Inevitably, the zombie outbreak picture had to take on board the events of 2020-21 – and Herd, directed by Steven Pierce (who also co-wrote with James Allerdyce), draws on some key lessons from the pandemic period, while also engaging with the rightwards-drifting survivalist apocalypse gun-porn element of the Living Dead sub-genre which set in some years after George Romero’s trilogy and is perhaps most notably embodied in video game shoot-the-zombie quickies and The Walking Dead. It doesn’t go full anti-vaxx/anti-mask and have folks claim the virus is a hoax or that taking even elementary precautions is a violation of their constitutional rights, but I can bet a film which features those twists is already in the works. A key, uncomfortable element here is characters who take their idea of the rules of an epidemic from zombie movies and go full shoot ‘em in the brain before it’s even established that the infected are a) dangerous (here, they only react when threatened) or b) incurable. The cliché of the character concealing a scratch and probable infection is trotted out, and we remember all the assholes in films like the Dawn of the Dead remake who did that and turn out to be disastrous menaces … only, if you reset your understanding to zero, wouldn’t you keep quiet and hope for a vaccine jab when rednecks are going around performing summary executions of folk who presently don’t even have the sniffles?
Jamie Miller (Ellen Adair) and Alex Kanai (Mitzi Akaha) ignore news reports of a developing epidemic and take a canoe trip to sort out their troubled relationship – Jamie is haunted by her upbringing, which involved being terrorised by her homophobic farmer Dad (Corbin Bernsen), and also more recent trauma … while Alex just wants to talk and talk and does stupid things when she doesn’t get her way, like upending a canoe and breaking her leg (badly). The pair limp onto the road and encounter a couple of gun-toters – Bernie (Brandon James Ellis) and Tater (Jeremy Lawson) – who are gunning down stumbling, boil-faced infectees. These rednecks are in a community headed by not-unsympathetic Big John (Jeremy Holm), headquartered in the old Miller farm, where Jamie’s Dad is thought of as a great guy … and a more organised militia (they have better vehicles and uniforms) led by Sterling (Timothy V. Murphy) is skirmishing with the crew over the dwindling supplies of food, meds and ammo. Even without the sick people (‘heps’), things are pretty dire – though Pierce presents less of a caricature of small town folk that Romero does, in that Big John’s gang may make a lot of mistakes and embody some prejudices which make Jamie cringe but also have a sense of community (they play music together and pitch in to help out) the city folk slightly envy.
Note how Bernie (very well played by Ellis) comes on as a big good-natured lunk but bristles when a woman shows any signs of competence. He makes several big mistakes through ego and never owns up or accepts consequences. Tactics like giving a kid a gun and telling him to shoot whoever comes through a door work out more as they would do in real life than as they did in previous zombie movies. In many ways, this is a sustained critique of the last twenty years of zombie apocalypse cinema – but it’s possibly more significantly a clear-eyed look at the shortcomings of that fabled ‘well-regulated militia’ in a crisis along with a relatively unforced assessment of that tendency to ramp paranoia up to eleven and make things worse.
Herd had its World Premiere at FrightFest 2023, UK home ent. release follows on 23rd October 2023 (High Fliers)