Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

"It has been 38 years since anything has shaken up the genre quite like Herd." | Photo: courtesy of Frightfest

There are people out there who will shamble into line for every single zombie film that comes along. For others, it’s all getting a little tired. Most of them play out in exactly the same way. We know the rules. We know that there will be misery and sacrifice, with few, if any, survivors. It’s a little too much like real life. Every now and again, however, something different comes along.

It has been 38 years since anything has shaken up the genre quite like Herd.

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One of the most eagerly anticipated films at Frightfest 2023, Steven Pierce’s film begins in a familiar way. A man – Robert – drives down a country road at a hectic pace, generating a cloud of dust. He rushes into his barn, and though he doesn’t notice it, viewers will immediately be fixated on the fact that he has left the door open. He picks up his radio, gets one of those messages advising listeners to await further instructions. A figure appears behind him, lurching unsteadily across the intervening space. You can guess the rest.

Cut to Jamie (Ellen Adair). She’s packing bags but, as it turns out, this isn’t an attempt to flee. Her quiet suburban home doesn’t appear to be under any immediate threat. In fact, she would rather stay there, but Alex (Mitzi Akaha), her wife, has given her an ultimatum. As far as she’s concerned, Jamie has been putting things off for long enough. There may be some worrying stuff about an infection in the news, but the two of them are still going to go on their canoe trip as planned, because this is the last chance they have to save their relationship.

There’s a painful background to Jamie and Alex’s difficulties which emerges piece by piece over the course of the film, not for the sake of complicating the plot so much as explaining Jamie’s stand-offishness and difficulty investing in human connections. She’s also haunted by a difficult relationship with her father, who reacted badly to finding out that she was a lesbian, and this adds to her discomfort on a trip which takes them close to the same backwoods country where she grew up. If there’s one benefit to being out there, it’s the general absence of people. The couple are safe for their first two days on the water. When the canoe tips and Alex suffers a nasty accident, however, they find themselves in desperate need of help.

From here the film proceeds in apparent accordance with form. Narrowly escaping being shot by the first people they meet, the women find their way into a survivors’ colony led by a man called Big John (Jeremy Holm) who remembers Jamie from her youth. They are threatened by a rival local militia, whilst a problem which may be equally serious festers closer to home. This time around, however, there is a difference. From the outset, Jamie is sure that they won’t be accepted by these people if their sexual orientation becomes known. She’s unable to feel secure within the herd, and as such she questions everything. Why do things have to work this way? What if the situation is not what it seems? Even if it is, can there ever really be an excuse for putting guns into the hands of children? Aren’t there times when it’s more useful to have a sensible conversation about de-escalation?

One of the reasons why we don’t see sensible positions taken very often in films like this is that they don’t seem as exciting as shooting and shouting and running about. Civilised values are not as glamorous as fascist ones. The writer/director team of James Allerdyce and Steven Pierce are undaunted by this and build tension on their own terms. The women find themselves with more than one secret to keep, and Jamie’s unwillingness to make the sacrifices that the men see as essential mean that she has something more to fight for than just her own survival. The repeated mantra “I want to go home” carries unexpected weight. This is a film in which people are traumatised not just by what’s happening around them, but by their own violent actions, and Jamie’s determination to maintain a sane perspective makes her into a kind of heroine we rarely see.

There is no shortage of action or scares here. The film delivers on horror, but finds it in a different place; and at the end, looking back, thinking about the other ways in which things could have played out, you may well experience a fresh wave of horror. Herd challenges viewers to think again about what they would do in a situation like this, and to question the ease with which we buy into cinematic narratives and apply them to the world around us. It’s a bold and challenging piece of art which could not be more timely. Let it take you out of your comfort zone.

Reviewed on: 26 Aug 2023
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A couple try to save their failing marriage by taking an isolated canoe trip in rural Missouri. When one of them breaks her leg, they become trapped in a small town affected by a viral outbreak.
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Director: Steven Pierce

Writer: James Allerdyce, Steven Pierce

Starring: Ellen Adair, Mitzi Akaha, Jeremy Holm, Corbin Bernsen

Year: 2023

Runtime: 96 minutes

Country: US


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