It Stains the Sands Red
by Colin Minihan and Stuart Ortiz
Digital Interference Productions
The following review is of a horror/drama/comedy/ zombie/feminist movie. It’s not a romance. There will be spoilers. Read at your own risk.
I‘ve always said that I can’t watch horror because as someone with anxiety I don’t need any extra. However, in the last couple of years, I’ve finally started to understand the cathartic effect of a certain kind of horror. I’m increasingly fascinated by horror in which (GENERAL SPOILER)
Add that to my fondness for movies that cross genres, and it’s not surprising that I loved It Stains the Sands Red despite the movie’s terrible title and terrible, terrible poster.
Trigger warning for rape and eating of faces. There is mild child in peril stuff near the end. No non-human animals die that I recall.
The plot is very simple. Molly, our heroine, has to get from Point A to Point B as quickly as possible while avoiding a zombie who follows her slowly but relentlessly. The movie opens with Molly and her boyfriend, Nick, driving through the Nevada desert away from a burning Las Vegas. Nick knows a guy named Jimmy who will meet them at an airfield and take them to Mexico. Nick and Molly clearly live a life in which “knowing a guy” is the most important survival skill a person can posses.
Molly’s first actions in the film are to snort some cocaine, drink some vodka, and then make Nick pull over so that she can throw up. The car gets stuck in the sand, messy things happen, and soon Molly has to hike by herself for about forty miles across the desert. Her assets include several large bottles of water, a lighter, some cocaine (“The great thing about coke, see, is I don’t even need to eat!” she says). She also has couple of cigarettes, a cell phone that is actually working and is getting a GPS signal, and a single tampon.
Her challenges include the fact that she’s on her period, she’s dressed in leggings, a black pleather halter top, a fake fur shrug, and platform heel boots, and she’s being followed by a zombie who she names “Smalls.” She has no wilderness or combat survival skills but she’s incredibly determined – plus she doesn’t want to die a slow and agonizing death from being zombie kibble. So she plods along, just slightly faster than Smalls, muttering, “One foot in front of the other,” and “Bad shit happens. You deal with it and move on.”
This movie switches genres several times. One thing I love about it is that the whole zombie apocalypse thing happens off screen with no explanation or discussion. The writers seem to believe that we’ve all seen or read enough zombie stories to know how this kind of thing goes down.
The movie is also a good reminder of why the slow, shambling, uncoordinated zombie is a dangerous foe. Smalls is easy to avoid as long as Molly either keeps moving or finds a place to rest that Smalls can’t climb to (it seems that any tall rock will do the trick). However, like a very decaffeinated Terminator, Smalls never stops. He doesn’t need water or food or cocaine or sleep. He doesn’t need to pee and he never slows down to light a cigarette. Since there are no other people around to pursue, Smalls remains completely fixated on Molly. He walks and walks, forcing Molly to walk just a little bit faster and never let down her guard.
After a while Molly names Smalls and starts talking to him. She insults him with such verve that it’s utterly hilarious. “My God, you’re like every guy I’ve ever met a bar!” she complains. Once Molly has the hang of avoiding being eaten, the movie settles into a weird yet wildly entertaining mix of comedy, drama (we learn just enough about Molly to feel awful for her) and survival. Then there’s a “Man is the True Evil” bit, then there’s a weird military bit, and eventually we end up at FEMINISM FUCK YEAH THIS IS SO CATHARTIC I’LL GIVE IT ALL THE A’s!
But not so fast! I cannot give this movie all the A’s.
For starters, there’s a lot of stuff that doesn’t make sense. One is that there’s a scene in an abandoned house that is super creepy, but it doesn’t make any sense at all. Why doesn’t Smalls immediately follow Molly into the house? Does he spend hours trying to figure out how to walk through a doorway? How can Molly hide from Smalls by taking refuge in an empty bathtub? That’s where you hide from tornadoes and hurricanes, not zombies. There’s also a scene with some military guys who clearly have not read any zombie novels or seen any zombie movies.
Trigger warning: here begins a discussion of a rape scene in the film.
A far bigger problem with the movie is that at one point two men show up and rape Molly, who is saved by Smalls. I’m not a fan of gore, but I could watch Smalls eat that dude’s face all day long and never flinch. You go, Smalls.
On the other hand, I suspect we could all do without the actual rape scene. In fact, I have to confess that I was an irresponsible reviewer and I fast-forwarded the rape scene. My husband had to fill me in on the details (he says it was long, graphic, and that Molly never got to beat anyone up, not even a little). Later I realized that this was a problem for me as a reviewer because it was so easy to forget that it happened that it affected my grade. However, at the time, it meant that I could skip over something really icky and manage not to miss any character or plot development whatsoever – which is a very clear sign of how gratuitous that scene is.
I don’t think it’s always wrong to include a rape scene in a movie, but I do think that rape scenes are overused (see my post Mad Max Fury Road Makes Your Rape Arguments Invalid). For a rape scene to be justified, the scene has to advance plot and/or character development in a way that nothing else in the movie can accomplish. The rape scene helps alter Molly’s feelings towards Smalls, but it seemed like Molly was warming up towards Smalls anyway. It’s also a reminder that the true monsters are human, but any audience savvy enough to know why Las Vegas in on fire is also savvy enough to know that man is the true monster. I have a theory that the concept of The True Monster is Man is not that surprising to women anyway. It’s such a cliché that doesn’t fit in this movie, which works so hard to avoid clichés in other ways.
Right before the rape, Molly has a moment where she realizes that these guys in a truck are trouble. It shows how smart she can be. If this rape scene had to be in the movie — and I don’t think it did — then it could have involved Molly figuring out how to get away, or how to steal the truck, which could always have blown a tire or something a few miles down the road so she’d still have to walk. Maybe she could have actively attracted Smalls to her so that she could divert him into eating the dudes. Any amount of creative agency and power on Molly’s part would have helped the scene, whether she successfully escaped or not. I’m not saying that to victim blame but rather to point out that her character arc was on the side of more power, not less, and we needed to see her have more agency. We’ve been watching Molly slowly level up and to strip her of her agency at this moment feels like a cheat that accomplishes very little purpose other than to humiliate and degrade Molly, who has already been subject to a lifetime of humiliation.
Here’s why I loved this movie in spite of its flaws. It takes a character who would normally be zombie fodder in the movie’s opening scenes and it develops that character to a point where the viewer empathizes with her, cares about her, and roots for her success. It doesn’t go overboard with Molly’s back-story and it doesn’t give her a free pass. What it does do is allow us to see her as a person, not “a dumb broad.” Seeing Molly go from a stereotype to a fully-fledged character, watching her grow into a self-confident woman with a purpose, was truly thrilling. The movie is a tour de force for Brittany Allen, who plays Molly. I also have to give so much credit to Juan Riedinger, who manages to give Smalls a lot of personality without ever detracting from the fact that Smalls is a zombie. I just can’t overstate how much I loved Molly and how cathartic and satisfying it was to see her level up.
This movie is such a mess to grade. I like that it’s doing something different and interesting. I would much rather watch something that is a hot mess but is at least trying to shake up a genre than something that is a perfectly polished cliché storm. Ideally, I could give this movie lots of grades, and break them down like this:
A: For the effectively creepy opening shot of a burning Las Vegas, for the creepy jump scares of the initial nighttime scenes, for Molly’s character arc overall and for Smalls, who is both terrifying and endearing by turns. This accounts for about 75% of the movie at least.
A-: At one point Molly distracts Smalls by throwing her tampon for him to chase. Everything about this scene is wonderful, including the acknowledgement that women have periods and the way Molly crows, “SUCKER!” as she sprints away. If a woman were directing, maybe this scene wouldn’t have been played quite so much for laughs, and yet I felt it fit well with a genre which has been more honestly exploring women’s lives and bodies in the last few years with movies like Prevenge, Raw, and The Babadook (I only know these movies by reputation so this is not a recommendation per se.)
A: For all the little details that work on a character basis, like when Molly has to lie to Jimmy (airplane guy) about Nick (boyfriend guy) because she knows that without Nick, Jimmy perceives her as having no value and therefore he won’t help her.
C: For all the things which made no sense, especially a day later when I calmed down and went, “Wait…what?”
- The natural ending of this movie involves Molly in a car. Everything after that is part of another movie. It’s tacked on and we don’t need it to conclude Molly’s character arc. If the extra stuff was the beginning of a sequel (we could call it It Stains the Sands Red: Molly’s Turn) I’d be all for it. When Molly smiles while driving a car, go ahead and stop, because at that point the movie is effectively over.
- For the rape scene, the title and the exploitation-style poster. Seriously, people.
I’m going to average this to a C with a caveat.
In my opinion, you can legitimately watch this movie and completely skip the rape scene and everything that happens after Molly drives a car and smiles (just consider everything after that point to be a preview of the next movie). If you skip those scenes, you won’t miss anything important in terms of character arc or plot. Just hit fast forward when
Skip the rape, eyeroll about the logical problems, but stay for the humor and the feminism. Here’s the horror and gore heavy trailer (it’s not a great trailer in my opinion, but it’s what we’ve got)