FrightFest 2023: Zombie Horror ‘Herd’ Waxes Political

Image courtesy of Strike Media/FrightFest

I’ve been talking for a while now about some post-Covid horror films emerging in the indie film scene. Some have been good, and some have not. Regardless, films like these are a golden opportunity for indie writers and directors to find easy story conflict and use limited locations to craft truly haunting and disturbing portrayals of human behavior. When I first saw the poster for Herd, a cracked skull with the stripes of the American flag shining through, I was immediately drawn to it. I mean, this idea basically writes itself. A zombie film by way of personal politics, Herd readdresses the pandemic from a different angle, casting an air of ambiguity over the limited information given in the early days of the pandemic and how it was processed differently throughout the country.

The american flag can be seen on a skull with a crack on its left side on the Herd poster
Image courtesy of Strike Media/FrightFest

Introducing us to the rocky marriage between Jamie and Alex (Archive 81’s Ellen Adair and Mitzi Akaha) as they set out for a weeklong canoe trip, the audience sees the suburban home life of the couple. Things may not be okay with the couple, but getting out into nature may be the cure. Like so many of us locked inside for nearly two years, isolating in different locations became how we kept our sanity. Nature was the most accessible outlet, providing space safe enough to distance, sometimes without seeing another human. That can be a gift and a curse. Things take a turn once the couple gets into a fight on their trip downstream. I’d love to tell you that this is where Herd becomes the second River Wild remake of the year, but instead, it triggers an accident that leaves Alex hurt and acts as the catalyst to get Jamie and her partner back to the closed-minded town where Jamie grew up.

Jamie and Alex’s initial run-in with the locals is one of Herd’s most chaotic scenes. The perspective of Jamie and Alex is that they’re being shot at by some psychopath for no reason, unaware of the outbreak uncontained in the area as they search for help down a rural dirt road. Running into Big John Gruber (The Ranger’s Jeremy Holm), he’s able to corral his deputy into dropping his gun as he attempts to sort out Jamie and Alex’s presence in the town when someone from Jamie’s past recognizes and vouches for the women, granting them passage to the local clinic. Since the outbreak, the clinic had become a neutral ground between two quickly formed warring militias in the area, Big John’s group and Sterling’s (Broil’s Timothy V. Murphy) group. Jamie and Alex become sucked into a struggle for dominance of the ungoverned area. 

My initial expectations of the film were aligned with the similar prowesses of human-on-human conflict rather than human versus zombie violence, similar to what The Walking Dead or The Last of Us captured. I don’t think that’s an outlandish guess based on post-Covid filmmaking. That’s pretty much just the history of zombie films and, as far as I’m concerned, the most accessible connection to make when a society faces a plague. And, with a name like Herd, there will always be a flock of like-minded individuals leeching off the unflinching and deemed necessary actions of whoever assumes control in these situations.

Big John stands in front of the camera
Image courtesy of Strike Media/FrightFest

The thing about Herd is that it’s filled with shades of gray. Big John and his cohorts were able to save Jamie and Alex, but who were they protecting them from exactly? Given later events in the film, these women may not have had anything to fear, but fear was instilled into them, giving them the paranoia to react instead of understand. Also, bringing Jamie and Alex to Big John’s compound only further jeopardizes their lives as Sterling’s militia plans to usurp Big John and take charge of his domain.  

Throughout their time with Big John’s militia, Jamie and Alex are treated kindly, even if their status as lovers draws the eyes of disapproving individuals. The bigotry can be seen in the curt cutoff of a mother telling her son not to engage with Jamie and Alex, which we can further assume led to a stern talking to. Director Steven Pierce attempts to meld the ideas that even if we don’t understand each other, people aren’t entirely bad, but in providing similar apprehension around the “Southern hospitality” of Newson (Brandon James Ellis) who, non-consentingly, rubs the shoulders or touches the women fills the atmosphere with creepiness instead of a Mason-Dixon line misunderstanding. Newsom acts as if he’s the cure for what ails the Queer couple, which translates more to a chauvinist ineptitude over anything else. One additional culture clash concerning a young boy with a rifle also exists, but to talk about it beyond that would likely spoil the movie’s best scene.  

Jamie’s story, having escaped this town and its people many years ago, also helps serve up a somewhat detached history between her and her judgmental father, played by Corbin Bernsen (Major League), whom she fell out with because of his prejudices before leaving the town for good. Bernsen’s presence in the film is minimal, and this storyline fails to pack a punch, though actress Ellen Adair does her best with an emotionally weighty scene. But if Pierce and co-writer James Allerdyce want us to understand that the past is part of our story by the end, one wonders why the connection between Jamie and her father, and how it bleeds into her relationship with Alex, is the film’s weakest link. 

A Zombie with blisters all over its face with it's mouth open in Herd
Image courtesy of Strike Media/FrightFest

The question horror fans are going to find themselves asking during Herd is: where are all the zombies? While the film is a ninety-six-minute essay on city-based outsiders understanding rural American politics, the threat seems to outweigh the reality. And that’s sort of the point. With hindsight, I would guess most people would consider the reaction to Covid was heavy-handed. However, hindsight was a luxury the US, or any country, didn’t have in the early days of the pandemic, particularly in the major cities where the global death toll was insurmountably high. New York City hospitals could not keep up with the number of patients, let alone the bodies overfilling their morgues, where refrigerated trucks were implemented to store excess bodies.  

Pierce and Allerdyce’s metaphor calls for patience above anything else. Just because this may not have been the case in the more rural areas didn’t mean it wasn’t the case elsewhere. Herd transposes the cases, creating a Mad Max world in the smaller community who are quick to pick up arms against the infected, exacerbating a bad situation by being unable to comply with a governmental request, leading to absolute chaos.  

I give Pierce and Allerdyce a lot of credit for the subtext in Herd’s story. The ensemble cast also goes hard to give their all in the film. But whether you’re a leftist or a right winger doesn’t matter because the film itself doesn’t go hard enough into either opposing viewpoint to provide any fantastic sense of political drama. Herd is a fine and fascinating watch that will create many musings worthy of discussion. Still, there’s not enough tension created beyond a few individual scenes that make Herd enjoyable for anyone on either side of the aisle. Zombie movies have always come with their share of commentaries, and Herd isn’t any different. Yet it wants so badly to toe the line in moderate fashion and, as a result, becomes a perplexing middle-of-the-road film. 

Herd held its world premiere at FrightFest on Saturday, August 26. The film will be released in the UK on October 23 from High Fliers Films. 

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Written by Sean Parker

Living just outside of Boston, Sean has always been facinated by what horror can tell us about contemporary society. He started writing music reviews for a local newspaper in his twenties and found a love for the art of thematic and symbolic analysis. Sean joined Horror Obsessive at it's inception, and is currently the site's Creative Director. He produces and edits the weekly Horror Obsessive podcast for the site as well as his interviews with guests. He has recently started his foray into feature film production as well, his credits include Alice Maio Mackay's Bad Girl Boogey, Michelle Iannantuono's Livescreamers, and Ricky Glore's upcoming Troma picture, Sweet Meats.

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