so people enjoyed it more. Plus it had a really big star,” Nofaly continued.
To further buttress his argument, Nofaly noted that American horror films like Final Destination were usually more commercially successful in the region than other horror imports because the killer, in this case Death, was seeped in this “unknown.”
“You don’t find a huge audience here for Saw or Hostel. But you’ll find a huge audience for Final Destination or Paranormal Activity and its sequels. They beat all the torture porn. It is because we love the unseen, it is part of our culture and our religion,” he reasoned.
The Hidden History of Arabic Horror
Not unlike other alternative genres in Arabic literature and film, Arabic horror cinema has had a somewhat buried history. A comprehensive examination of Arabic horror cinema is further confined by the fact that there are no or very limited public archives and serious academic studies dealing exclusively with the genre. Most attempts today are made informally online and even then they face numerous obstacles.
“Horror was extremely difficult to find because of two factors,” Karim Safieddine, CEO of Cinemoz (a popular website that archives Arabic film content and allows viewers the ability to stream them for free), told Al-Akhbar during a brief telephone conversation.
“First, even when you do find the exceptional classical movies, and nothing worthwhile was produced for over twenty years, you had to deal with who owned the rights. It was simply hard to get hold of it, and like a lot of Arab cinema, the issue of licensing was a problem. It is a messy industry, where it is hard to find a legal representative.”
“Also, there are no centralized ways to find a good horror movie or any other specialty genre,” he added.
Indeed, a good chunky Arabic horror films’ history would have been lost were it not for devoted horror buffs and film enthusiasts, in the region and elsewhere, who lovingly document its past online.
One pool of information can be found in an American online forum dedicated to the celebration of horror cinema, titled The Classic Horror Film Board.
Within a sub-section of this forum dealing with “foreign horror cinema,” one contributor, seemingly an American film historian who goes by the name doctor kiss, has meticulously collected information, accompanied by screen shots, of a variety of Arabic horror films that have appeared since the 1940s. It is an absolute treasure-trove and impromptu journey through time in this understudied slice of Arabic cinema.
According to doctor kiss, Arabic-language films are “entirely absent from works such as The Overlook Film Encyclopedia or Mondo Macabro, and this really is a shame, since there are some truly wild and psychotropic gems to be discovered.”
He/she notes that most people who are knowledgeable on Arabic horror cinema tend to point to Ismail Yassin’s 1953 Haram Alik (Shame on You), which was a rip off of the 1948 American comedy film Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein, as the first attempt at making an Arabic film with a somewhat horrorish twist. But doctor kiss traces the history further back to the 1945 Egyptian film Sadir Guhannam (The Ambassador of Hell) by Yousef Wahbi as the first example of an attempt to make a strictly modern Arabic horror film.
Since then, an array of attempts have sporadically emerged throughout the decades, but the genre really found its way in the 1980s.
At the forefront of this 1980s horror wave was Egyptian director Mohammed Fouad Shebl. Shebl was a fascinating human being, who was absolutely enamored with the horror genre. Earning a living as a disk jockey, a writer, and a documentarian, he used the money to finance four feature-length horror films throughout the 1980s and early 1990s in order to share his passion with a wider audience. His first attempt in 1981 with Anyab experimentally mixed the story of Dracula with the American cult classic The Rocky Horror Picture Show. While it was a commercial failure, like all his subsequent films, it was revolutionary in how it expanded the boundaries of Arabic cinema.
Despite Shebl’s, and a handful of other directors’, admirable attempts, Arabic horror films could not dent the monopoly of dramas and comedies constantly pumped out for consumption. Additionally, Shebl’s sudden tragic death from liver disease in 1996 seemed to have put a temporary end to this upsurge of commercial horror films. It was a near-fatal blow that the genre has yet to recover from.
Horror as a Victim of Industry
Saffiddine was puzzled by how rare Arabic horror films are despite, in his view, a strong craving from the Arab public. “What I don’t understand is that while there is a huge craving from the audience for horror, the [production] of horror here is not a huge thing. Why?” he wondered.
“There are obstacles for any film in the Arab world. Comedies are the easiest to make, dramas are next, and then other genres get harder and harder. Outside Egypt, it’s [a] very young [industry] and now are there studios that are coming out who just want to invest in money-makers to expand. In Egypt, it seems to be easier to make horrors but they seem to not be interested,” Jammal opined.
He further noted that funding was limited because producers were risk-averse to stories that pushed the edge and brushed on controversial topics relating to politics and religion, fearing a backlash from government censors or possible negative attention from highly vocal religious groups. This aversion from producers thereby manifests an environment strongly restrictive for creativity and innovation, two factors which exceptional and entertaining horror needs.
“It [arises] from this notion that it would reflect badly on their production company. I completely disagree with this. Most people who dislike a movie will blame the director, the script writer, but not the production company. It is a strange form of marketing. Reputation is linked to the family behind the company and they tend to not want to be associated with these things,” Jammal explained.
Nofaly, echoed these points, but included the fact that Arab audiences are forced to compare Arabic films to American versions that are better funded and have higher production values. Furthermore, he argued, most Arabic horror films follow a stubborn persistence in simply copying completed systems and formats, applying it awkwardly and cheaply.
“American horror film tends to be successful more than say a Kuwaiti horror film, because the latter will get laughed at. Horror needs some talent, it needs high production values, it needs a compilation of music that affects you emotionally. What we tend to have are copies of what [Arab creators] think horror should be like and they are just not good,” he said.
“There is no hope for the Arabic horror film,” Nofaly said with a soft chuckle. “I see setbacks in drama and action productions. There seems to be a crisis in all the genres for commercial movies. They aren’t making good movies these days and most actors are going back to making TV shows.”
Because of this conservative infrastructure regarding the production and distribution of films, the majority of Arabic horror films are now released in art-houses and independent film festivals. Even so, many are not very appealing in terms of quality and those that are are not likely to be distributed widely to the public at large.
“I don’t think it’s hard to market an Arabic horror film. If it was shot along international standards, had a high production value and was done by an Arab – it would succeed. There is that desire for home-grown cinema,” Jammal argued.
But for that to happen, Nofaly retorted, “the industry as a whole needs to bloom and accept fresh ideas.”
For now, horror will continue to be a victim of this self-perpetuating, confining infrastructure in mainstream Arabic cinema. There will be a few sporadic attempts and odds are they will probably fail. Yet, as the course of history has shown, eventually the shackles that continue to deny horror’s ability to crawl from a shallow grave will be shattered by the hands of future Arab script-writers, directors, and daring producers. Until that occurs, the desire for a fantastical, indigenous fright fest stirs quietly, waiting to break free.