Herd (2023) Review
Herd opens on a familiar note. Something unseen moves through a cornfield as a truck races down a dirt road. It comes to a halt and its driver, Robert (Corbin Bernsen, The Russian Bride, Repeater), races into his barn, grabbing a gun and a radio. The radio announcer is broadcasting some kind of warning, but what David should be worried about is the figure shambling up behind him.
Elsewhere Jamie (Ellen Adair, Trick, Cryptid) and her wife Alex (Mitzi Akaha, Bashira, Theresa and Alison) are about to leave on a camping trip that they hope will save their relationship which hasn’t recovered from the loss of their child at birth. There’s talk on the radio of some kind of virus spreading rapidly but Alex angrily refuses to postpone the trip. Most of Herd’s first act focuses on their seemingly doomed relationship as they paddle down a river, but a figure staggering across a bridge as they go under it reminds us this isn’t simply a drama.
First time feature director and former Saturday Night Live editor Steven Pierce and co-writer James Allerdyce (Slayer A.D., Bang Bang) create a sense of anticipation, but it’s not until Alex stupidly injures herself, and in the process triggers a flashback involving the man we saw in the prologue that the script begins to fully embrace its genre elements.
The couple is rescued by Bernie (Brandon James Ellis, Hey Beautiful!, BANDSTAND: The Broadway Musical on Screen) and Tater (Jeremy Lawson, Happy Hunting, Proximity) though not before they nearly kill them. They’re part of a militia run by Big John (Jeremy Holm, The Ranger, Don’t Look Back) who remembers Jamie from before she moved to the city.
But this isn’t as safe a situation as it may seem. Not only are they fighting with another armed group led by the psychotic Sterling (Timothy V. Murphy, American Siege, Hell Hath No Fury), Jamie’s violently homophobic father is associated with Big John’s crew which raises the possibility that they share his views on such matters, meaning the couple have to hide their relationship.
You don’t have to look very hard to see the Romeroesque load of social issues that are wrapped up in Herd’s plotline. The responses to COVID, armed militia groups, LGBTQ rights, and the country’s rural versus urban split all play their part. And, as in Romro’s films, the living are frequently a bigger threat than the dead, or in this case, the “heps” as the infected are called.
Not that they aren’t frightening when they show up. Caitlyn Young’s (Fang, Bloodthirst) effects cover them with nasty looking boils and they still have enough intelligence to know if they’re being threatened or not and only become hostile if they sense danger. Just how good their senses are is another matter however, at one point they can tell if a gun is aimed at them, at others all it takes is a loud noise to set them off.
The scene where they attack a vet’s office where Alex is being treated is well staged and certainly establishes them as a threat. Even if they’re largely physically absent for much of Herd’s middle section the viewer knows they’re out there and what they’re capable of when they show up again towards the end of the film.
Speaking of Herd’s ending, some viewers will find it a bit too neat and convenient and that is a valid criticism. I don’t have a problem with the actual ending, but how it gets there feels like a cheat. Given the level of writing through most of the rest of the film though I’m inclined to think the budget may have had something to do with it.
Despite that, Herd is an above average film with excellent performances and a deeper than usual plot that makes up for the long stretches between zombie appearances.
Herd had its domestic debut at New York Comic Con on October 12th, 2023, and will be released in theaters and on digital platforms today, October 13th via Dark Sky Films.