Zombie movies rarely look as good as the evocatively titled It Stains the Sand Red and it isn’t all that common to find a zombie flick with such a novel approach to the richly meaningful mythology of the walking dead. With the late, great George A. Romero offering a comprehensive deconstruction of capitalism across his extensive “Dead” series, Colin Minihan’s film instead uses the subgenre to explore issues of gender.
Hightailing out of a swarming Vegas early on in a zombie apocalypse, Molly (Brittany Allen) pulls over to throw up her latest quart of vodka. But her boyfriend’s hasty departure buries the back tire of their Porsche in the sand and, when a suit-wearing walker shuffles into view, Nick‘s poor marksmanship gets him killed. Alone, and stranded miles from their air base destination, Molly decides to push on: all the while being pursued by the classically shambling zombie.
Instead of playing up the realistic survival elements (sunburn and a dwindling water supply come across as mere annoyances rather than threats to her life), the film uses the idea of the stalking male monster as a metaphor for creepy men in general. The film makes this intention clear: Molly nicknames her biggest fan Smalls (Juan Riedinger), short for “small dick”, and describes him as being “just like every other guy I’ve ever met at a bar.”
For those of you who might be put off by the sound of the symbolism, Minihan always balances any possible preachiness with a jokey comedic tone. The social concerns do also make way for personal ones in the film’s second half as Molly is left haunted by mistakes from her past. At this point, Smalls begins to function differently, now as a physical manifestation of previous regretful choices, and the odd couple starts to develop a strange bond as she comes to terms with her past (a development that flies in a large part thanks to Riedinger‘s impressive creature performance). This confuses the suggested message of the first half somewhat but it does add an additional surprise to an often tired genre.
The most invigorating element, however, is the film’s visuals. Bright, spacious landscapes aren’t a mainstay of the genre, but Minihan mines symbolism out of the striking desert, presented here as a visual representation of the hardships of life as a woman: because traversing the desert is hard enough without the looming presence of a ceaseless stalker. Even without the metaphor, it’s still a wonderful film to look at. Think of how Danny Boyle shot the horrific beauty of the desert in 127 hours. Minihan and cinematographer Clayton Moore achieve similar flashy visual trickery for a comparably small-scale story with the help of a gonzo visual arsenal of filters, drones, flashy 360 shots, fisheye lenses and bird’s-eye overhead shots.
For a film with “sands” in the title, Minihan makes very little use of the unique location on a narrative level. He doesn’t pitch the film as the natural survival story with zombies it could have been. Instead, he mines classic tropes with a thoroughly modern twist and brings a fresh dose of social commentary back to the zombie genre, even if that element is sidelined as the film progresses. As a result, the early sections work better than the latter ones, but It Stains the Sands Red still manages to find interesting new paths to tread across a stunningly presented desert.