“The surest way to work up a crusade in favor of some good cause is to promise people they will have a chance of maltreating someone. To be able to destroy with good conscience, to be able to behave badly and call your bad behavior ‘righteous indignation.’ This is the height of psychological luxury, the most delicious of moral treats.” – Aldous Huxley, Crome Yellow
It’s hard for a horror movie to be truly surprising these days. I’m not even talking about sequels and artificially-extended franchises, either. Even wholly “original” films in recent years – and we’ve had some great ones – seem more comfortable playing around within the conventions and tropes of old subgenres rather than truly upending anything. Nothing wrong with that! It’s just a testament to the degree of difficulty in genuinely subverting the “rules” of a ghost thriller or a slasher or a violent shock film.
The zombie apocalypse thriller has been particularly disinclined to break any rules lately. It may actually be my least favorite kind of horror, which is odd, considering Night of the Living Dead is my favorite scary movie of all time. But that one stone-cold masterpiece birthed a subgenre that has spent the decades since indulging our worst instincts. Supplanting racist “savage invaders” stories that captivated imperial powers for over a century before slowly-but-surely falling out of favor after the end of World War II, the ostensibly terrifying zombie apocalypse nearly always conveniently takes the form of a sadistic anarchic playground rewarding people’s homicidal impulses without the baggage of dealing with the consequences of brutally killing someone (because they’re undead, y’see… they’re not “real” people).
Somehow, these mindless, fragile, decaying, slow-moving, easily killable zombies are always able to overrun the entire world, break down societal stability, and force the remaining survivors to adopt macho Only The Strong Survive attitudes. Zombies are the cannon fodder, but the worst of the worst always end up being either whatever government remains or some seemingly stable human society that is actually secretly monstrous. No one can be trusted, kindness is deadly, and the best thing to do is become a hard-nosed loner (with maybe the occasional helpless woman to protect) who indiscriminately kills formerly-human undead who can’t possibly be cured. That’s not a horror premise, that’s a fairy tale for my paranoid libertarian uncle.
What a small miracle, then, that I came across Herd. This low-budget independent film, armed with only a slow-burn festival rollout and a special SAG-AFTRA exception agreement to promote itself, is the most refreshing take on this seemingly played-out genre I’ve seen in many years. I have to be as vague as possible in explaining why, because I don’t want to spoil the surprises that make this film so unique, but in big ways and small, writer/director Steven Pierce and co-writer James Allerdyce approach the expected tropes of the zombie apocalypse thriller and keep breaking them in this film.
Jamie (Ellen Adair) very reluctantly goes on a
camping trip desperate attempt to rekindle her failing relationship with Alex (Mitzi Akaha) out in the woods, and when it becomes clear that the initial spark of their romance won’t be reignited in the isolation of nature, Alex loses her temper and makes a decision that is both very stupid and completely understandable in the context of her situation. From there, the complications and threats to Jamie and Alex’s predicament mercilessly pile up, as they have to navigate both a seeming zombie outbreak that occurred while they were out camping and an uneasy alliance with a tight-knit community of rural doomsday preppers seemingly a little too ready for this collapsing state of the world.
If you’re thinking, “Ah, okay, so this is going to be about how humans are the Real Monsters™ in a zombie apocalypse,” you wouldn’t be wrong… but that does not tell the whole story about what the movie ultimately reveals itself to be, either. Because Herd constantly denies us simple moral judgments and easy catharsis. The leader of this dangerous pseudo-militia Jamie and Alex find themselves caught up in, Big John (Jeremy Holm), is a character equally capable of brutality and compassion, and a great deal of suspense is derived from these complicated character dynamics. Jamie has a particularly fraught connection with this community, which is built up throughout a series of flashbacks and portentous inferences from Jamie herself as something that will culminate in a big explosive confrontation… that doesn’t work out that way when it finally comes. So we’re just left with the same feelings of ambivalence and disappointment as Jamie as she wonders, in a way I think a lot of us with painful parental relationships will be all too familiar with, “Okay, now what? How do I move on?”
The final half-hour of Herd is driven entirely by our vested interest in a character’s decision to do something that in every other zombie movie would be condemned as foolhardy. These are twists on old formulas that result in something bolder than what a conventional studio zombie movie would ever feel comfortable running with.
On top of its novel storytelling choices, the movie is also an impressive example of how far a resourceful filmmaker can take a modest budget. This is not a production that can afford to stage citywide destruction, but in Pierce’s hands, it doesn’t have to. He understands that he doesn’t need to put the whole entire world in jeopardy to put us on the edge of our seats. Caring about the fate of Jamie and Alex within the closed-off environments they find themselves in is what actually matters here, and that’s what makes the film work arguably better than any end-of-the-world stakes possibly could.
Herd is not a perfect movie. The seams of its modest budget do start to show during the climax, which takes place inside a town that appears a little too conveniently empty even in the midst of a raging pandemic. Despite the film’s admirable refusal to present us with easy character judgments and archetypes, this isn’t extended to an underdeveloped rival militia that very conveniently wears all-black tactical gear and full face masks in a rare moment of dehumanization. Speaking of convenience, Jamie also has a habit of talking to herself in a way that just so happens to deliver helpful exposition to the audience.
But these are minor blemishes in a movie that upends the juvenile misanthropy of dreck like The Walking Dead and sidesteps the indulgent brutality of ordinary zombie thrillers like Resident Evil: Welcome to Racoon City to deliver something more thoughtful, unsettling, and intense from this well-worn genre. Herd, better than any other zombie movie I’ve seen in the last twenty years, understands that if the undead overrun your town and seemingly cause societal collapse, the greatest threat to your life in that situation isn’t the undead (since the zombies, by themselves, are not actually all that scary and in the real world could easily be taken out by random predators in the wild).
It’s the people who have been secretly looking forward to that resulting collapse we all need to worry about.