On pursuit, zombie chivalry, and the disappointing half-measures of It Stains the Sands Red
It Stains the Sands Red Dark Sky Films
Director: Colin Minihan
Screenplay: Stuart Ortiz and Colin Minahan
Starring: Brittany Allen, Juan Riedinger, Merwin Mondesir, Kristopher Higgins and Nico David
Not rated / 1 hour, 32 minutes / 2.35:1
Limited release / VOD
(out of four)
We need to talk about the sexual politics of the undead and their living prey.
Or ... I guess "need" is a strong word. But in any event, if our zombie movies haven't given us enough exploration into the gamesmanship and boundaries of pursuit so central to the zombie/human relationship, Colin Minahan's It Stains the Sands Red is here to fill that void.
Well, half-fill it, anyway. That it never figures out how much to capitalize on its best idea is the film's biggest disappointment. That idea - during the moments it really works - is the one thing that sets the film apart within its genre. A woman trekking across the desert and being pursued by a lone zombie - looking dapper in a business suit, no less, as if trying to make a good impression - turns into a playful metaphor for the rules and behaviors of The Chase. The modern dating scene playing out between the living and the dead, all alone in the middle of the Mojave.
So here's what I think happened. One of two things. Either: The filmmakers had the framework for a standard zombie movie. They had their beginning and their end, but not their middle. They knew the story itself - flighty burnout snorting her life away in Vegas tries to escape the zombie apocalypse but turns back to save the kid she once abandoned - but not how to get from point A to point C. So they manufactured point B mostly as a way to fill the time. Or: The opposite, basically. In this scenario, their whole idea was the playful sexual-politics metaphor, but they decided it wasn't enough to sustain a whole movie. So, they constructed a half-hearted drama around it, complete with a bogus emotional anchor and a horde of new zombies getting in the way of its resolution.
In either case, Minihan and co-writer Stuart Ortiz suspected they didn't have a complete film, and once they had one they didn't even realize exactly what they had. The satirical comedy at the center of It Stains the Sands Red doesn't entirely work, either - but, especially in retrospect, that seems more a result of a lack of confidence on the filmmaking level. Minahan has no idea how to manage the film's tone, which never fully embraces the script's sardonic impulses. What we get is an interesting but not quite successful comedy nested in between an ordinary zombie-movie prologue and an ordinary zombie-movie finale.
As a rule - or my rule, anyway - it's usually a good thing when a film continuously upends your expectations. This movie certainly does that. (Whether it intended to or not.) It begins with an overhead shot of the Las Vegas strip, crumbling and half-burned to the ground, looking very much like the trailer for a new Resident Evil movie. Then we shift to who we expect might be our two main characters - aforementioned (and appropriately named) burnout Molly (Brittany Allen) and her boyfriend Nick (Merwin Mondesir), driving through the desert in his Porsche making grand plans about heading to Mexico, where the outbreak hasn't yet reached. There's an airfield down the road. They're almost there. Their friends are going to meet them there - one of them is a pilot, presumably - and from there they'll all be on their way to Paradise, leaving behind a world eating itself alive.
Except Nick gets himself eaten 15 minutes in, leaving Molly as essentially our only remaining (human) character for nearly the length of the film. They have to make a quick stop on the side of the road, and as bad luck would have it, the only visible zombie for miles happens to be right nearby, stumbling down the middle of the otherwise abandoned highway. Nick gets off a few rounds, but it's not nearly enough to put the thing down. (Dude's been through a lot; a few non-headshots aren't gonna finish him off.) Once nightfall hits and it becomes harder to pinpoint the zombie's location, Nick finally gets got. Sneaky little undead bastard just rolls up behind him and digs in, neck-first. RIP Nick.
With the zombie otherwise occupied, Molly is at least temporarily safe, but she knows it won't be for long. And, Nick or no Nick, she still needs to get to that airfield.
The film's flimsiest plot point is the way it removes the fully functioning automobile from the equation. Nick and Molly are only stuck in the first place because they had to briefly pull over and the Porsche's back left tire got stuck in the sand. That neither character ever tries to find something flat - anything - to put under the wheel to get themselves un-stuck is something the film would rather us not think about. "Car stuck in sand" is still more original than "sudden flat tire," so let's not even bother. What matters is Molly has to go it alone, gathering all of her available water and narcotics and personal items and making her way on foot. The airfield is only 35 miles away, after all. She knows this - and knows the exact right direction to go, not on the road but through the actual desert - because her phone's GPS inexplicably works out here in the middle of nowhere during an apocalypse.
Off she goes, dressed in platform boots and leopard-print leggings and armed with enough cocaine to keep her alert for as long as it takes. Once she realizes the zombie isn't going anywhere - it'll keep coming, keep chasing her, if only because no one else is around to chase - she begins to embrace the company. And here's where the movie shifts into its most effective mode. She starts by just talking to it - letting off some steam, yelling at it/him to leave her alone. "Go away! I said no!" She makes fun of his appearance, makes harsh accusations about his former personality, even gives him a nickname - Smalls - meant to be an unkind assumption about the size of his genitalia. (The zombie takes it in stride, but you know deep down he's hurting.) Realizing he's far too slow to really catch her if she doesn't want to get caught, she taunts him and his chase - talks trash and flashes her ass, quickly deciding to actively encourage the pursuit if only to thwart it, something to keep her alert and entertained. She gives whole new meaning to the term "brain-tease."
Minihan and his two actors continue to push it further and further. In her years, Molly has probably had the opportunity to say something along the lines of "Not even if you were the last man on Earth" and ... well, her current circumstances more or less put that, in a sense, to the test. Her anger at Smalls' persistence turns to acceptance, and her acceptance then turns to a survival-mechanism type of affection, even attachment. After all, there's no one else around to spend time with. The playful parallels to romantic pursuit continue to pile up. I mean, Smalls has already killed his only rival. And later on, like a romantic high-schooler with stars in his eyes, he chivalrously carries her belongings for her. (Once she figures out how to tie her belongings to a tire and plunk that tire around Smalls' body without getting bitten, that is.) And later still, he heroically saves her from a rapist. He even goes the extra mile and eats said rapist, guts and all. That'll show him.
At its best, this is a very good comedy. And in particular, Juan Riedinger's performance as Smalls really sells it - the pitiful way he reaches out for her, a primal instinct, even when she's clearly out of his grasp. He's like a puppy that just wants to be loved or paid attention to. In fact, Molly even tries to get him to play fetch - which is a non-starter, at least until she stops throwing sticks and throws her used tampon instead. That, he'll happily go fetch. With all the strange roles and uses Molly finds for her unexpected zombie friend, this film shares a distinct similarity with last year's Swiss Army Man.
But I should've known. I should've known once it started it on the flashbacks. Those rogue images - glowing and washed-out - that pop into Molly's consciousness a few seconds at a time, reminding her of the kid she left behind, the moments they had together, before she was such a screwup. I should've known this ambitious comedy I was seeing was not going to last, and eventually we were going to have to go into vengeful zombie thriller mode. That's exactly where the film goes, at which points it relinquishes whatever goodwill it had left. There's no shortage of zombie movies out there. There is a shortage of unique angles to zombie movies. It Stains the Sands Red has one. A good one. Pity it couldn't follow through.