French Film Snobbery and Zombies in Paris

Sometimes a shitty French film is better than a shitty American film. Such is the case with the 2009 movie, ‘La Horde,’ (which I discovered translated into English as, not surprisingly, “The Horde”). “The Horde” has everything you could want (except aliens or sex): zombies, gunplay, people sneaking up and down dingy, claustrophobic hallways, lots of cursing and gallons of blood.

I find myself wondering why I enjoy low-to-midrange budget foreign horror movies more than their American counterparts — perhaps it is just because I am reading subtitles and thus feel like the film is automatically more highbrow? Or maybe I just find some of the horror conventions more entertaining when they are given a slightly different take by someone from another culture? Or maybe I’m comparing apples and oranges… perhaps as an American I get access to every piece of shit that the American film industry craps out whereas only the better French examples make it to my Netflix queu through a winnowing process where French film distributors decide that there is no point in exporting some pieces of Franco-film merde because they won’t make back the cost of subtitling them. That last one is probably the reason why. Or I’m a pretentious know-nothing who thinks a film is automatically ‘better’ because it came from the land of Goddard and good desserts.

The Spanish film “Dagon,” while hardly a masterpiece, was a lot more entertaining to me than most of the Lovecraft adaptations made in the US — go figure.

Part of what entertains me in the samples of ‘exploitation’ French cinema is that the French audience seems to be more willing to allow themselves to be visually entertained even at the expense of verismilitude. There are often scenes of absolutely entertaining acrobatic fighting that defy all common sense, gravity and tactics in some of these films that are, none the less, really entertaining to watch. Speaking of which, has any French film maker made a horror/action flick that combines zombies and parkour? And if not, why not? I can think of few things more entertaining than watching lithe acrobats leaping gracefully from facade to parapet like graceful hip-hop angels while salivating earthbound zombies thrash and moan and clamber over one another as they reach for the delicious human morsels that always dance out of reach.

But enough about that. You came here to read about ‘The Horde’ so I better get to it. The film starts with the funeral of a Parisian police detective. We learn from conversations between the widow and four other detectives that the policeman was killed by a gang of drug dealers whom they had been investigating. The cops swear that they will get revenge and decide to make an ‘unofficial’ and off the books raid on the tenement where the drug dealers hang out.

Cut to a fucked up concrete tenement block at night. Our four cops sneak up to the tenement wearing ski masks and carrying weapons. Despite the fact that one of them has moral reservations about behaving like they are ‘above the law,’ it is made clear that they are out for blood and don’t intend to make arrests — they want to kill the people who killed their comrade. They meet the building’s “super” (in French he is called a ‘concierge,’ which makes me chuckle) who brandishes a shotgun and tells them that the building is condemned and mostly vacant and which floor the dealers can be found on.

They proceed upstairs and begin wiring the door with explosives. The drug dealers can be heard talking inside. Suddenly everything goes pear shaped. The “concierge” shows up and ‘wants to join their team’ and screws everything up — the drug dealers shoot through the door (badly wounding one of the cops) and suddenly the concierge is dead and the cops are prisoners of the drug dealers.

These drug gang seems to have modelled itself on the U.N. because there is at least one of every minority group known to be in Paris in the gang. The gang is led by a pair of Nigerian brothers and has a Czech, one or two Arabic or Armenian looking guys, at least one Frenchman and a Roma as members. Whenever anyone refers to the Roma’s nationality, the subtitles translate it as ‘Carny’ which is hilarious since it makes me think of the scruffy guys who set up and tear down roller coasters for travelling carnivals rather than gypsies (which is what I assume what the person who wrote the subtitles intended).

As the drug dealers try to decide what to do with the cops, one of them goes apeshit and shoots a prisoner with a bag over his head whom they had been interrogating when the cops arrived. We never see this guy but apparently he was the cop’s informant/snitch. While they debate what to do and shoot one of the cops in the leg to show how serious they are, the “I’m sure he was dead” snitch comes running into he room, bleeding all over the place, and kills a couple of the drug dealers while they pump an unbelievable number of bullets into his zombified body.

Everyone is pretty freaked out by this and they lose a few more gang members to the newly minted zombies (all of whom get up a short time after having been killed and attack the group). The survivors all run (or hobble, in the case of the guy who was shot in the leg) up to the the roof where they see jets bombing Paris and hordes of zombies swarming around the building. Uh oh. They agree upon a temporary truce in order to escape the building and the zombies.

In making their way back down to the ground floor, there are several entertaining and acrobatic fights, including a particularly exciting display of one-Carny-versus-two-zombies pugilism. This is where the French horror films get it right. In order to be entertained, it is not necessary that the fight be ‘realistic’ as long as it is frenetic and exciting. I am not really certain how one gypsy won a fist fight with two zombies in a corridor, but his fists and elbows and feet were flying and kicking and snarling and the zombies kept coming back for more and just before the fight began to get tedious they got him onto the other side of the door and took the action elsewhere.

At some point after losing a few more members they hook up with one of the building’s former residents: an old, comically fat and insane war veteran who is joyfully killing zombies in the hallway with a fire axe. The veteran gives them pear brandy and tries to nonchalantly chop off one of the gypsys’ legs because it has an infected zombie bite on it. While in his apartment we get the only ‘context’ for the zombie outbreak… a brief and blurry TV news clip tells of zombie outbreaks all over the city and refugees being evacuated to an army base.

The veteran tells them that the (now zombified) concierge was a gun nut so they travel downstairs to loot his collection. I don’t know what French firearms laws are like or how much money the superintendent of a condemned building would realistically have to devote to his illegal gun collection, but they go into his shitbox apartment and somehow procure pistols, a submachinegun, a 50 caliber machine gun, a machete and (I assume) a fuck of a lot of ammo for all of these weapons because for most of the rest of the film they are blasting away with these weapons.

The interesting thing about guns in these French horror films is that they don’t run out of bullets until the plot requires another cast member be sacrificed to the ravening hordes of zombies by an untimely end of supply of bullets. In a particularly entertainingly choreographed scene, one of the cops lets the rest of the gang escape by first charging into a gang of zombies like an American footballer, then climbing on top of a car and shooting them until he runs out of bullets, then hacking at them with a machete until the machete is torn from his grasp and finally punching them until they drag him down in a swirling mass of bloody hands and open mouths. This seems to take a really long time and it doesn’t seem like the zombies are really trying that hard to actually get him even though they outnumber him by about 8,000 to one. It is completely over-the-top ridiculous and their moves are more tightly syncopated than a Lady Gaga video but at the end I wanted to clap because it was all so entertaining.

I’ve probably given away too much already… but in any zombie movie it is kind of a given that the survivors are going to get their numbers whittled down until there are just a few left and heads will be exploded by shot gun blasts or beaten in with frying pans and this film is no different.

Was it a ‘good movie?’ No. But it was entertaining. And sometimes that just has to be enough.

2 Comments on “French Film Snobbery and Zombies in Paris”

  1. Von says:

    Apropos of nothing, I'm pretty much with you on Dagon. It manages to evade the twin terrors of over-faithfulness and treating Lovecraft like a grab-bag of miscellaneous notions, and pretty much proceeds as a decent enough modernising and adapting that actually moves beyond the author's self-insertion persona and characters who serve his narrative needs. Bonus. Also, y'know, female characters encountered before the last few minutes.

    The notion of parkour and zombies has a strange appeal too.

  2. limpey says:

    Von: Well said. I hadn't thought it through, but I think one of the reasons why Dagon was fun was because it didn't treat the source material with such reverence. There were plenty of nods to stories like “Shadow over Innsmouth,” like the scene in the film where the protagonist is in his hotel room using his Swiss Army knife screwdriver to transfer the sliding bolt from his bathroom door to his hallway door even as the fishmen are trying to break the hallway door down (which is patently ridiculous, but was certainly entertaining), but the slapstick/farce elements added kept me entertained. I was imagining the fishmen in the hall kept rolling a 5 or 6 on their 'open doors' check.

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