Franck Richard's The Pack is grim. Perhaps too grim. It's a gleefully nasty, fairly distinctive little Gallic zombie flick that's beautifully shot and scored with some solid effects work and great performances. It's just the director arguably pushes the air of vindictive thuggery a little too far, to the point where a savage, overly nihilistic ending seems more like a slap in the face than an apposite way of wrapping things up.
Emilie Dequenne (Brotherhood of the Wolf) plays Charlotte, a traveller heading for the sunset after her last relationship went sour. After attracting some unwelcome attention from a passing motorcycle gang, she picks up Max (Benjamin Biolay) a hitcher on the same road, only to have him disappear on her at the truck stop they pull into.
Consumed with the same unfortunate curiosity the leads in most horror films are prone to, Charlotte returns to the truck stop to try and discover where Max might have gone, but discovers something truly nasty in the basement courtesy of La Spack (Yolande Moreau), the proprietor.
Incensed at the callousness of the mining projects that tore up the area in years past, and the personal cost they demanded from her, the crazed old woman has made a pact to deliver blood to the earth in return for the damage done it; Charlotte is merely the latest to wander into her lair.
Calling The Pack a zombie flick is doing it something of a disservice. It draws from multiple genre influences; the nameless setting is framed with a kind of eerie, otherworldly beauty reminiscent of numerous low-budget sci-fi or swords and sorcery films. The creature designs are also subtly fantastical, and La Spack's ghastly torture apparatus has echoes of Jeunet & Caro's earlier films.
Only eighty minutes long, The Pack is still beautifully paced. It charges along for much of the running time with a kind of vicious, giggling energy and Richard keeps tight control over the camera, never letting the tension flag. Yet he finds time to throw in any number of filthy jokes or tidbits for the nerds in the audience (seeing Charlotte playing on a Ghosts and Goblins arcade machine at the bar is sure to raise a smile from many). He pauses if it's all the better to appreciate the over-the-top gore, and he waits a surprising length of time before the action kicks in.
There is gore, of course, and plenty of it. While The Pack isn't as consistently bloody as the average zombie film it makes up for this with a savage sense of humour behind the more significant kills. The cast are clearly in on the joke, all of them selling the humour beautifully, swinging between suitably nonchalant and leering cartoon gestures as the occasion demands.
At the same time the film is frequently creditably straight-faced, finding horror in much more than splatter and boo scares. The landscape is suitably elemental, given the nods to paganism and blood rites, not unlike Nicolas Winding Refn's Valhalla Rising only with actual emotional significance. And while much of the violence is played for laughs, there's an edge to it that becomes markedly unsettling in places. Emilie Dequenne's terror seems palpably real, far more visceral than most wide-eyed screaming.
Yet Richards arguably doesn't quite seem to know when to stop. His film comes nowhere near the offensively vacant posturing of the godawful The Horde, but the victimisation of Charlotte is both pro and con. While it's laudable the violence hits home much harder than the over-the-top excess of Romero and his disciples (who takes the giblets in Dawn of the Dead entirely seriously?), The Pack still wanders a little too close to torture porn for comfort.
The ending in particular, though every bit as effectively put together as the rest of the film, is so relentlessly, even pointlessly bleak it feels like something of a sour note. While the dearth of hope is obviously a genre staple as much as dismemberment and disembowelling are, the climax of The Pack feels first needlessly drawn out, then crudely rushed, like a kick in the teeth after a particularly savage beating. Many will revel in it. Others may not.
It's a shame this drags down what is otherwise a snappy, grimly entertaining genre entry which does still deserve a wider audience. It's too shallow and rather too in love with its niche to be a great movie, and it could have done with a little restraint, but Franck Richard's film still ranks some way above most of the field. Gorgeous cinematography, dark humour, some wonderful moments of self-awareness and blackly inventive splatter mean anyone with a strong stomach prepared to overlook some fairly rough edges should still consider The Pack recommended viewing.