★★★★ out of ★★★★★
A scenic one-on-one slow pursuit zombie film in the Mojave Desert.
All praise to Movie Madness, the last remaining video store in Portland. Upon going to rent Happy Death Day, I spotted It Stains the Sands Red on the blue ray rack. Huh. I’d never heard of this film. It wasn’t showing up on anybody’s top 10 of 2017 list, but the plaudits on the box cover suggested something new and different in the well-worn zombie sub-genre. Boy, was I happy I judged the film by its cover.
This is a hidden gem of a film that has a number of terrific arcs to it. It manages to find some fresh takes in a zombie flick and maintains a lot of the tropes you expect. There are two primary elements that elevate this movie above the typical chuff: The gorgeous settings of the Nevada Desert (No special effects required! Just a cinematographer with a good eye and a knack for color correction) and the standout acting by Brittany Allen (All My Children) as Molly, and Juan Reidinger as the zombie who pursues Molly across the desert. Allen is executive-producer in this film, and you can tell that she is all-in with her performance. She turns from sleazy party girl to hardened survivor to dedicated mom over the course of the film, and does it all naturally through the course of the film.
Molly’s character growth is achievable because of the investment of time spent in the slow zombie pursuit. She can easily out-pace Smalls, whom she dubs her zombie pursuer, but she needs to take breaks for water, rest, and … menses. Smalls has no need of such bother, but because Molly is on her period, he can track her more easily (All this does lead to a fabulous scene involving a tampon!) There’s a yo-yo feel to her flight, with Molly surging ahead, but then getting tired, and the zombie catching up. During this pursuit and they develop a strange symbiotic relationship borne of her unloading her frustrations in life on this undead man who can’t talk back, and this symbiosis gets cemented when Smalls inadvertently rescues Molly from a horrific situation. I mentioned that Reidinger has earned some acting kudos for his role, and that normally I will state that being a zombie in a film is the lowest-common-denominator acting job in Hollywood, but in this case, Reidinger brings a savage pathos to the role that you typically don’t see in these kinds of movies. He reminds me of an anxious dog, a very slow moving anxious dog, and for some portion of the film, he gets treated that way by Molly.
A good portion of the movie is Brittany Allen monologuing since all Smalls can do is moan. Molly makes a number of good decisions (prioritizing water, preserving phone batteries) and some really dumb ones (cocaine? Here?), and … did you notice the river down below? And… if you can climb up to avoid Smalls, why don’t you ditch him? And yet the whole time, I was thoroughly engaged. There is constant pressure since if Smalls catches up to Molly, it’s curtains. And yet after a while, there’s a curious detente between the two. (I particularly like how Molly manages to trick Smalls into being her pack mule of sorts.) I do have to go back to the cinematography. You will not see a better-looking zombie movie than It Stains the Sands Red, and the fact that they did this on a low budget.
I was hugely surprised by this film. The Molly is admittedly not the sharpest tool in the shed, but she has a complete story, and you come to root for her. The movie has enough scares and zombie eviscerations to satisfy most horror fans, so come for the gut munching and stay for the pretty vistas and inner monologue.
It Stains the Sands Red is available for rent on Amazon Prime (not on Netflix). Free for those with a Prime subscription.