Israeli Horror Comes to Life

“THE STATE OF ISRAEL IS UNDER ATTACK,” blares the headline in May’s Rue Morgue magazine. But the threat’s not coming from the usual suspects. This time, it’s zombies, serial killers and apocalyptic plagues that have the country on high alert. And it’s happening on the big screen.

Israeli horror is finally coming into its own as a genre, according to the popular Canadian journal of “horror in culture and entertainment.” After decades without “a single, proper Hebrew horror film,” no fewer than five Israeli horror movies have splattered across screens recently, with many more on the way.

The catalyst was 2011’s “Rabies,” which Rue Morgue calls a seminal moment — “the release of [Israel’s] first real horror film.” Until “Rabies,” the magazine notes, most of Israel’s cinematic output consisted of dramas dealing with political or social issues, or portraying dysfunctional families.

“The common explanation was that the state of Israel is stuck with wars, bereavement, and pain, so there is absolutely no room for movies that would add blood and violence,” according to Aharon Keshales, the film critic-turned-director who co-directed “Rabies.” “But what we answer to those who said that is that making a horror movie and dealing with blood and gore brings us catharsis. It relieves. Serious bereavement dramas, which Israeli filmmakers love to make, just draw you deeper to the agony and sadness.”

What hath “Rabies” wrought? How about “Cannon Fodder,” in which an Israel Defense Forces unit sneaks into Lebanon for a “special mission,” only to confront undead locals with serious munchies? Or “Another World,” which depicts the brutal existence of survivors of a nuclear disaster? Or maybe “Cats on a Pedal Boat,” in which a pet feline falls off a raft into a polluted river “and turns into something so hideous it makes the creatures in ‘Piranha’ look like gefilte fish”?

Then there’s “Poisoned,” a low-budget zom-com (that’s zombie comedy) also set inside an Israel Defense Forces base. Its trailer opens with a sweaty, terrified teen in a bloody tank top belting “Avadim Hayinu” — the familiar Passover out-of-bondage tune — while a zombie belches in the background. “Maybe we should have stayed in Egypt,” jokes the tagline. Released shortly after “Rabies,” the acclaimed “Poisoned” has enjoyed modest success on the Israeli film-fest circuit, but has yet to find international distribution.

In fact, the global success of “Rabies” remains an exception among Israeli genre films. ”Homegrown Jewish horror has a long way to go in terms of both national and international recognition,” Rue Morgue writes. “But a new generation of educated filmmakers has given it a foothold.”

Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado, the “Rabies” co-creators, are already at work on their second horror picture: “Big Bad Wolves,” which Rue Morgue describes as “a fairy-tale-inspired story about a high school Bible teacher who’s the main suspect in a horrible crime.” And the forthcoming “psychological horror thriller,” Goldberg & Eisenberg, now in post-production, received the first-ever funding from the Israeli Film Fund.

After many years “in which ideas for horror projects floated around as poltergeists in the Israeli film industry,” writes Rue Morgue, “we can now give them a warm shalom greeting.”

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