Before John McTiernan made two of the best action movies of all time (Die Hard, Predator), he took on a small horror novel for his first feature length movie. Starring a pre-James Bond Pierce Brosnan and New Wave rocker Adam Ant, Nomads did actually enjoy a theatrical release. No, it didn’t make much money. And critics weren’t particularly impressed. But if you grew up in the 1980s, there’s a good chance you’d recognize the movie’s distinct VHS cover. Yet despite its recognizable lead actor and eventual big-name action movie director, Nomads quickly fell into obscurity.
During a late-night shift in a Los Angeles hospital, Dr. Eileen Flax tends to seriously injured, distressed man. Right before he dies the man violently grabs and bites Dr. Flax. Soon thereafter Dr. Flax experiences haunting visions of another life – her dead patient. The man, Jean-Charles Pommier, was a French anthropologist whose career focused on nomads. In the days before his death, Pommier discovered modern nomads wandering L.A and his life abruptly unraveled as they followed and tormented him.
Nomads a Stylish, But Incoherent, 80s Supernatural Horror Thriller
Two things should become immediately clear from the above synopsis. On one hand, writer and director John McTiernan’s adaptation of Chelsea Quinn Yarbo’s novel sounds like a wholly unique premise. When slasher sequels dominated the 80s horror landscape, Nomads looked and sounded different. Still the premise hints at a somewhat impenetrable story. Maybe Yarbo’s original story was too ambiguous or McTiernan lost something in translation. Nonetheless, Nomads is a narrative mess that makes little sense. And its story problem extend beyond intentional ambiguity. Specifically, McTiernan fails to establish any clear ground rules or mythology and, as a result, it feels like ‘stuff’ just happens. How does Pommier transfer his memories to Flax? Why? What do the ‘nomads’ even want? Nomads leaves all these questions unanswered. A final twist feels completely unearned.
…Nomads is a narrative mess that makes little sense.
What Nomads lacks in basic storytelling, McTiernan somewhat compensates with style. McTiernan films Los Angeles with the same neon-soaked, neo-noir lens that defined 80s thrillers like Manhunter, Thief, and To Live and Die in LA. In a few scenes, McTiernan uses that ‘muddy’ slow motion approach typical of 70s and 80s movies to good effect. In particular, Pommier’s hospital visit ends with one of the supernatural thriller’s best shocks. Moreover, Bill Conti’s rock-infused score lends a certain amount of atmosphere to the proceedings. And the titular ‘nomads’, and their 80s punk fashion, immediately date the movie while also adding a bit of additional mood.
Adam Ant Adds Some Punk Legitimacy, While Brosnan Can’t Parlez-Vous Francais
Before Pierce Brosnan took over James Bond from Timothy Dalton, he was enjoying the success of 80s television staple, Remington Steele. Nomads represented a big step away from his gentleman thief role. While Nomads’ source material specified that is anthropologist was French, there was absolutely no reason why McTiernan couldn’t altered this one detail. Though Dalton is fine in the role, his French accent distracts from everything going on around him. Dalton just can’t make it work. But Lesley-Anne Down (Countess Dracula) struggles with a role that’s out of her depth. She’s unconvincing at best and lost when expected to emote.
Credited only as ‘Number One’, Ant has just the right look to give his ‘nomad’ menace without ever so much as speaking.
Fully cementing itself as an 80s movie, Nomads rounds out its cast with British New Wave artist, Adam Ant. Credited only as ‘Number One’, Ant has just the right look to give his ‘nomad’ menace without ever so much as speaking. However, veteran character Hector Mercado gets the movie’s most memorable scene – like Ant as ‘Number One’ Mercado silently and fully inhabits the role. And cult film lovers will likely recognized Mary Woronov as ‘Dancing Mary’. Amongst her B-movie credit, Woronov played roles in Death Race 2000, Rock ‘n’ Roll High School, Eating Raoul, Night of the Comet, and Chopping Mall. Needless to say, it’s an impressive filmography and one that makes Woronov perfect for the role.
Nomads Looks Like (And Makes As Much Sense) as an 80s Music Video
Consider it a case study in style over substance. But Nomads may perfectly encapsulate oddball 80s horror. McTiernan’s style and skill – the craftmanship we’d later associate with Predator and Die Hard – are on display. And Brosnan’s much better than the forced French accent here. All this goodwill aside, Nomads is a nearly incoherent movie that rarely makes much sense. In addition, McTiernan’s style and the distinct soundtrack aren’t enough to elevate this confused thriller to ‘guilty pleasure’ status. Only diehard 80s horror fans need check this one out.