By MICHAEL GINGOLD
Starring Ellen Adair, Mitzi Akaha and Jeremy Holm
Directed by Steven Pierce
Written by James Allerdyce and Steven Pierce
Dark Sky Films
How good a zombie/infected film is HERD? So good that there’s a long stretch without any zombie/infected action, and you don’t miss it at all.
This should just be made clear at the outset, so that viewers don’t go into HERD expecting nonstop flesheating-ghoul mayhem and bloodshed. It’s not that kind of movie. What it is, is a horror-drama that employs the framework of the subgenre and its traditional themes to potent and timely ends, finding the fear in human nature as well as the danger of the virus-ridden enemy, and rises way above its more simplistic brethren. Countless films have imitated the George A. Romero trilogy, but this is one of the few that truly gets and honors the way his zombie classics tore into the hearts of their characters figuratively as well as literally.
HERD, which goes into limited theatrical (see it on the big screen if you possibly can) and VOD release today, opens with a familiar moment from this kind of movie: A rural dweller, Robert Miller (Corbin Bernsen) is confronted by a shambling, slavering attacker and arms himself in response. His surroundings when he does so indicate that he’s well-prepared for a conflict, and not just a ZA. We next meet his daughter Jamie (Ellen Adair) and her wife Alex (Mitzi Akaha), preparing for a canoe trip during which they’re hoping to patch up their fractious relationship. Except Jamie is clearly reluctant to go, and not just because it will take her back into her dad’s territory. She doesn’t want to confront the problems between herself and Alex, and carefully placed flashbacks gradually reveal the source of those issues, as well as Jamie’s severely troubled family background.
Unfortunately, the couple’s trauma is just beginning. Alex is injured in the course of their trek, and Jamie’s attempt to seek help for her leads them to discover the hard way that a plague has transformed local residents into crazed, pustulent killers. They find sanctuary at a compound run by Big John Gruber (Jeremy Holm from THE RANGER and BROOKLYN 45), and the sequence in which the couple first encounter Big John and a couple of his followers, who then take them to find medical care, confirms that writer/director Steven Pierce and co-scripter James Allerdyce have paid an unusual amount of attention to character. Jamie and Alex have already been well-established as a pair whose love has been stretched to the breaking point, and Big John and the people he presides over are all given distinctive personalities with a tangible history.
They are also a militia, who might be expected to be presented as human villains counterpointing the threat of the infected, but Pierce and Allerdyce are after something more complex. They are all clearly doing what they have to do to survive, and Big John, given a quietly forceful reading by Holm, seems fair-minded in the way he oversees and commands the group. Yet Jamie doesn’t trust them to react positively should they discover that she and Alex are more than friends, which adds extra tension to the circumstances. So do the occasional appearances by Sterling (Timothy V. Murphy), leader of a more militaristic troop of survivors who is not of a mind to negotiate to get what he wants.
Yet even this clear antagonist is not played with obvious villainous strokes. Among other things, HERD is a gripping exploration of people under pressure, and how they adapt and respond in desperate times. A good example is Bernie (Brandon James Ellis), a former classmate of Jamie’s, a good ol’ boy who’s as friendly as can be–until events require him to not be so friendly. The acting by the entire ensemble, which also includes familiar genre face Amanda Fuller, is first-rate, headed and highlighted by Adair, as Jamie must find the strength to protect herself and Alex amidst a life-or-death milieu–in a place that already has most unpleasant associations for her. Midway through HERD, she has a monologue involving her father that’s among the most powerfully dramatic scenes of any horror film in recent memory.
You might have noticed there hasn’t been too much discussion here of the infected themselves, and that’s because, as noted above, they’re not front and center, but rather a catalyst to spark the riveting interactions of their potential victims. When they do appear, they’re properly frightening and gross–kudos to makeup effects creator Caitlyn Young–and also have some unexpected moments, particularly one toward the movie’s end that perfectly encapsulates HERD’s themes. Throughout, Pierce also evinces a strong visual sense both in the details, with some nicely telling visuals in Jamie’s flashbacks, and the big picture, as he and cinematographer Brennan Full transition from harsh daylight to gritty nighttime.
There are elements scattered throughout HERD that directly recall the Romero canon. On a TV, for example, a local governor (Matt Walton) in the tradition of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD’s sheriff and DAWN OF THE DEAD’s televised “experts” delivers advice (one of the rules: “Don’t antagonize the infected”) that makes it clear he knows a lot less about what’s going on than he’d like his viewers to think he does. This is no mere homage, though, but a fully thought-out and very relevant approach to time-honored genre subject matter. Despite its title, HERD is one movie that definitely stands way out in front of the pack.