Written by: Colin Minihan, Stuart Ortiz
Directed by: Colin Minihan
Starring: Brittany Allen, Juan Riedinger, and Merwin Mondesir
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
If the heat doesn't kill you, something else will.
With the zombie genre having bloated into a distended shell of its former self, it’s fair to be skeptical and wonder if a film can really bring life back to it. Granted, we’re a bit past the previous decade’s deluge of this stuff, yet I still couldn’t help but wonder if It Stains the Sand Reds could offer something beyond its hook, which strips the genre back down to its elements by pitting one survivor against a lone zombie. Not only is it indeed a clever wrinkle, but it’s also a bit of a front: writer/director Colin Minihan lures you in with the promise of a different story, only to remind you that narrative ingenuity still isn’t as potent as infusing a film with a dose of humanity. Despite its schlocky title, It Stains the Sands Red is brimming with life in all its messy, confounding, fucked-up glory as it spins a heartfelt tale about overcoming guilt and regret.
It only features two lead characters and makes the most of them—even though one of them isn’t among the living. Molly (Brittany Allen) can barely be considered alive herself: a Vegas stripper caught in the middle of the zombie apocalypse, she’s looking for the quickest ride out of town, which in the case means riding shotgun with a windbag, idiot boyfriend who thinks a shotgun can resolve every situation. When a zombie (Juan Riedinger) proves that mantra to be fatally wrong, Molly finds herself fleeing alone into the desert, where she combats dehydration, the heat, and, the undead. Specifically, the same zombie that killed her boyfriend is now stalking her through the desert, impossibly chasing her scent and keeping pace as she turns to booze and coke to fuel her trek to a nearby airfield that might provide salvation.
If It Stains the Sands Red sounds like a bit of a gag, rest assured it does initially take on a bit of a glib, detached tone. When we meet Molly, she’s night insufferable, a squawking, squealing, hot mess of a woman that shouldn’t last two minutes in a zombie apocalypse, let alone an entire film. As she makes her way through the desert, the film continues to take on a quirky bent: while this zombie does ostensibly pose a threat, it’s treated more as a minor, humorous inconvenience. Put it this way: this is the only zombie movie that features the protagonist using her bloody tampon to distract her undead stalker. You kind of want to roll your eyes at it and applaud it at the same time.
You also find yourself wondering if it can really wring an entire movie out of this premise. While montages capturing this bizarre journey are slick, stylish, and evocative, it grows faintly repetitive watching Molly outwit this zombie in various locations. When the film takes a detour to the usual undead movie nastiness, you’re really left wondering if it has anything viable at all. About halfway through the film, Molly encounters a couple of guys driving a truck, and they’re way too eager to help her; any brain corrupted by enough of these things knows it’s a red flag, and , sure enough, this turns out to be a twisted, perverse duo who sexually assault her, a dismaying, gratuitous turn of events seemingly scripted to reinforce the same old shit: it’s mankind that’s really bad, you know, as if we really needed another grim reminder.
But to its credit, It Stains the Sands Red somehow manages to take a more optimistic turn here when Molly’s zombie pursuer actually saves her. At this point, it almost becomes another movie, as she begins to treat the zombie—whom she nicknames “Smalls”—more like a pet or a companion. Their initial dynamic prompts you to wonder if this won’t be some clumsy allegory about how women must feel to be constantly harassed and pawed at. Molly says as much himself when she compares Smalls to a loser who doesn’t know how to take “no” for an answer; in fact, her pet name for him is short for “Small Dick.” It wouldn’t be the worst idea, even if the attempt is a bit on-the-nose and obvious since it very much follows in this genre’s high-minded tradition.
It leaves such ambitions behind, however, trading them in for something a bit more emotionally affecting. And that’s very much a fine thing since a film titled It Stains the Sands Red becomes almost impossibly charming and heartwarming. Slowly but surely, Molly’s fiery demeanor cracks to reveal a broken woman still recovering from her own self-destruction. Flashbacks reveal a troubled past, one that saw her make some tough decisions involving her family, and Smalls weirdly becomes her therapist sounding board. Everything you’ve come to assume about Molly is upended in favor of a nuanced depiction of a woman who finally decides to make good in her life. When we first meet her, it’s easy to write her off as a shrill, unpleasant woman; along the way, however, we learn that’s a façade she’s constructed to mask her immense pain and regret.
It’s a testament to Allen’s talents that Molly’s transformation works at all. Her initial turn as a loudmouthed Vegas girl just looking to get the hell out of dodge is striking in its shallowness, as she pitches it at just the right level to come off as annoying. The truth is, you’re kind of rooting for Smalls to hunt her down and put her out of her misery. Eventually, however, you can’t help but admire her pluckiness—suffice it to say, she puts up with a lot of shit and dredges up numerous painful memories along the way. None of this can stop her, though, and she finds a strange companion in Smalls, the zombie who becomes her strange confidant.
You feel for him, too, as Riedinger’s eyes show flashes of life, almost as if this undead corpse is trying to completely reanimate himself. In a landscape crawling with numerous movies that invite viewers to revel in zombie carnage, it’s refreshing to see one that brings the inherent sorrow of the genre back into focus: I’ll be damned if It Stains the Sands Red doesn’t make you feel awful for both Molly and Smalls once the latter becomes too much of a hindrance.
After Molly makes a crucial, selfless decision, It Stains the Sands Red does pivot towards the sort of carnage you expect from this genre. She goes into survival mode, forced to face down a horde of zombies in an effort to escape and reach her family. More zombie movie staples, like outrageous gore and killer make-up designs, are unleashed here, and Minihan completely earns this shift by grounding the proceedings in such human stakes: this is a potent reminder that the zombie genre thrives when you actually care about the characters involved. It’s cliché as hell, but I found myself holding my breath towards the climax, which finds Molly prowling through a devastated suburban neighborhood to reunite with her family.
I would have never guessed that based on the early-going, when It Stains the Sands Red feels like another unpleasant trek through the zombie apocalypse. Once it moves along, though, it becomes a bit of a genre variety pack, offering up both the offbeat and grim flavors it’s taken over the years before settling into an emotionally resonant groove. Just a few months ago, I lamented that this genre is too often minded for apocalyptic misery porn, so it’s nice to see a change of pace here, especially since it ultimately is a woman’s story, after all.
Specifically, it’s about a woman who’s endured her own self-destruction and denial; ultimately, It Stains the Sands Red sees her overcome both, leading to a rousing finale that reaffirms just how great a zombie movie can be when it catches a spark of genuine humanity. Sure, the final product might be a bit messy and tonally disparate, but isn’t that just like life itself? If nothing else, this film is earnest as hell in its attempt to capture life—and death—in all their complexity.
It Stains the Sands Red is now available on Blu-ray courtesy of Dark Sky Films. The disc's supplements include about six minutes of behind-the-scenes and on-set footage, plus the film's trailer.
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