Sunday 3 September 2023

Herd (USA 2023: Dir Steven Pierce)

Pierce's astonishing debut feature - partly because it is his first full movie and also because it deftly folds the concerns of 21st century USA into an excellent zombie/infection flick - centres around a very human story.

Jamie (Ellen Adair) and her wife Alex (Mitzi Akaha) are going through some tough times. As well as the ongoing estrangement from Jamie's family because of her being gay (particularly her father Robert, who has violently ostracised her from the family) - in contrast to Alex's more comfortable 'fuck 'em' approach - both have to contend with the recent loss of their daughter during childbirth. Memories of both these events flicker in and out of Jamie's memory during the film, a constant reminder of the pain which will be added to during the course of the movie.

Alex's suggestion of a get-away-from-it-all camping and canoeing trip is met warily by Jamie, particularly as the destination is perilously close to her father's town, but they leave the city anyway, ill advisedly as it turns out; a viral outbreak is spreading through the population - emanating from the southern States seemingly - turning the infected into rampant zombies. To the city dwellers the threat seems slight and faraway: but after a boat accident, in which Alex sustains serious wounds, has them picked up by a group of men and returned to a base camp established in preparation for zombie attack, the pair realise the danger is real and very imminent.

Herd's power lies in the fact that the threat of the infected is equal to that of the organised, self elected bodies of men (and make no mistake, the men are in charge here) who have assembled ranks to deal both with the zombies and the frighteningly organised, uniformed 'rednecks' who are exploiting the chaos for their own purposes. That this scenario could exist at all is frightening in its own right; that these groups arrive almost pre-formed is sharp political comment; constant mentions of being 'proud' are not lost on us.

The irony of Jamie and Alex's situation is that not only are they under the protection of a group of people who would clearly have a massive problem with the pair being a couple (a fact they must keep secret), but the location to which they are taken is Jamie's father's facility; she has been delivered straight back into the place from which she originally managed to escape. We do not need to see her father - who, Kurtz like, remains behind closed doors - to understand the prejudice and potential violence simmering within a community where gun ownership is sacrosanct, and even 10 year old boys are expectedly to confidently bear arms.

Through it all Adair and Ahaka are tremendous as the couple under duress. Pierce establishes a very real and believable world into which the pair must battle to stay alive and preserve the love between them. The director may deliver a redemptive ending, but it's also one that carries more than a bittersweet note. Brilliant.

Herd played at London's FrightFest on Saturday 26 August 2023.

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