Zombies of Zion

It’s the Talmud — with zombies! — in new Israeli horror film

Cinema royalty, the Paz brothers say their English-language ‘JeruZalem’ is the culmination of a childhood of ‘killing off’ friends

Doron (left) and Yoav Paz at a Jerusalem Festival premiere screening of their new English-language horror flick, 'JeruZalem.' (courtesy)
Doron (left) and Yoav Paz at a Jerusalem Festival premiere screening of their new English-language horror flick, 'JeruZalem.' (courtesy)

An Israeli documentary about disabled children was rejected by a Norwegian film festival because it “failed” to deal with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. At the same time, Israeli horror movies, such as the hot new English-language “JeruZalem” by Yoav and Doron Paz, are winning awards and drawing sell-out crowds at film festivals all over the world.

Go figure.

The horror genre is as old as cinema itself. French film pioneer Georges Méliès made “Le Manoir Du Diable” (The Devil’s Castle) in 1896. Other notable early scary movies include Frankenstein (1910) and Nosferatu (1922). Israel, however, came late to the fright fest.

Horror cinema in Israel is said to have started in 2010 with “Rabies.” The film was written and directed by Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado and starred Lior Ashkenazi (“Footnote”) and Yael Grobglas (“Jane the Virgin”).

Keshales and Papashado went on to make another Hebrew horror movie, “Big Bad Wolves,” in 2013, also starring Ashkenazi. Quentin Tarantino called it the “best film of the year” and it won 17 awards, including the Jury Prize at the Fantasia Film Festival.

Scene from 'Rabies' (photo credit: courtesy)
Scene from ‘Rabies’ (photo credit: courtesy)

Only one other title is listed by Wikipedia under the category of “Israeli horror films”: “Cannon Fodder” (2013) by Eitan Gafny, with a script by Gafny and Amit Lior. It was marketed with the tagline “There’s a New Conflict in the Middle East” and billed as Israel’s “first full length zombie film.”

And now the second full-length Israeli zombie movie has just been released – this time in English.

O, JeruZalem

JeruZalem (the “z” is for you-know-what) world-premiered at the Fantasia Film Festival in Montreal in July and had its US premiere as the closing night selection at Bruce Campbell’s Horror Film Festival in Chicago on August 23. As a work-in-progress, it won the Audience Award and the Best Editing Award at this summer’s Jerusalem Film Festival.

The film, by brothers Yoav and Doron Paz, is about two young American women vacationing in Israel. The women follow a cute anthropology student to Jerusalem on the eve of Yom Kippur – when all hell breaks loose. (One of the women is played by Yael Grobglas, on track to becoming the scream queen of Israeli horror cinema.)

The Paz Bros. are the sons of Israeli filmmaker Jonathan Paz (“Waiting for Surkin”) and grew up in Netanya. Their filmmaking careers began when they were around 10 or 11 years old. Provided with a video camera by their father, they broke out the ketchup and began “killing off” their friends in horror movies.

When they weren’t soaking in ketchup, the brothers were marinating in filmmaking. The talk around the house was about scripts and finding the right screenwriter, finding the right story, and appealing to film funds. They were extras in their father’s movies, perused his stacks of American Cinematographer even before they could read English, and watched Hitchcock and Fellini on television.

They learned that “to be a filmmaker, you’ve got to love cinema,” says Yoav, born in 1976, during a recent conversation with The Times of Israel. “You’ve got to love what you’re doing. You have to have balls and make sacrifices.”

During high school, Yoav worked at the local cable company making a video magazine for teenagers.

“It was like the Israeli Wayne’s World,” says Doron, who was born in 1978.

Doron (left) and Yoav Paz. 'To be a filmmaker, you’ve got to love cinema... You have to have balls and make sacrifices,' says Yoav. (courtesy)
Doron (left) and Yoav Paz. ‘To be a filmmaker, you’ve got to love cinema… You have to have balls and make sacrifices,’ says Yoav. (courtesy)

For his military service, Yoav served in the Air Force’s film unit, making training films, tribute films for pilots who were killed, and “year in review” films. He got the job because of his high school cable TV experience.

Doron notes that many of the leading members of Israel’s film and television industry came out of the Air Force film unit, which was considered the best-equipped.

Doron himself was a tank commander in the IDF. During his last six months in the service he studied a thick manual about the Avid editing system. The week he was released Yoav asked him to help edit the pilot for a cable network – and that was the beginning of Doron’s editing career.

After years of working as an editor, Yoav went to Tel Aviv University to study film.

“Of course I was a very good editor,” he says. “But during my first short film I was paralyzed. You realize you know nothing. You need to tell the cameraman where to put the camera and you realize you don’t know. You don’t really know what to tell the actors.”

Nepotism at its finest

Both brothers transitioned from editors to creative executives for Israeli cable networks and the music channel. For several years they were desk men, giving directing jobs to others.

Eventually, they hired each other to direct.

They always knew they wanted to make a feature film, but they also knew how difficult that would be. When they started watching films that took place in a single location, they saw how it could be done.

Their first feature, “Phobidilia” (2009) is about a young man (Ofer Schechter) who suffers an emotional breakdown and vows never to leave his apartment. Schecter was nominated for an Israel Film Academy award for Best Actor, and the film was invited to the prestigious Toronto International Film Festival, as well as about 30 other film festivals.

While preparing for their next feature, the Paz Bros. continued doing commercials and television promos.

“Unfortunately, you can’t really make a living yet making independent films in Israel,” says Doron. “There are only a few Israeli directors who can say they make a living only from films. I can count them on one hand.”

“’Phobidilia’ was a heavy drama and it wasn’t for everyone,” says Yoav. “We wanted something that everyone could like.”

Everybody loves zombies

“JeruZalem” was inspired by a line from the Talmud (Eruvin 19a): “There are three gates to hell, one in the desert, one in the ocean and one in Jerusalem.”

The movie is an example of “found footage” horror. It’s made to look like it was shot with “smart glasses” – such as Google Glass – laying a second layer of information on top of what the character (and the audience) is seeing. For example, looking at tourist sites calls up Wikipedia pages, and looking at people calls up their Facebook profiles.

In addition to writing and directing the movie, the brothers acted as producers, raising most of the $160,000 budget themselves.

The queen of scream? Israeli actress Yael Grobglas stars in 'JeruZalem.' (courtesy)
The queen of scream? Israeli actress Yael Grobglas stars in ‘JeruZalem.’ (courtesy)

In the US, horror films are considered a good investment. Since 2010, 13 of the top 30 films, ranked by return on investment, were in the horror genre. According to a recent article on NPR, the top five films in horror all had an ROI around 2,000 percent (translation: for every $10 put into a movie, an investor would get $200 in profit). By comparison the top films in comedy had an ROI around 1,200 percent.

‘It’s still a very art-house industry. It’s more important to be in the Cannes Film Festival than to sell tickets’

The Israeli film industry, however, is more about art than commerce. Most movie projects rely on funding from Israeli government organizations and nonprofit foundations.

“The Israeli film funds aren’t really ready for genre movies in general and horror movies specifically,” says Doron. “They say they are, but they’re not. It’s still a very art-house industry. It’s more important to be in the Cannes Film Festival than to sell tickets.”

Eventually the brothers partnered with Epic Pictures Group, a Hollywood production and distribution company headed by Israeli Shaked Berenson.

Epic has closed distribution deals for JeruZalem in 15 countries so far, including the UK, Germany/Benelux, India, Japan, France, Venezuela, and the Philippines.

Zombies as metaphor?

The opening voiceover in “JeruZalem” speaks of centuries of hatred seeping into the soil, and the movie shows Jews, Christians, and Muslims fighting (and fleeing) zombies together.

Christians, Muslims and Jews can all just get along when fighting zombies in 'JeruZalem.' (courtesy)
Christians, Muslims and Jews can all just get along when fighting zombies in ‘JeruZalem.’ (courtesy)

In The Forward, film scholar Olga Gershenson wrote: “’Jeruzalem’ is as engrossing and entertaining as any movie featuring winged monsters and giant demons can be, but it is hard not to read it as, also, a sharp commentary on the current Israel’s self-destructive policies. Zombies are but a metaphor for what will take place should the so-called Israeli-Palestinian conflict not be resolved.”

That’s not actually what the brothers had in mind.

“Yes, there are Israeli soldiers and Palestinians, and we did include some of the clashes that they have,” says Yoav. “But we didn’t have anything political to say to the world.”

“In every movie you can talk about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in a way,” says Doron. “Even ‘Star Wars.’”

Most Popular
read more: