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Spooked Official Bans Work On Horror Film In Southern Russia's 'City Of The Dead'

The remote Alanian necropolis near Dargavs is comprised of nearly 100 crypts with peaked rooftops and open tombs that contain thousands of bones from collective burials.

DARGAVS, Russia -- A Moscow-based film company has dropped its plans to shoot a low-budget horror thriller at the village of Dargavs near a fabled medieval necropolis in southern Russia.

That's because a regional administrator in the Republic of North Ossetia-Alania who is responsible for Dargavs' "city of the dead" got spooked by the script and has refused to allow the firm to film there.

But Sort Films, the company behind the movie, may have the last howl.

Producer Alla Efremova says her location scouts have already shot enough footage of the necropolis for the film, which is tentatively titled City Of The Dead. She says the rest of the $1 million production will be filmed "somewhere else" in the Caucasus.

Legend From The City Of The Dead

The remote Alanian necropolis near Dargavs is comprised of nearly 100 crypts with peaked rooftops and open tombs that contain thousands of bones from collective burials.

Dating at least as far back as the 14th century, the stone crypts are arranged like a small town on a hillside overlooking the Midagrabindon River and surrounded by the Caucasus Mountains.

In the nearby village, local superstitions and legends abound.

One holds that those who dare to walk on the hallowed burial ground can never return alive.

Other tales invariably link the necropolis to plague outbreaks that decimated the population around Dargavs over the centuries.

Efremova tells RFE/RL that the central theme of the 90-minute, English-language feature film comes from a legend that an old man in the village told to her location scouts when they first visited Dargavs in 2015.

According to that legend, Efremova says, the city of the dead was built to accommodate victims of a plague unleashed by ancient "gods" who were angered by the way villagers treated a young woman there centuries ago.

The legend says the woman enchanted all of the men in Dargavs with her beauty, prompting deadly brawls and calls for village elders to decide who should marry her.

The village elders realized the enchantress was the source of deadly conflict, Efremova says. But they also fell in love with her and were too jealous to vanquish her because they didn't want a man from another village to marry her. Their solution, so the legend goes, was to put her to death -- a decision that brought a dark curse upon Dargavs.

Efremova describes her movie as a "mystical horror thriller" set in modern times when two travel-blogging American couples visit Dargavs without any notion of its supernatural curse or the bloodcurdling terrors about to befall them.

"No zombies, we swear!"
"No zombies, we swear!"

'Not On Our Territory'

Valery Kubalov, the director of North Ossetia's National Museum, was reluctant when Sort Films asked him earlier this year for permission to film in the village and at the burial site -- which both fall under his administrative jurisdiction as part of a 17-kilometer swath of land designated as an open-air museum.

"They were strange people with unclear intentions and they will not shoot movies like that on our territory," Kubalov told RFE/RL. "I asked them to show me the script and they sent me a draft version. It was based on a tale that was told to them by a village resident during their earlier visit. I reprimanded that man later for this."

"He told them a totally fictitious story that casts Ossetians in an unfavorable light," Kubalov explained. "I told them to change the script and then we could continue our talks. They changed it, but the new version also was questionable -- so I refused them permission."

Efremova, who describes herself as "half-Ossetian, born in Moscow," says she is preparing a formal letter to North Ossetia's regional government and its Culture Ministry to demand an investigation. "This is an international project and it was a big chance for Ossetia to be represented in the international film market," she says.

Yelizaveta Florentyeva, a Sort Films employee who visited North Ossetia recently in a failed attempt to salvage the proposed filming there, says one of the primary objectives of the movie is "to show Russia as it is to a Western audience, not the way Western filmmakers depict it."

"We wanted to show Ossetia with its own distinct culture, nature, and history," Forentyeva says.

"This is censorship," Efremova says, adding that it is highly unusual for a local administrator to be allowed to edit a feature-film script. "There are many things we wanted in the script that they wanted us to cut," she adds. "First and foremost, they wanted us to cut out the legend that forms the central theme."

"Our movie is not historical. It's a fictional feature film," she adds. "But they've said that it we don't cut this legend from the script, they will do everything they can to prevent us from filming there."

'Not A Zombie Film'

Florentyeva says plans to film in North Ossetia were ultimately undermined by a social-media campaign launched during the past week after it became clear to Kubalov that the filmmakers would not delete the legend from the script.

She says a series of social-media posts were made by "detractors" who'd obviously received details leaked from the draft script that had been sent to Kubalov.

"They made statements that misrepresented the story line" and fueled a scandal in North Ossetia over concerns that a 'zombie film' would be made at the 'sacred' burial ground," Florentyeva says. "They presented our project in a negative light and made further negotiations impossible."

Despite plot similarities to Sam Raimi's 1981 supernatural horror film Evil Dead, and a title resembling Lucio Fulci's 1980 Italian zombie film City Of The Living Dead, Efremova insists that her movie is "not a zombie film."

But she's not waiting for a response to the letter she is sending to North Ossetia's regional government in Vladikavkaz. Her team has already identified alternative locations outside of North Ossetia where they can shoot village scenes and dramatic action.

She says there are many other places in the Caucasus where the natural surroundings look similar to those around Dargavs and where her production will be welcomed.

Alternative possibilities include locations in other parts of southern Russia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Georgia's breakaway region of Abkhazia.

She says such footage can easily be edited together with usable test footage that her location scouts managed to film at the picturesque necropolis during their previous visits to Dargavs.

But ultimately, Efremova says, her production team must decide whether all specific references to Dargavs and to North Ossetia should be dropped from the dialogue in the script.

Written and reported by Ron Synovitz in Prague with additional reporting by Alina Alikhanova in North Ossetia