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

Wednesday, October 25, 2023 | Interviews


Currently available on digital and cable VOD platforms from Dark Sky Films, HERD is one of the best modern entries in the zombie/infected genre. Below is the continuation of RUE MORGUE’s interview with writer/director/producer Steven Pierce, writer/producer James Allerdyce and stars Ellen Adair and Mitzi Akaha, conducted following a special screening of HERD at New York Comic Con; you can read the first part here.

HERD stars Adair and 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. See our review of HERD here.

Ellen and Mitzi, how was it working with the makeup effects?

ELLEN ADAIR: I didn’t work with them–I mean, on my own body. It was incredible to watch, though, and to get to work opposite such excellent effects. Mitzi actually worked with those on her own body.

MITZI AKAHA: I get pretty beaten up in this movie, as you’ll recall! You’ll hear actors talk about how wardrobe is the first step to discovering who their character is, right? And similarly, having even a fake gash on your body, and fake blood, it’s so easy to trick yourself into thinking, “I’m cut open and I’m bleeding,” which feeds into your performance. The leg break, for instance, was very upsetting for me to look at, so it was very easy to react to that, to almost feel physical pain, because ultimately your brain is responding partly to the idea of the injury. So yeah, it aided so much.

[SPOILERS in the next couple of paragraphs…]

In terms of Alex’s progression into a hep, I really enjoyed that process of, on a scale of zero to 10, where am I? How is my body affected at this point? We’re talking about a sort of rigor mortis, a level of stiffness in physical movement. That was really fun to play with. And then acting opposite Chadwick Sutton, the hep at the end of the movie, who’s a dear friend of mine and a fantastic actor, and was completely transformed by his makeup. The effects in general were so effective that it was very easy to succumb to this false reality.

STEVEN PIERCE: Mitzi is a very physical performer, and I’m always drawn to movement-based actors, because I believe in the energy and the moments your body generates–not just what you say, but what your body language says. Because I believe that’s how people read each other, you know? Half of what you’re feeling is not delivered through what you say, it’s how you say it, and that’s so much of the story in HERD. And when you talk about zombies as far as performance, it’s easy to dismiss–like, they’re just going to wander and grunt and limp through the scenes–and that wasn’t our approach at all.

There are three featured heps in our film that are real characters, and Chadwick’s is one of them. And then Steve Isom, who’s an incredible theater actor. I’ve known him for close to 20 years, and he performs a lot in St. Louis and the Midwest. He plays the big hep right in the middle of the film, the office sequence. And then there was Matt Mundy, one of the producers, who was actually our “hep whisperer.” He would teach everybody the movement, the vocalizations. We would have classes for all the background actors, and he worked with everyone.

It was very important for those heps who are characters that they all had a backstory. Even though it’s a simplified version of what they’re pursuing, they’re all after something that has stakes in life and death. And they had to do all that with no dialogue; they were making noises and looking and turning and moving, how they close the distance, how fast, the direction they move–whether they go in directly or in kind of a winding path. All that tells a story, so it was important that we had very strong actors playing the zombies–which is sort of an odd thing to think about, but it was extremely crucial.

One of the great things about HERD is it works so well even for the lengthy scenes when the zombies aren’t on screen. But were you ever concerned that hardcore genre fans might not get enough of what they want in terms of the zombie action?

JAMES ALLERDYCE: We had a lot of talks about that. We were always concerned, because we want everyone to feel satisfied and get all the scares and the things they’re looking for when they watch a movie like this. We did have more zombie scenes scripted, but at the end of the day, Steve and I write for the characters, and what’s happening to them. We didn’t want to just place in jump scares or more zombies for the sake of putting more zombies in. It always had to be motivated by the people and their journey and what they’re going through.

PIERCE: Yeah, there’s the famous George Lucas quote about making a film: It’s never the best thing, it’s the best thing you can do under the circumstances, to paraphrase it terribly. But we were limited by the budget and the schedule and what we could do within those. When you boil it down, I’m very proud of this film, because it has a voice. It has a clear vision of what we’re trying to do and the story we’re trying to tell. Yes, we really wish we could have those two sequences in there, but it just wasn’t in the cards. We could have had those and lost the reason for telling this story, the mission of the film, or we could sacrifice those. We made a calculated decision that this is what mattered to us as artists, and we lived with it, and I stand by it.

In closing, could you each say what HERD means to you personally?

PIERCE: This film, for me, is an examination of how groupthink and being in a group under dire circumstances can cause good people to do bad things with incremental small decisions. It’s stuff I’ve seen in my life that has happened to my friends and family and, to certain degrees in certain instances, to me as well. It’s about examining whether your first approach to someone who is different from you is to condemn and push them away, or if it’s to say, “I accept you for who you are,” and then try to understand their viewpoint.

ALLERDYCE: I’ll echo that, and say that I think the movie has two sides. It has the big world that has to do with our zombies and our militia and everything, and then it has the interpersonal world of our main characters. One of the movie’s early working titles was SPIRAL, and that got used for some other film, but we wanted to show how fast things can spiral out of control, particularly in a small town and an isolated community. And where the characters and their relationships are concerned, HERD, like so many other horror films, is about trauma and trying to run away from your past, but having to go through that past. Jamie gets brought back to her hometown, and the way out is to resolve some of that trauma.

ADAIR: For me, the overarching story of HERD is very much to the point of what Steven and James have already said: It’s about the human tendency to divide instead of unite in the face of adversity. And it’s also about the othering of a different group of people, which is why it’s incredibly important that a queer couple is at the center of the story, because of obviously the othering of the queer community that so often happens in this country. And then there’s Jamie’s experience of the community that she grew up in and putting herself at arm’s length from them, not really seeing their humanity. Granted, it’s because of her own experience being thrown out by her father and therefore judging everybody else there as being not accepting of who she is. But nevertheless, it is still a judgment, in the way she says, “These people and me, we don’t have anything in common.”

Obviously, there are any number of ways that people are sort of split into factions in this movie, including the fact that the heps are not really zombies but just infected people. They’re like the ultimate other in this story, but this film shows that they are not the type of other that many zombie films show them to be.

AKAHA: HERD makes a statement about how in times of great duress, people tend to turn on each other, and they think they’re actually doing the best possible thing for their people, but they’re inadvertently hurting each other. One of the more important things the movie says for me is that we ultimately choose where we draw borders. These kinds of borders are abstracts; they are all completely fabricated. And the more afraid you are, the more you tend to enclose yourself further with more and more borders so that you can only invite people in who are essentially replicas of yourself, which is no way to live. We have so much more freedom to choose how life is lived, and who we include in that, than we think we do.

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).