Select Page

Exclusive Interview: The team behind the superior zombie horror/drama “HERD,” Part One

Monday, October 23, 2023 | Interviews


Amidst the innumerable movies about zombies/infected people overtaking rural parts of America, the recently released HERD stands out. Now available on digital and cable VOD platforms from Dark Sky Films, it’s the creation of a talented team of filmmakers and actors, four of whom spoke to RUE MORGUE following a special screening at New York Comic Con.

Ellen Adair and Mitzi Akaha star as Jamie and Alex, a married couple on a vacation into the Midwestern area where Jamie grew up–one which she’s been reluctant to revisit. An accident leaves Alex injured and the duo stranded in a remote area overrun by the bloodthirsty victims of a rage-inducing virus, and they’re rescued by militia leader Big John Gruber (THE RANGER and BROOKLYN 45’s Jeremy Holm), who takes them to a compound where he and other survivors have holed up. Jamie doesn’t trust the group to look kindly on her and Alex’s relationship, which means there’s conflict beyond the threat posed by both the infected (known as “heps”) outside. We talked to writer/director/producer Steven Pierce, writer/producer James Allerdyce, Adair and Akaha about HERD, which we previously reviewed here.

Where did the inspiration come from to combine the infected/zombie genre and a drama about militias? How did those two ideas come together for you?

STEVEN PIERCE: James and I always try to make our films entertaining, but we also say to ourselves when we’re writing a script, why does this story need to be told? So the genesis of HERD started with the character of Jamie, and it was sort of inspired by my experiences coming from the country. Now, having literally lived half my life in rural Missouri and the other half in big cities, I feel sort of caught in between. Like, when I go home, I don’t really fit in there anymore; I’m viewed as sort of an outsider. But in the city, I was still kind of a country bumpkin, or at least that’s how I feel. That was the initial idea for Jamie: somebody caught between these two worlds. Then, once we started going into that world and exploring that, we found many more layers.

How did you develop the story out of that? And also, the idea to have a somewhat sympathetic depiction of the militia characters, who in many other films would just be painted as villains.

JAMES ALLERDYCE: It has always been very important for Steve and I to write characters who aren’t two-dimensional, and aren’t going to fall into a lot of the tropes for characters and storylines that happen in all kinds of movies, and definitely in horror films a lot. We wanted to make sure we showed that these are real people under extraordinary circumstances, and that a lot of them are very well-meaning and trying to do the right thing, but they have been led to this place and these circumstances.

PIERCE: It was also important to show that there’s a lot of dismissal that happens on both sides of the coin. In particular, Jamie wants to dismiss these [militia] people as being just redneck idiots, and obviously there are some people there who have laid a judgment on her that makes her feel like she doesn’t belong in that world. It was crucial to us to recognize that these people are human, and that the decisions they make happen incrementally, especially whenever you get into a group. That’s what we wanted to explore with the militia aspect: that these are not crazy rednecks you can just dismiss. They are real people who are fighting for what they believe their family needs.

Ellen and Mitzi, can you talk about your approach to your characters and developing your onscreen relationship together?

ELLEN ADAIR: When I read the script, I had an immediate recognition of where the character of Jamie lives inside of me. I felt like I already knew who she was. And I feel like the process of personalization, which is particularly important for on-camera work, involves figuring out a map of the character’s…I could say history or I could say soul, depending upon how spiritually you want to talk about it, and figuring out how to line up the holes in the character’s soul with the holes in your own. I was able to kind of personalize Jamie’s history in a few different ways, not using things that are exactly the same from my own life, but looking at where something hurts on Jamie and figuring out where that hurts on me, that kind of thing.

In terms of working with Mitzi, that was the easiest thing in the world. We had a chemistry read together on Zoom, because the entire audition process took place in 2021 during the height of the COVID lockdown. And even in a tiny Zoom box, I was so impressed with her ability and her facility with very complex moments. I was like, number one, I really hope it’s me who gets cast, and I number two, I hope that it’s Mitzi who’s cast with me. And from day one of filming, I was so in love with her, and so excited to just watch her and respond to what she was doing for the rest of the shoot.

MITZI AKAHA: I can second that, absolutely. I was very lucky that Ellen and I had instant chemistry, immediately wanting to jump right into it. And for me personally, Steve said very early on that simply the way I am, I’m Alex, so it didn’t take a lot of shapeshifting to imagine what that meant for the work I would have to do. So it was really about preparing to expose bits of myself that felt very genuine to me, which might be a little less attractive. Because when I’m in the real world, I’m always trying to present the best possible version of myself, though of course there are moments in HERD where it gets a little ugly, and I feel I come across as quite childish at times, and having to let people see that was a very scary thing. Otherwise it was just exercise and listening, because Ellen and I had that great chemistry and I could rely on that, and really communicating with each other and filling in our backstory with a lot of my own lived history that I knew would dig at certain soft spots I have, and otherwise keeping my heart very open.

PIERCE: I will add that Mitzi is a fantastic listening actor. A lot of actors, especially in film and the indie world, work very hard and methodically about what they’re going to do, and with Mitzi it’ll be, whatever you give to her, you’re going to get back. It was kind of funny, because they did that chemistry read across Zoom, and it was an extremely odd experience for them to sit there and pretend to be injured or getting something broken or falling in love across an electronic screen. They were both fantastic, and it was a pleasure to get to work with both of them.

Both of your roles required you to go through a lot of both physically and emotionally grueling scenes on different levels. Can you talk about that side of the production, and any especially memorable moments on that level while shooting the movie?

AKAHA: We had a lot of time to bond in rather uncomfortable situations. One of the first scenes we shot was the one toward the end of the movie, where we’re in the alleyway together. It was very, very cold, and between every take they would come in with this heater and blast us with it, and we had jackets we would stockpile and each other for warmth. That was a very intimate evening for both of us. And then the day of the sandstorm–Ellen, I’ll let you speak about that, because that was mostly your journey.

ADAIR: Yeah, that’s always the first scene I think about. It’s sort of the crossroads scene, when Jamie and Alex have been walking for a while and have their first horrifying brush for civilization. The weather that day, it was like 40-mile-an-hour winds, and actually, I’m so glad about that, and I would change nothing, because it added so much drama to that scene. Our hair was blowing everywhere, while everybody behind the scenes was wearing protective goggles, with hoodies wrapped around their faces, because grit was blowing in our faces the whole time we were trying to film that. I also remember a video where the wind was basically making Macy’s Day Parade floats out of our jackets; like, if you just lifted your jacket up, the wind would completely fill it.

That was a difficult day, also because it’s the sequence where Tater [Jeremy Lawson] is chasing Jamie and Alex with his truck, and we’re trying to get to the RV, assuming that it’s going to mean safety. We shot that a bunch of times, and I was trying to carry Mitzi on one hip and ended up straining my hip flexor on the other side. There’s nothing like shooting an action movie, seriously, but it is definitely physically strenuous.

What went into the conception of the makeup effects?

ALLERDYCE: We wanted the heps, which are so-called because that’s the noise they make, to be based in reality. I remember in early conversations talking about Ebola meets rabies, and we wanted it to be very wet and gross, because it’s a viral thing. These aren’t the living dead; they’re not reanimated corpses, so we explored that from a medical point of view. With really, really sick people, how bad could they get, and what would that look like? Once we started talking to our makeup effects artist, Caitlyn Young, she and I and Steve creatively came up with the boils and pus and all the other wet things.

PIERCE: The way the heps move was designed around the inspiration that they have something akin to a really bad migraine right behind their eyes, so bad they lose any sense of reason. The pain is so bad that they’re trying to find any kind of relief, and so they frequently rub their heads on things, or scratch themselves, trying to relieve the pain or create some secondary sensation to alleviate it, and then there’s blood coming from those scratches. Caitlyn did a fabulous job; she is so talented. You know, we had many pieces designed and pre-built that came in from really good, reputable effects houses, and then we got there and the look wasn’t quite right. They were the right effects, but in the wrong movie; they weren’t based enough in our reality. So Caitlyn basically, in the middle of a Comfort Inn, designed all new styles of boils and wounds, and we were building them overnight. It was incredible to see what she was able to pull off.


Michael Gingold
Michael Gingold (RUE MORGUE's Head Writer) has been covering the world of horror cinema for over three decades, and in addition to his work for RUE MORGUE, he has been a longtime writer and editor for FANGORIA magazine and its website. He has also written for BIRTH.MOVIES.DEATH, SCREAM,, TIME OUT, DELIRIUM, MOVIEMAKER and others. He is the author of the AD NAUSEAM books (1984 Publishing) and THE FRIGHTFEST GUIDE TO MONSTER MOVIES (FAB Press), and he has contributed documentaries, featurettes and liner notes to numerous Blu-rays, including the award-winning feature-length doc TWISTED TALE: THE UNMAKING OF "SPOOKIES" (Vinegar Syndrome).