LIFF '09: LA HORDE review
(Screened as part of the 23rd Leeds International Film Festival running from 4th-22nd November 2009.)
always frustrating to see a director missing the point. Manly and
self-righteous though most of eighties action cinema was, the best
films of the decade gave the audience both ludicrously violent
wish-fulfilment and a genuine sense of gleefully adolescent
hero-worship. Few viewers could seriously believe they actually were
Arnie, or Sly, or Dolph but many wanted to be, dispensing gruesomely
inventive death and wisecracks by turns to the enemies of truth,
justice, and democracy.
The French zombie thriller La Horde sees itself as some sort of streamlined riff on John Carpenter's classic Assault on Precinct 13, a stripped-down, no-nonsense charge headlong into the apocalypse complete with legions of shrieking undead, thundering gunfire, beatdowns for all and any amount of snappy banter passed between the leads. But it trips itself up in the process, with a cast of unlikeable, poisonous sterotypes few viewers could or would even want to identify with, largely uninspired action sequences and frequent painfully misguided attempts at some kind of social relevance.
The speed La Horde gets started is commendable, though in some respects it still doesn't seem fast enough. The opening exposition sees a crack squad of undercover police preparing for swift and brutal vengeance on the gang who murdered one of their operatives. It's the first sign the film is going to go very badly indeed - the dialogue aims for fist-pounding camaraderie, but this kind of painfully stilted machismo as the leader attempts to boost morale ('I need a cop, not a pussy') would even have Michael Bay collapsing with laughter.
There's neither any explanation or mythos behind the appearance of the undead; the initial police assault goes badly wrong, but just as the gang are about to slaughter them, cue explosions on the horizon and howling in the distance. Trapped in the decaying high-rise where the gang are holed up, the two sides form an uneasy alliance, the better to fight their way out.
Technically, at least, La Horde is at worst competent and sometimes approaching something special. Directors Yannick Dahan and Benjamin Rocher keep a furious pace going once the action begins, bar one lengthy period of downtime in the middle, and while the low-budget DV look is obvious enough it's never distracting.
But nothing that happens ever transcends the basic problem neither side are worth caring about, much less particularly believable. Even the most vacant action classics gave the viewer something to root for, but in La Horde the zombies are a blank slate (no nods to Romero here) and both cops and robbers and equally poorly written.
Frequently they're actively repellent; a sequence where the supporting cast consider raping a captive female zombie comes off as being played for reprehensible laughs rather than giving the leads a chance to claim any moral high ground. And the female lead being treated as one of the boys grates the first time it's introduced - by the second monotonous, pummelling action set-piece she's become little more than a lazy Ellen Ripley knock-off.
La Horde is never outright bad, it's just it's simply baffling why anyone would willingly choose to watch this over any number of far superior alternatives. It doesn't remotely stand up to the films the directors idolise and even something like 28 Weeks Later offers far more polished, inventive action, more plentiful gore and perhaps most importantly, characters who engender something more than out-and-out distaste.
Even the most derivative modern-day slasher film attempts to garner some sympathy from the audience, but there's none of that here, even in the final minutes. Carpenter's original Precinct 13 played on the awful, weary gravity of the choice that had to be made come the ending, but La Horde's version of the same dilemma comes off as empty, posturing nihilism.
Purely visceral thrills are rarely a bad thing, and one could make a good case the zombie film would benefit from being shaken up, but La Horde is not the way to do it. Empty, unappealing and forgettable, in short, it's only recommended for devoted fans looking for some cheap and cheerless thrills or serious completists.