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The Holy City of the Living Dead

The Holy City of the Living Dead

Just when you thought the Middle East had seen every possible combination of political, religious, and ethnic strife, there comes a deadly new war that threatens to engulf not just the region, but the entire world.

Israel is fighting Hezbollah zombies.

Foolish Israelis! Why did they waste all that money on expensive drones and anti-missile defenses? It isn’t Iranian-made rockets crossing the Lebanese border, but hordes of the undead in the Israeli film Cannon Fodder, recently released on DVD in the United States under the title, Battle of the Undead.

A more accurate name would be Battle of the Brain Dead, and that doesn’t refer to the zombies.

The story begins with Doron, an Israeli super-commando with one of those brooding faces that pairs well with homicidal tendencies. While on his honeymoon he’s called away by the eye patch-wearing General Gideon, who looks less like Moshe Dayan and more like the creepy guy who hangs out at the porn shop.

Gideon informs Doron that Hezbollah has invaded northern Israel (for reasons unknown), and that Manzur, Hezbollah’s number three leader, has developed biological weapons that might be unleashed against Israel. Doron is ordered to lead a crack four-man commando team into Lebanon to snatch Manzur and bring him back for interrogation.

No doubt you’re thinking that in the 2006 War, 30,000 Israeli troops were not enough to defeat Hezbollah. So these four lone commandos, who are going to infiltrate Hezbollah-controlled southern Lebanon, must be so awesome that they make U.S. Navy SEALs look like Girl Scouts.

Alas, these schmucks couldn’t kidnap a frappuccino-wielding barista from Starbucks. They lack skill, coolness, discipline and even proper equipment such as night vision goggles to see the zombies in the dark. However, they are heavily laden with stereotypes. There is Avner, the religious kippah-wearing demolitions expert, a geeky, awkward soldier who looks like he has never stepped out of a yeshiva. Daniel is the shaven-headed (skin-headed is more like it) Russian immigrant with serious anger and racism issues. His target is fellow commando Moti, an Ethiopian immigrant whom Daniel taunts with epithets such as "Obama" and "Cosby."

Entering Hezbollah-land (which looks rather like an Israeli national park), the commandos quickly discover that their enemy isn’t the Party of God but rather the legions of the damned, who have turned the area into an all-you-can-bite buffet.

(Warning: plot spoilers ahead.) When the Israeli team reaches Manzur’s house, they discover his daughter hiding from the undead, one of which is actually her father. It turns out that Manzur was the one who created the zombie plague.

But actually the virus was created by Israel. You see, Hezbollah thought Manzur was too busy working in his lab to develop a biological weapon against Israel. But that’s what Israel wanted them to think! Manzur was really working for General Gideon, out of concern that the organization’s policies would lead to war. Manzur manufactured a virus given to him by Israel, which he would use to assassinate Hezbollah’s leadership by poisoning their drinking water. When Manzur tested the virus on himself, the zombie disease began to spread…

Wait a minute. Israel gave a bioweapon to Hezbollah, because one of Nasrallah’s henchmen promised he would use it to wipe out the organization? So if he had asked for a nuke to destroy Iran’s atomic facilities, does that mean Israel would have handed him a…

Danger. Trying to fathom this plot is like having your brain scooped out by a zombie.

In any event, the commandos, aided by Manzur’s daughter, survive the obligatory overnight assault on their house, during which they must dispatch numerous zombified Hezbollah fighters through the customary head shot. When they return to Israel, they discover that the country is being overrun by the undead. The Zionist Dream is being devoured.

And so has the audience’s ability to suspend disbelief. Cannon Fodder has a ludicrous plot, the props are cheap, and the zombies look like a college drama class having fun with makeup. Like the undead feeding on flesh, this movie feeds off prior films such as Night of the Living Dead. The scenes of burning Israeli cities will look very familiar will look very familiar to those who have seen World War Z, albeit that the explosions and flames look really, really fake.

Nonetheless, this is a film from Israel, which has produced so many insightful movies on the Arab-Israeli conflict, from Waltzing with Bashir to Beaufort. Yes, Cannon Fodder is a horror film (the first Israeli horror film I’ve ever seen), but we would expect to find a few deep political and social metaphors.

Unfortunately, the metaphors must be hiding from the monsters, because no one else can find them. The Hezbollah zombies could have been North Korean zombies or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles with a taste for human flesh. Other than a little dialogue and some graffiti on the walls, there is little to suggest a connection with one of the most formidable militant groups in the world. The racial tensions between the Israeli soldiers, and the suggestion that military actions by aggressive Israeli leaders can spectacularly backfire, point to real issues and historical blunders (the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon spurred the rise of Hezbollah). But the movie handles these themes so clumsily that instead of illuminating social commentary, they become flimsy plot devices designed to create tension between the characters, or keep the audience guessing. They accomplish neither.

Ironically, the movie’s only moments of genuine humor and insight occur when the credits roll. A leftist protester on a television talk show defends the rights of the undead ("And what makes them so different from us?"), while an ultra-Orthodox Jew complains that "It cannot be that these things walk among us in the land of the chosen Jewish people." The argument becomes moot when zombies invade the television studio and eat everyone.

Yet do not mistake the film for satire. It is meant to be a serious zombie movie, Israel’s campy attempt to replicate the success of World War Z.

However, for all its flaws, Cannon Fodder does offer an important insight. Hezbollah has been Israel’s most dangerous enemy for years. Now it has been reduced to a gimmick, in the same way that Russians and Chinese became generic villains in Cold War-era movies. Want to make the bad guys a little badder? Don’t just make them zombies. Make them Hezbollah zombies. Followed by Hamas mutants, and giant lizards clad in burqas.

Sometimes villains can be instructive. Boris and Natasha — those classic cartoon caricatures of Soviet spies — were a clever means to get Americans to examine their own beliefs about the Cold War. There is nothing so sophisticated in Cannon Fodder. All that the movie teaches us is that the Arab-Israeli conflict has gone on for so long, and is so ingrained within the Israeli psyche, that it can now be used as a backdrop for bad movies.

But maybe this is asking too much of a B-grade horror flick. Should we really be looking for social commentary in the subtext of Plan 9 from Outer Space, or the never-ending stream of films depicting American axe-wielding maniacs stalking teenagers , such as Halloween and Friday the 13th.

In the end, Cannon Fodder offers one bit of cheer for Israelis who have longed to be part of the global community, to be more than just the epicenter of one international crisis after another.

Now Israelis can hold their heads
up high and proclaim to the world: "We can make bad movies just like any other country."