Just in time for Halloween, we watched some of the best and worst horror movies from Yugoslavia and post-Yugoslavia so you wouldn’t have to. From cult 1970s vampire classics to full-frontal contemporary gorno, we submitted ourselves to a variety of films that were alternately terrifying, depressing, disgusting, and dumb as dirt. You’re welcome.
Leptirica (“The She-Butterfly”), Djordje Kadijevic (1973)
The “first Yugoslav horror film” exceeds every expectation. Leptirica is based on the 1880 story After Ninety Years by realist writer and so-called “Serbian Gogol” Milovan Glisic. The film is, at its core, probably the most authentically Balkan made-for-TV vampire film ever made. Not many people are aware that the word “vampire” is actually a Serbian word, and in making Leptirica, director Djordje Kadijevic went directly to the origin of many of the region’s most enduring local legends about the undead: a remote Balkan village, in this case a little place near the Drina called Zelinje, Bosnia-Herzegovina. Western film, from Bela Lugosi to the camp Hammer Horror franchise, had already been appropriating elements of vampire mythology from the Balkans for decades. Kadijevic’s film is different because it retains some vampire myths that Western filmmakers left out.
The plot follows a young man named Strahinja who pines desperately for Radojka, a haunted-looking beauty with long, straw-colored hair. She’s a bit reminiscent of Winona Ryder in Edward Scissorhands, if Winona Ryder’s character had embodied the demonic along with the angelic. Anyway, the local gang of drunks, including an Orthodox priest who guzzles rakija from a barrel keg stand-style, encourage the frustrated Strahinja to take over care of the mill after the former caretaker is violently murdered by some kind of beast-like creature. Strahinja is viciously attacked in much the same manner during his first night spent there, but somehow manages to survive. At this point, the gang of drunks realize that the long-dead village vampire Sava Savanovic must be the culprit, and drive a stake through the ground under which he is buried. A small moth or butterfly emerges as they perform this ritual — an integral feature of Serbian vampire mythology that seems to have been discarded in Western vampire films.
The tortuous romance at the heart of Leptirica continues when Strahinja and Radojka get engaged. This gives the film another layer of meaning, exposing the anxieties associated with trust, intimacy, and marriage. Everything literally goes to hell on their wedding night: the beautiful young woman with the straw-colored hair transforms into a parasitic “She-beast” and tries to destroy him.
These scenes are some of the best in the film. Radojka has a mouth full of fangs, and jumps on Strahinja and rides his shoulders as he runs through the grass outside. She’s wearing a white slip and her hair is a tangled mess, obscuring her face. It’s a feral intimacy quite unexpected for a 1972 made-for-TV movie from Yugoslavia.
I should stress that the film is worth watching just for the soundtrack, which consists of traditional choral singing and eerie, amplified forest sounds. Leptirica achieved cult status in the 1970s, and remains shrouded in legend. For instance, one man in Skopje allegedly had a heart attack while watching the film when it first aired on TV, prompting some hardliners in the communist party to label Leptirica a “terrorist film”. The movie has never been released on DVD, much to the chagrin of the director, and instead remains locked up in the dusty film archives of RTS (Radio Television of Serbia) to this day.
Variola Vera, Goran Markovic (1982)
Though this film is as old as Michael Jackson’s Thriller, it’s actually a fairly convincing portrayal of what a quarantine scenario might look like during a deadly epidemic. Variola Vera was made in the years immediately following Tito’s death, and director Goran Markovic used the period to make a quietly dissident film, one that reveals some of the early cracks in Yugoslavia’s crumbling facade.
The fact that the Variola Vera was based on an actual outbreak right in Yugoslavia definitely ups the fear factor. In 1972, a Muslim who’d been on a pilgrimage to the Middle East returned to Yugoslavia with a wooden flute and a raging case of small pox. He unknowingly infected dozens of people in Kosovo, Vojvodina, Serbia, and Montenegro. Since there hadn’t been a case of small pox in Yugoslavia since 1930, it took doctors weeks to figure out what the horrific disease actually was. By the time the epidemic was brought under control, 35 people were dead.
The country received widespread praise for its handling of the public health crisis. The Yugoslav government managed to vaccinate nearly all 18 million of its citizens.
The film attempts a faithful reproduction of these events, and features lots of depressing things like greedy doctors who hoard vaccines for themselves, children with terrifying skin lesions, and patients suffering in dimly lit late Yugoslav-era hospitals with poor heating. It’s also incredibly old-fashioned, in that doctors light up cigs inside medical facilities, and the film’s “good guy” (the “Hungarian” silver fox from Eyes Wide Shut who tries to seduce a married Nicole Kidman) essentially sexually assaults a young nurse and no one bats an eyelash.
So while the movie drags in places (there’s only so much doctor-nurse romantic intrigue one can stomach while watching the dying moan as they claw at their bloody pustules), it’s actually a solid film. The state is also lambasted here in the depiction of a few crooked officials who conspire to get an apparently well-connected nurse out of the quarantined hospital though she’s been exposed to the virus. In another scene that critiques the “body politic”, an official ominously tells a group of doctors and party members, “We mustn’t let this panic become a weapon to enemies of our country and our system.”
In general, Variola Vera is an interesting enough film for fans and students of realistic horror scenarios, late Yugoslav social decomposition, and infectious diseases.
Life and Death of a Porno Gang, Mladen Djordjevic (2009)
Drawing upon certain themes from Yugoslavia’s “Black Wave” of the early 1970s, Life and Death of a Porno Gang brings those on the vulnerable fringes of society front and center, in all their naked vulnerability.
In the immediate aftermath of the revolution that brought down Slobodan Milosevic, a young filmmaker named Marko is enthusiastic about directing his first film. He can’t find any funding for this, however, and ends up agreeing to make pornography for the cash. Marko’s film is judged too arty for his benefactor, who is more of a classicist and prefers the usual hardcore material to Marko’s surreal and often disturbing work. So Marko and a gang of social outcasts flee Belgrade with the aim to put on a sort of traveling pornographic cabaret.
The group includes two gay men who are HIV positive, a heroin-addicted mother and father of two small children, an overweight woman, and a failed actress. Perhaps unsurprisingly, these performances (which I should warn you spare no form of extreme sex, including beastiality) don’t go over too well with most of the villagers in rural Serbia, and the gang soon finds itself driven into an even deeper level of social isolation, as well as completely destitute.
At this point, Marko is approached by a former war correspondent from Germany, who, without an actual armed conflict to sate his taste for Balkan violence and exploitation, is in the business of curating snuff for a select and wealthy Western audience. He tells Marko that the gang will be paid well for shooting snuff films. Out of desperation, Marko agrees.
All victims in the snuff films go willingly, if violently. Oddly, it is in these scenes that Porno Gang is strangely and touchingly humane. Those who volunteer to go are all different kinds of victims of the wars of the 1990s. In certain instances, these victims – like the porno gang itself – are also perpetrators. This fact mirrors the disintegration of Yugoslavia: though each participant in the conflict clamored for victim status and/or an uncomplicated righteousness, none could honestly describe itself in such terms. None could point the finger without having the finger pointed back at itself.
Of course, participation in the production of snuff films for Western audiences (a performance of inter-Balkan brutality the foreign market developed something of a taste for during the 1990s), proves an unsustainable way to live, and the porno gang finds itself unprotected, both from the crooked Serbian police and their own self-destructive impulses. Despite the extreme images of horror and sex, the Life and Death of a Porno Gang is ultimately a deeply sad film, and succeeds as an allegory for contemporary life in Serbia viewed from those pushed to its margins.
Zone of the Dead, Milan Konjevic and Milan Todorovic (2009)
And now for some levity. Zone of the Dead is an incredibly shitty film, yet not quite shitty enough to be unintentionally hilarious. It’s an eco-conscious zombie flick about a polluted Pancevo, here referred to as “the most polluted city in Europe” (not quite; that’s probably somewhere in Ukraine).
Basically NATO is conducting some evil exercises and somehow some zombie gas gets let out into the atmosphere. A lot of people turn into zombies. The Serbian president is an honest man and his office looks like the Vatican. He is the most decent character of all and wants the Serbian people to know the truth.
Did the Serbian government pay for this film? (Ed: Following publication of the original version of this piece, a friend informed me that yes, the city of Belgrade contributed funding for this film). The movie’s only real asset is that it features Ken Foree from Dawn of the Dead (1978) in a leading role as some kind of undercover American government agent escorting a prisoner from the provinces to Belgrade. But the plot doesn’t matter. It features a joint American and Serbian cast, which was entertaining for about two minutes. A zombie nun also appears in one scene. Other than that, Zone of the Dead is a worthless waste of one million dollars and an hour and a half of your life. The entire film also looks like it was lit with a flashlight, probably because the producers couldn’t afford a proper lighting crew. The dubbing is stiff and robotic. For some reason the camera kept swaying in a weird way, and by film’s end, I had a migraine and vertigo. Don’t see it. Flee.
A Serbian Film, Srdjan Spasojevic (2010)
You probably already have an opinion about A Serbian Film even if you haven’t seen it yet. Banned in several countries and cut to shreds by censors in others, A Serbian Film is as violent, horrific, and disturbing as you’ve heard. Perhaps even more so. The film is made with some technical skill, and in its first third, builds suspense relatively well. Like Life and Death of a Porno Gang, the film intends to be an allegorical tale about the degradation of the individual, the family, and general morality by a criminal, authoritarian state.
While that point came across to me, its sheer brutality and lack of humanity, coupled with its stupid and obvious attempts to justify itself, nearly negates that point entirely. That said, foreign audiences have often missed certain important details in the film, and the context in which the director constructs the story.
Zarana Papic described the Milosevic period in Serbia in her essay, “Women in Serbia: Post-Communism, War, and Nationalist Mutations”, in which the state “systematically diminishes and humiliates the basic human values of decency, honesty, tolerance, individual morality, or even more basic assumptions, such as the concept of time (past, present, future), and those principles assumed to be eternally valid, such as personal identity, or the simple ten commandments (Love thy neighbor and Thou shalt not kill).” A Serbian Film certainly goes about voyeuristically obliterating those human values. But the problem with the film is that’s all it does.
Plot-wise, we have a washed up ex-porn star and family man named Milos looking to make a buck. Like Marko in Porno Gang, he reluctantly succumbs to the pressure to perform acts he doesn’t really want to (and in this case, doesn’t really know the details about before he performs them) out of financial desperation. Again, the invisible but omnipresent “Western market” is mentioned as an incentive. Terrible violent things happen.
A Serbian Film was released in 2010, but it seems better suited to the Serbia of current Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic than the Serbia it was made in a few years ago. The way Milos is made a unwitting collaborator in carrying out some very dark acts for those in power, both foreign and domestic, reminds me of the way the press has become Vucic’s accomplice in lynching political enemies, while “liberal and illiberal” civil society has been co-opted to serve the murky foreign policy agendas of the major powers. Every narrative has been co-opted by the state, meaning it’s become increasingly difficult to discern with certainty who or what is genuine, and who is serving who. Meanwhile, ever trafika in town is now filled with tabloids selling hate, pornography and fear.
The message of A Serbian Film can basically be reduced to a single idea, which more than one person has noted: “the Serbian state fucks you from the time you are born, until you die, and even after you are dead.” What else is there to say of a state that wields power with such violence that it can sow distrust and discord even within family homes and romantic relationships? A state which has pulverized the opposition, defanged and declawed dissent and dissident media so thoroughly that the only reason it is still allowed to exist is to prove that dissenting opinions exist at all? All of this can be said of the government in Serbia today. And though A Serbian Film may rightly demonize the empty, cruel, and exploitative Serbian state, it demonizes itself in much the same way.