Posted by Richard Harland Smith on January 13, 2012
Yannick Dahan and Benjamin Rocher’s LA HORDE (THE HORDE, 2009) restages George Romero’s NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968) in a Paris slum, in the manner of a site-specific adaptation of a Shakespeare play done in some industrialized area whose concrete bleakness is supposed to underscore the authorial themes of fate and futility. If that was Dahan and Rocher’s game plan – mission accomplished!
I’ve been in the habit lately of posting remarks about current horror movies on my Facebook page. These are not proper reviews, just first impressions, with an open invitation for others to add their own thoughts. My comments regarding such new horror product as the Australian PRIMAL (2009) and the French VERTIGE (HIGH LANE, also 2009) elicited a smattering of response, about as many as I expected given that these were not big crossover hits, but I was dumbfounded that my post regarding LA HORDE elicited absolutely no reaction. No comments, no “like”s… nothing. Given all the jibber-jabber (some of it mine) related to the AMC zombie series THE WALKING DEAD in recent months and the world’s seeming love affair with flesh-eaters, I thought at least one of my 666 friends would have something to say. But silence reigned.
LA HORDE‘s raison d’être may boil down to nothing more nobler than France wanting to make its own zombie movie but the filmmakers have torqued the source materials in significant and satisfying ways.1 While the George Romero original was set in the back country of (ostensibly) sleepy Pennsylvania, here Dahan, Rocher and co-scenarists Arnaud Bordas and Stéphane Moïssakis drop their protagonists into the middle of a grim block of condemned low income apartment buildings, where the forces of order have vacated the premises and yielded sovereignty for the most part to gangsters and drug dealers.2 As in DAWN OF THE DEAD (1978), LA HORDE begins with a police action gone terribly wrong, with members of an elite anti-crime unit (who are not acting officially but are out instead to avenge the gangland slaying of a team member) fall victim to the very lawbreakers they sought to lay low. Under glowering, stormy skies in the shank of the night, the team cowers bloodily in the already squalid setting as the leader of the gang (Eriq Ebouaney, star of Raoul Peck’s LUMUMBA 3) coldly executes one of the cops. And just when things seem incapable of getting any worse, the dead rise. And brother… there are a lot of them.
In NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, the catalyst for the reawakening of the recently deceased was speculated in news broadcasts heard throughout the film as being the return to Earth of a deep space satellite and a possible clinging interstellar virus; in LA HORDE, TV reception is shittier and no explanation is offered, which may strike viewers as indicative of lazy screenwriting or brilliant efficiency. Given the burbling cesspool that is the film’s setting and the concomitant degradation of human life (the opening image is of a corpse left to rot in a garbage heap), it is more of a wonder that it took this long for the dead to turn on the living. While racial tension was an unspoken factor in NIGHT, given the casting of black actor Duane Jones in the lead against a backdrop of uniformly white faces, race is foregrounded in HORDE. Cops and criminals alike are drawn from immigrant stock. The anti-crime team is composed of members named Jimenez and Ouessman (who speak unaccented French, marking them as second generation emigres) but the drug dealers are fresh off the boat, a ragtag mixture of Czechs, Greeks and refugees from the African genocides. Add to this number a daft French veteran (Yves Pignot) of the 1954 siege of Dien Bien Phu with a cache of outmoded ordnance and you’ve got quite the explosive melting pot as the hungry horde presses in from without and rises one by one from within.
Also not surprisingly, the lines of loyalty become increasingly tangled through the long and horrific night, with cop Ouess (Jean-Pierre Martins, who played boxer Marcel Cerdan in LA VIE EN ROSE ) forming an edgy partnership with the Nigerians while actual partner Aurore (Claude Perron) cannot and will not forgive the murders of her comrades (even though she coldly caps one of her own, after the man has suffered the infecting bite of a zombie) and bides her time for the right moment to even the score. As the characters make their way through darkened stairwells and endless corridors, there are separations and betrayals, wins and losses, and challenges galore to the very concept of humanity. This may be the most aerobic zombie movie ever, with human characters constantly having to punch, kick and squirm their way out of la horde — and in many cases managing to do so with all ten fingers and toes! The film makes a good argument for keeping fit against the possibility of a zombie apocalypse while deflating the geek zombie-fan fantasy of stockpiling weapons and ammo as a sure-fire bulwark against falling prey. In LA HORDE, there just aren’t enough bullets in the world.
As in most zombie movies, the rise of the sun on a cold new day brings considerably less than a return to normalcy. In sending a black man and a white woman out into the new world disorder, the filmmakers seem to be playing the Romero card again but their resolution is likely something old George himself would never have considered.3 Through a blind adherence to tribalism and self-interest, humanity ankles itself yet again, damning faith and dooming hope. But the grim climax of LA HORDE is streets away from the cynical and glib coda of Zack Snyder’s 2004 reboot of DAWN OF THE DEAD, which repaid audiences for their good faith with a last minute “Gotcha!” in lieu of a proper ending. Earlier on in LA HORDE, as the protagonists encounter the eponymous throng pawing gorily at the reinforced entrance to the apartment block, the cold-hearted Aurore has a (seemingly) uncharacteristic moment of empathy. “They’re starving,” she acknowledges, diagnosing the galloping plague of undeadism and underscoring the moral of the story that, however excellent an animating factor, hunger is rarely a hero-maker.
1. Other French takes on the returning dead that are not zombie movies per se include Abel Gance’s J’ACCUSE! (1919, remade 1938), Jean Rollin’s LA MORTE VIVANTE (THE LIVING DEAD GIRL, 1982) and Robin Campillo’s LES REVENANTS (THEY CAME BACK, 2004). The zombie-like marauders of Rollin’s LES RAISINS DE LA MORTE (THE GRAPES OF DEATH, 1978) are not undead but contaminated and mutated from consuming wine tainted by pesticides.
2. The ghetto setting of LA HORDE and the presence of a number of black actors in the cast puts the film in the company of Joe Cornish’s ATTACK THE BLOCK (2011), a no less socially conscious but considerably more feel-good horror/sci-fi hybrid, in which the children of poverty pool their limited resources to stave off an alien invasion.
3. With his shaved head and stand-alone sideburns, Ebouaney recalls not Duane Jones from NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD but Bobby Rhodes from Lamberto Bava’s DEMONI (DEMONS, 1985), which pits the human attendees of a movie theater against the demonic spawn that emerge from the screen to turn the living into algae-slobbering ghouls.
4. Visit the IMDb page message board for LA HORDE to read some very fractious reactions to this ending.
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