The Holy City of the Living Dead

There's actually a lesson about Israel buried inside this horribly bad horror flick about Hezbollah zombies.

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."

White Beach Productions/YouTube


A Birth Defect in the Heart of Africa

Could anything have prevented the tragedy that is now befalling South Sudan?

For today's bitter draught of curdled ideals we turn, not to Egypt or Libya, not to Ukraine or Russia, but to South Sudan, not so long ago a beloved newborn in the world of states. Earlier this week, Secretary of State John Kerry announced that the United States was imposing sanctions on military leaders of the government and the opposition, both of whom, he said, had perpetrated "unthinkable violence against civilians." Then, the U.N. mission in South Sudan released a report describing in detail systematic campaigns of rape and murder carried out by both sides.   

Like Egypt, South Sudan was baptized in euphoria. After 50 years of an intermittent civil war that took the lives of 2 million people finally ended with a 2005 peace treaty with Sudan, southerners voted for independence in a delirious referendum in January 2011. At the celebration of that nation's birth that summer, Susan Rice, then the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, proclaimed that South Sudan had demonstrated that "few forces on Earth are more powerful than a citizenry tempered by struggle and united in sacrifice."

One thing we learn from watching citizens united in sacrifice tear one another to bits is the brevity of the binding moment of togetherness that reigns at a nation's birth, or a movement's triumph.

"The people and the army are one hand!" the protesters in Tahrir Square chant. So, briefly, were the Dinka and the Nuer, the major tribes and immemorial rivals of South Sudan. Sometimes the sense of common purpose endures, as it did in Israel and India or, more recently, in East Timor. Far more often, the warriors who emerge from the hills or the bush discover in politics a new form of warfare, to be waged against their tribal or ethnic or simply political rivals. Then the bloodletting begins.

The South Sudanese calamity feels almost inevitable in retrospect -- "foreseeable, but maybe not avoidable," in the words of  Cameron Hudson, the former  chief of staff to Scott Gration, President Barack Obama's special envoy to Sudan. South Sudan's leaders had spent their entire lives fighting a grinding, brutal war. When it came time to work out a series of compromises with Sudan, recalls Hudson, "They kept saying, ‘If we don't get what we want, we'll just go back to war.'" A favorite expression, meant literally, was, "My military uniform is still hanging in the closet."

What's more, John Garang, the closest thing South Sudan had to a founding father, died in a helicopter crash in July 2005. His place was taken by Salva Kiir, a fighter who, as Hudson puts it, "has no vision for the country" beyond his hatred for Khartoum. As a gesture of inclusiveness, Kiir, a Dinka, gave the deputy's job to a Nuer, Riek Machar, a notorious turncoat who had spent years fighting for Khartoum against the southern rebels.* The two finally turned on one another last summer, when Kiir fired Machar and much of his cabinet. After tensions rose to the surface at a party gathering in December, both sides sent their supporters into battle. A contest over political spoils then descended into the ethnic killing which spurred the Obama administration to declare a pox on both houses.

Could timely intervention by South Sudan's many Western friends have prevented the mayhem? Perhaps not. One such Westerner, who has worked closely with the government, concludes that South Sudan's leaders lived by a code of "kill or be killed": Fearing a coup by Machar, Kiir mounted a pre-emptive coup of his own. South Sudan is now divided between a government led by Kiir and a wide array of semi-coordinated and well-armed forces fighting to control key cities and regions.

The category to which the South Sudan mess belongs is less Naïve Self-Delusion than Circumstances Beyond Our Control. What is true, however, is that policymakers like Rice, national security official Gayle Smith, and others who had a long history with the rebel movement, shared the euphoria of the moment, and were outraged by what they saw as the cool realism of newcomers like Gration, who pushed the southerners hard to compromise with the government in Khartoum. Hudson says that the attitude of the unimpassioned pragmatists, which very much included Obama, was, "We're about to guarantee the birthing of a basket case in the heart of Africa." In this case, the skeptics were right.  

Hudson says that Kiir and others consistently ignored whatever advice they received, thus bringing home how little leverage Washington had -- despite years of unflagging support and billions of dollars in aid. It seems paradoxical to conclude that the United States, the United Nations, and other major international actors can do so little to shape the destiny of a powerless country. In fact, outsiders can do much more in a country like Tunisia or Ukraine, which has the capacity to help itself, than in a place like South Sudan, which has few roads in its endless hinterland, few educated people, almost no economy beyond oil and hardly anything outside of the capital city of Juba which deserves the name of "government." South Sudan belongs in the category of Afghanistan and the Democratic Republic of Congo -- epic undertakings in state-building into which billions of dollars seem to disappear like torrents of water in the desert.

Is the moral of the story that state-building, at least on an ambitious scale, is a contradiction in terms, best abandoned lest one raise expectations which cannot be satisfied? The only alternative conclusion is that halfway measures won't work.  A recent report by the International Crisis Group sharply criticizes the vast U.N. mission in South Sudan  for focusing on "the extension of state authority" rather than the tougher and more confrontational job of demanding accountability for state abuses and protecting civilians. Of course, the regime would have resisted, and U.N. headquarters might have ordered the mission to back off.

Perhaps the only way outside powers could have prevented South Sudan's leaders from making ruinous choices is to have made the choices for them. A U.N. "transitional administration" might have offered the South Sudanese desperately needed training in governance and slowly introduced its fighters to the uses of political authority. That system worked quite well in East Timor, though not so well in Kosovo, which spent over a decade in what felt like an infuriating tutelage. It has never even been attempted on a scale as large as South Sudan. I wonder if the world has the stomach for a heroic exercise in benevolent neo-colonialism.

The goal right now, however, is to stop the atrocities. The mass killing and rape in the town of Bentiu last month was coordinated by rebel commanders using a radio station to urge Nuers to target Dinka and other non-Nuer civilians. That, as the U.N. report noted, is an ominous sign redolent of Rwanda. Kiir and Machar have agreed to meet in Addis Ababa, but both men have ignored past agreements. Right now, South Sudan faces the very real possibility of both mass sectarian killing and a famine which could rival that which killed millions in Ethiopia 30 years ago -- all less than three years from that blissful celebration of shared sacrifice. If anyone emerges a winner, it's Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir.

The sanctions announced by Obama are unlikely to have much effect, though they may help galvanize the U.N. Security Council to impose more sweeping punishments. If anyone can intercede effectively, it's probably South Sudan's neighbors. An East African regional group, IGAD, played the key role in crafting the 2005 pact, and has worn out much diplomatic shoe leather since then trying to keep the agreement on track. IGAD officials have spoken of assembling a peacekeeping force, though that would be many months off.

South Sudan is not a story of neglect -- quite the opposite. The United States, Britain, Norway, the U.N., and a number of states in East Africa, have all done what they can to care for this feeble infant. It hasn't been enough. There may be no enough. Preventing mass starvation and mass slaughter in South Sudan may be the best the world can do.

Correction, May 12, 2014: South Sudanese President Salva Kiir is from the Dinka ethnic group. Former South Sudanese Vice President Riek Machar is from the Nuer ethnic group. An earlier version of this article mistakenly reversed the ethnic affiliations. (Return to reading.)