The Horde (La Horde) (2009)

The Horde (La Horde) first published by Sight & Sound, Oct 2010

Review: After Mathias Rivoallan is discovered on a dumpsite, dehumanised and dead, his suited ‘family’ gather for the funeral. “I know what you’re going to do tonight,”  Rivoallan’s widow Hélène (Marie Vincent) tells Ouessem (Jean-Pierre Martins), before making him promise to “bring them all back, safe and sound.” For the crew’s leader Jimenez (Aurélien Recoing), however, Hélène has a different demand: “Kill the bastards who did it. Promise me you’ll kill them all. Every last one.” These two contrasting, even contradictory, instructions, delivered in the extended prologue to Yannick Dahan and Benjamin Rocher’s The Horde (La Horde), lay out the volatile mix of survival and revenge motifs that will follow, but also utterly confound the viewer’s moral orientation. By the time, shortly afterwards, these close-knit vigilantes are revealed to be cops rather than criminals, there no longer seems to be a difference.

Their identity as law officers is not the only surprise in store. For, much like Sheitan (2006) and Frontière(s) (2007) before it, The Horde sets itself up as gritty urban noir, before shifting violently into the horror genre – although The Horde does not similarly shift locations, remaining instead trapped within a lawless Parisian banlieue. There, in a condemned apartment block, Rivoallan’s avengers come into bloody conflict with the drug-dealing gang led by Adewale Markudi (Eriq Ebouaney), only to discover that a mob of enraged undead poses a far greater threat – but by this time, the zombie horde (whose sudden emergence is never explained, and who, in one of several nods to Night of the Living Dead, are never actually called ‘zombies’) seems merely to reflect all the murderous rage pent up in this hothouse environment. 

“You’re already dead,” Rivoallan’s pregnant lover Aurore (Claude Perron) tells a colleague, articulating the film’s apocalyptic allegory of the French nation as a beleaguered building doomed to collapse, unable to accommodate the social, racial, sexual, generational, even fraternal divisions within its walls, let alone the hungry masses without. Here almost everyone seems to be as brutal, driven, and desperate as the ravenous undead, and the few exceptions will hardly see their goodness rewarded. As René (Yves Pignot), a veteran of the First Indochina War (and survivor of Bien Dien Phu) who charmingly refers to the zombies as ‘Chinks’ and freely admits to the sexual thrill he derives from hacking them to pieces, puts it: “Play Mother Theresa round here and it’ll get you nowhere.” 

So The Horde is a wilfully ugly film, confronting the viewer with repellent characters who are difficult to tell apart, in both appearance and behaviour, from the monsters attacking them. Of course, we are well used to seeing fast-and-furious zombies (28 Days Later…, the Dawn of the Dead remake) not to mention zombies in tenements (the original Dawn of the Dead, [REC]) – and the living dead have been wedded to social commentary ever since George A. Romero first unleashed them in their modern form back in 1968. What is new here is the contemporary Gallic setting (leaving aside Robin Campillo’s unconventional The Returned (aka Les Revenants, aka They Came Back) from 2004, the last notable French zombie film was Jean Rolin’s La Morte Vivante made in 1982!) – and the very high production values wrung from the film’s two million Euro budget. Dahan and Rocher mix up-close, hyperkinetic action with visceral horror to queasily breathtaking effect. 

The best is reserved till last. The final scene to The Horde is all at once an updated riff on the famous close to Night of the Living Dead, a dramatic return to the film’s opening vengeance-versus-survival dilemma, and a depiction of hope’s end so viciously uncompromising as to preclude any sequel or Hollywood remake.   

Synopsis: Paris, the present. After the murder of police detective Mathias Rivoallan, four colleagues – his pregnant lover Aurore and friends Ouessem, Jimenez and Tony – infiltrate a condemned building in the projects seeking vigilante vengeance against a criminal gang. When the raid goes wrong, the cops are captured, Tony wounded and Jimenez killed – but as the gang comes under vicious attack from those it has just shot, it becomes clear that the dead are rising, hungry for human flesh. With the building now surrounded by an undead horde, Ouessem, Aurore and Tony enter an uneasy alliance of survival with gangster Adewale Markudi, his hot-headed brother Bola and ultraviolent henchman Greco.

Separated from the others during an attack, Tony is bitten, and knocks out Aurore before she can cuff him. Greco too is bitten, but rejects the suggestion from aging resident René that his leg should be amputated. When René, Greco and Bola sexually torment a female zombie, Adewale intervenes, shooting her in the head. Tony rejoins the group, but is killed by Aurore, much to Ouessem’s horror. Greco and Bola leave with all the guns. René leads the others to the concierge’s cache of weapons. As the horde breaks into the building, Adewale sees Greco, now zombified, eating his brother in the underground carpark, and kills him in a rage. Ouessem heroically holds off the zombie horde before eventually being overwhelmed. In a network of basement corridors, René mows down undead assailants with a massive machine gun, and then uses a grenade to take out more of them – along with himself. Adewale and Aurore get out of the building, but as Adewale catches his breath, Aurore shoots him, getting her vengeance. She waits as, attracted by the gunshot, the horde can be heard approaching.

© Anton Bitel