Remembering ‘Nomads,’ The Failure That Made ‘Die Hard’ Possible

This month marks the 30th anniversary of Die Hard — a movie revered by filmmakers and film historians as the platonic ideal of an action movie. With Die Hard, director John McTiernan’s crafted a model of economic storytelling. It doesn’t waste a single second of its running time.

Die Hard was McTiernan’s third film as a director. His previous film was the Arnold Schwarzenegger science fiction action classic Predator. Predator doesn’t share Die Hard’s clockwork precision—it feels like three different movies haphazardly grafted together—but it’s so entertaining no one cares.

Meanwhile, McTiernan’s debut,‘80s art horror movie Nomads, is forgotten. Its obscurity is a shame. While it’s not a perfect movie, cinema would benefit from giving it a second look.

Nomads’ plot is a tangled knot of rotten rope but I’ll try to lay it out nonetheless. After a crazed and dying man babbling in French assaults a female emergency room doctor, the man’s memories transfer to the doctor for reasons the film doesn’t explain. As she relives her attacker’s final days, the doctor descends into madness. The man, a French sociologist, had stumbled upon a mysterious band of ‘80s punk rock leather-clad supernatural nomads he later realized were as evil trickster demons from Inuit mythology. The female doctor tracks down the sociologist’s widow and they work together to escape from the demon biker gang, which, it’s revealed in the final moments of the movie, includes the French sociologist.

While the movie never holds together, the individual scenes are gratuitously well-directed. Bodies fall and glass shatters in lush slow motion. Moonlight shoots through blinds in perfectly placed white lines. There’s even a scene rough draft of the iconic slow-motion overhead shot of Hans Gruber’s iconic fatal fall in Die Hard—skip to 0:58 in the trailer below.

Filmmakers will forever hope to replicate Die Hard’s formal perfection but will be doomed to fail. Filmmakers have tried to reverse-engineer Die Hard so many times with so little success it’s clear it’ll be eternally unique. The closest anyone came was the Die Hard on a bus variant of Speed. Even McTiernan couldn’t capture the lighting again. When he returned to the Die Hard franchise for Die Hard With a Vengeance, he created a movie that seems like a shaggy dog tale in comparison to the razor precision of the first movie.

Instead of chasing Die Hard, filmmakers would be better off making their own weird little funky failures in the mold of Nomads.