When Jamie and Alex go on a camping trip in the American backwoods, they think they’ll return home with their marriage saved and the tragedy that haunts them in the rear-view mirror. What they don’t realise is that a virus is sweeping across the state, turning people into ulcerated zombies. When Alex gets injured, they’re forced to make a choice: face the dead, or trust the gun-toting, god-fearing survivors who rescue them.
This is Herd. And director Steven Pierce isn’t afraid to lean on the hallmarks that define the zombie canon. There is the tension between liberal and conservative values, and the reality that rural communities are better equipped for the apocalypse (a theme that can be traced all the way back to Bram Stoker’s Dracula). There is the dead, of course, who are something between the shufflers made famous by Lucio Fulci and George A. Romero, and the sprinting berserkers from the likes of 28 Days Later and Train to Busan. There is also the 21st century phenomenon of favouring character arcs and relationships — the Last of Us series being the gold standard — over the guts and splatter of classics like Braindead and Return of the Living Dead. It’s undeniable that Pierce knows the genre and its evolution inside-out, but a lack of pace and character depth never allows any of these elements to truly shine. It’s not all bad, though.
Perhaps Herd’s most interesting quirk (and most redeeming feature) is how its zombies elect not to attack unless they’re provoked. Like I Am Legend, Day of the Dead and Colson Whitehead’s Zone One, granting zombies sentience makes it more difficult to ‘other’ them, which shines a brighter light on the theme of societal division — whether that’s the division between rural and urban, religious and secular, the disenfranchised and the privileged, and the living and the dead. This implores us to ask the most important question at the heart of every great zombie fable: Who are the real monsters, them or us? And, almost always, the answer is the latter.
Does this mean Herd sits among the greats? Sadly not. Ultimately, it’s an unremarkable addition to what’s quickly becoming horror’s most overcrowded subgenre. But has it done enough to delight the diehards? Just about. Plus, it does offer us something almost every other zombie film does not: hope. Just don’t expect it to turn the fair-weather fans or sceptics.
DIGITAL & DVD
23 October 2023