Serbian contribution to horror genre, both in literature and film, is pretty small. And yet, what Serbian horror cinema lacks in terms of quantity, it more than makes up for in quality. It can be argued that more than a dozen of existing Serbian horror titles belong among the most original works made in this nation's cinema in the past decades, and they deserve to be wider known.
The low number of horror films does not mean that Serbs are intrinsically unable to enjoy a good horror film, or even to make one. But the general cultural climate has always required a strong rationale for using such motifs: fear for fear's sake was not generally accepted as particularly entertaining. In order to be taken seriously, Serbian filmmakers needed an alibi for making what basically is horror by advertising it as a "literary adaptation", "satire", "drama", even a "thriller" — anything but the degraded term horror which everyone avoided.
As it turned out, this was not entirely detrimental: it only meant that, when horror motifs were used, it was in the context of either "respectable" films with artistic pretensions, or comedies/parodies which provided a vent for Serbia's inherent ironic stance towards vampires, madmen and other monsters.
In the few instances that horror motifs are found in this nation's cinema, they are used loosely, for telling stories that are far from exploitation. While Western horror often forces the story into the pre-existing generic mold, using every opportunity to create suspense, fear and shock, in Slavic horror elements of the genre are used to fit the story, not vice-versa.
In spite of all the obstacles— cultural, political, psychological, commercial— those horror films that managed to get made in Serbia have been surprisingly effective. Most have never been properly presented to audiences abroad, and this is an opportunity to shed some light upon the best ones and recover them from undeserved obscurity.
NOTE: Click on each film's original Serbian title to see its IMDb page!
(LEPTIRICA, TV, 1973)
It is based on a revered classic of Serbian nineteenth-century literature, the short story 'After Ninety Years' by Milovan Glisic. Its hero is Strahinya, a poor lad in rural Serbia who falls in love with the local landowner's daughter: in order to prove himself worthy of her love, he has to spend a night in an accursed mill. It is said that a vampire is sucking the blood of unfortunate mill men, thereby bringing the village to the verge of famine. Strahinya manages to survive the night (more through clumsiness than courage), but the vampire escapes. Luckily, the lad learns the vampire's name and, following a prolonged search, the creature's grave is found. A group of villagers seemingly dispatch him with a stake through the unopened coffin, but the young man has yet to meet the real horror - on his wedding night...
(ŠTIĆENIK, TV, 1973)
Arty, gothic atmosphere pervades a TV film about a young man haunted by a mysterious follower who claims to be his protector. Not even the baroque asylum where the man escapes can protect him from his doom.
(DEVIČANSKA SVIRKA, TV, 1973)
A young man comes across a castle in which a solitary maiden lives. A sort of romance builds between them, but in the end the man will discover the real, nightmarish source for the strange "music" heard around the castle…
THE DREAM OF DR MISIC
(SAN DOKTORA MIŠIĆA, TV, 1973)
A bachelor doctor in the countryside is haunted by a dream in which a dead girl leads him to his death. He pays no heed to stories about spirits, omens and premonitions, but his fate will prove that there's more to life than his science taught him.
THE DAMNED THING
(PROKLETINJA, TV, 1975)
Based on the well-known story by Ambrose Bierce, this unusual TV film takes arty approach which stresses the metaphysical dread of a man encountering an invisible entity which slaughters people in the marshes.
GASP! aka THE BACKBONE
A series of unexplainable suicides haunts a modern high-rise block in Belgrade. A young doctor traces the source of the stinky, yellowish mist to the nearby gothic crematorium, but it does not stop the disaffected, alienated people from killing themselves.
A MAN TO BE KILLED
(ČOVEK KOGA TREBA UBITI, 1979)
Satan is directly involved in human affairs and political shenanigans in Montenegro in 18th century. He sends a devil in human form to become leader of men, but the devil starts liking the people he's supposed to deceive. Satan won't accept such betrayal…
VARIOLA VERA, 1982
Inspired by a real event from early 1970s, when a Moslem brought smallpox from his pilgrimage to the Middle East to a Belgrade hospital and created a small-scale epidemic. The gruesome disease is a metaphor for the sick socialist state, but the claustrophobic feel of a quarantine and gory images are not to be forgotten.
STRANGLER VS STRANGLER
(DAVITELJ PROTIV DAVITELJA, 1984)
Belgrade, the capital of Serbia, only became a metropolis when it got its first serial killer. The said killer is a big, fat, shy and mother-fixated man, played to deadpan perfection by one of Serbia's greatest comedians, Tasko Nacic. He lives with his cruel mother in a gothic apartment resembling those from Mario Bava's films. He sells flowers and lives by the motto, 'Those who don't like carnations don't deserve to live!' His victims are the young women who refuse to buy his flowers and humiliate him in public. The film follows the exploits of three main characters: the strangler, the incompetent and highly neurotic inspector on his trail and the nerdy rock singer attracted to the killer's exploits. The latter's oedipal desires and sexual angst turn him into a promoter of the strangler's crimes (through a song devoted to him) and a potential strangler in his own right.
DÉJÀ VU aka REFLECTIONS
(VEĆ VIĐENO, 1987)
Déjà vu concerns a troubled piano teacher, Mihailo (Mustafa Nadarevic), and his efforts to come to terms with reality through a love affair with a poor but industrious girl, Olgica (Anica Dobra). When she dumps him for a younger boyfriend (hoping to make a political career in the Communist Youth organization), Mihailo is overrun by the ghosts of his past and begins a killing spree. Flashbacks which explain the killer's motivation are intrinsic to the film's central idea. The apparent contrast between the past and the present becomes a parallel, thanks to the clever transitions between shots. Mihailo becomes unable to distinguish the 'reflections' of the past upon his own present, and is thus driven over the edge.
This is the only Serbian horror film to be included in the second edition of Phil Hardy's Overlook Film Encyclopedia: Horror (1994). It is also the only Serbian horror film included among 100 EUROPEAN HORROR FILMS in the eponymous book published by BFI and edited by Steven Jay Schneider.
A HOLY PLACE
(SVETO MESTO, 1990)
Loosely based on Nikolai Gogol's story VIJ, this is a gothic masterpiece in which Slavic folklore is effectively merged with a decadent, erotic subtext about disturbed psyches in an isolated farm. A young priest is forced to spend three nights locked in a church, singing psalms over the dead body of a woman who was a witch while alive. Now she's something much worse.
FULL MOON OVER BELGRADE
(PUN MESEC NAD BEOGRADOM, 1993)
A rather unsuccessful attempt to use the war-torn Serbia in the mid-1990s as a background for a story about zombies from the battlefields and vampires pulling the strings behind the horrors of war. It looks and feels clumsy and is mostly laughable.
(T.T. SINDROM, 2002)
A group of young people end-up locked in the old Turkish bath inside the Belgrade fortress, and a mysterious person clad in black leather jacket starts killing them one by one. It seems to be somehow connected to a strange, rare disease. This is a derivative, but pretty effective homage to B-horrors with solid amounts of gore and a decent score.
(ŠEJTANOV RATNIK, 2006)
An old book of spells. Ancient Arabic demon (Djinn) awakened in today's Belgrade. Horny teens. Parties. A nerd hungry for revenge. Lots of blood.
This is a very low-budget effort (even by Serbia's standards), but it is full of energy, humor and action, and make-up effects are well above-average. The youthful cast gives their best.
THE LIFE AND DEATH OF A PORNO GANG
(ŽIVOT I SMRT PORNO BANDE, 2009)
The Life and Death of a Porno Gang exposes the underbelly of contemporary Serbia and pulls no punches in the process. The film throws away almost all taboos, such as group sex, murder, full frontal nudity, violence to animals, homosexuality, bestiality, snuff… only here they come with a socio-political context. What Naked Lunch by William Burroughs was for America in the 1950s and 1960s, Porno Gang is for post-Milosevic Serbia. See the full review here.
ZONE OF THE DEAD
(ZONA MRTVIH, 2009)
Made in co-production with Italy and Spain. Its international cast is headed by Ken Foree, the star of George A. Romero's DAWN OF THE DEAD (1978) in his first chance in three decades to slay some more living dead. He is accompanied by Kristina Klebe (HALLOWEEN, 2008), Ariadna Cabrol (REC, 2007) and Emilio Roso.
The film deals with an accidental release of a toxic matter in Serbia's most polluted city, Pancevo, and the outbreak of zombie mayhem which goes strictly along the déjà vu routine of Italian low budgeters from early 1980s. It is most reminiscent of City of the Living Dead (1980), Hell of the Living Dead (1983) and Zombi 3 (1987). The film is characterized by the over-use of shaky-cam which makes decent make-up effects barely visible and action scenes hard to follow. The plot does not bring anything new to the table, content to merely recycle the tired clichés of zombie cinema. Its sole selling points resides in Foree's still formidable presence and the curio of being Serbia's first zombie film. Read my full review here.
A SERBIAN FILM
(SRPSKI FILM, 2010)
Milos, a retired ex-porn star, now leads a normal family life. He is introduced to Vukmir - a shady, mysterious, menacing and politically powerful figure in the porn business who makes Milos an offer he can't refuse: the movie with no script, and performances all too real…
In a Serbian "Heart of Darkness" where life is cheaper then a candy bar, in a struggle with enemies powerful beyond belief and just as violent and pathologically evil, the chances of surviving are abnormally thin.
This film contains scenes so brutal and extreme that they are unparalleled in the history of horror. The fact that A SERBIAN FILM has decent production values, expert photography, good direction and talented, well-known actors in the leading roles makes it all the more shocking. Check out the NSFW trailer – here.
All these films, except for the 3 most recent ones, are subject of my book on Serbian horror (published in 2007, only in Serbian), whose description follows.
IN THE HILLS, THE HORRORS: SERBIAN HORROR FILM
by Dejan Ognjanović
This study deals with the reception of horror genre in Serbia and with Serbian genre productions from 1973. until 2006.
The first part of the book analyzes the (mostly negative) attitude towards horror genre, both foreign and domestic, in Serbian press, but also the evolution from old-fashioned Marxist concepts towards more modern, genre-friendly readings among the younger Serbian film critics.
The second and most exhaustive part provides a minute close reading of 14 relevant titles made for TV and cinema in which horror genre is central, or at least strongly present.
Finally, in the third part the study is substantiated by the interviews with three of the most competent names for this topic: Djordje Kadijevic (THE SHE-BUTTERFLY, THE PROTECTED, MAIDENLY MUSIC, A HOLY PLACE), the director who initiated the serious, literary approach to horror in Serbia; Dejan Zecevic (T.T. SYNDROME), representative of younger, genre directors; and Dimitrije Vojnov, film critic and screenplay writer well-known for his defense of genre filmmaking and his genre-oriented scripts.
"Let America have its simple pleasures, its cartoon mice, its candy-coated castles, its cults and its technologies, he wanted none of it. The greatest wonder of the world was here, hidden in the hills."
IN THE HILLS, THE CITIES
1. THE HORROR OF SERBIAN CINEMA
1.1. HORROR AMONG THE SERBS
1.1.1. History and everyday life as unavoidable horror
1.1.2. The culture of irony and suspicion toward fictional horror
1.1.3. Politics as an omnipresent horror
1.1.4. Poor economy as a horror in itself
1. 2. PERCEPTION OF HORROR AND CRITICAL AWARENESS
1.2.1. ALREADY UNSEEN: Movies that weren't there
1.2.2. HORROR HORRIFIES US: Lost in THE FOG
1.2.3. THE TERROR OF DOMESTIC HORROR: Invasion of the genre snatchers
1.2.4. DAWN OF THE CRITICS: A sparkle in the dark
2. HORROR FILMS
2.1. Folklore Horror
THE SHE-BUTTERFLY (LEPTIRICA, TV, 1973)
2.2. Dark Fantasy
THE PROTECTED (ŠTIĆENIK, TV, 1973)
2.3. A Gothic Romance
MAIDENLY MUSIC (DEVIČANSKA SVIRKA, TV, 1973)
2.4 . Serbo-Croatian Gothic
THE DREAM OF DR MISIC (SAN DOKTORA MIŠIĆA, TV, 1973)
2.5. Metaphysical Horror
THE DAMNED THING (PROKLETINJA, TV, 1975)
2.6. Serbian Existential Shivers
GASP! aka THE BACKBONE (KIČMA, 1975)
2.7. In the Hills, the Devils
A MAN TO BE KILLED (ČOVEK KOGA TREBA UBITI, 1979)
2.8. Illness as a Metaphor
VARIOLA VERA, 1982
2.9. A Comedy of Terrors
STRANGLER VS STRANGLER (DAVITELJ PROTIV DAVITELJA, 1984)
2.10. Madness as a Normal State
DÉJÀ VU aka REFLECTIONS (VEĆ VIĐENO, 1987)
2.11. High Gothic
A HOLY PLACE (SVETO MESTO, 1990)
2.12. Casualties of War
FULL MOON OVER BELGRADE (PUN MESEC NAD BEOGRADOM, 1993)
2.13. Serbian Slasher: Low Budget as a Fate
T.T. SYNDROME (T.T. SINDROM, 2000)
2.14. The Warriors from Underground
SHEITAN'S WARRIOR (ŠEJTANOV RATNIK, 2006)
2.15. APPENDIX: The Tailor's Flirting
FLIRTING (FLERT, 2006) + A TAILOR'S SECRET (KROJAČEVA TAJNA, 2006)
3. SCARY STORIES (Interviews)
3.1. DJORDJE KADIJEVIĆ: Man is, foremost, a frightened being
3.2. DEJAN ZEČEVIĆ: Horror as the essence of filmmaking
3.3. DIMITRIJE VOJNOV: Only fear saves the Serbs
INSTEAD OF A CONCLUSION