It Stains the Sands Red is about Molly (Brittany Allen), a stripper from Las Vegas, who is trying to cross the desert to escape a zombie apocalypse. Determined to make it to an airfield and promised freedom after the usual zombie movie plot points – car, pothole, a dropped phone that must be retrieved, an already eaten boyfriend, Nick (Merwin Mondesir) – Molly finds herself pursued by Smalls (Juan Riedinger), the zombie who devoured her paramour. Initially, they battle like Kirk and the Gorn duking it out on the buttes and sand. But their relationship evolves into something akin to Tom Hanks and Wilson the volleyball from Castaway, with Smalls becoming the silent confessor to Molly’s many sins.

If those sound like disparate references, it’s because It Stains the Sands Red is a mashup of a movie. It hits its horror movie marks, including the old “man is the real monster” trope that The Walking Dead has mined to death, but transforms its second act into the kind of vanity piece that actors like Hanks, Dicaprio and Redford have made to great acclaim. Instead of a deserted island, the frozen woods or the endless ocean, we have an actor alone in a harsh terrain on a journey of self-discovery. Well, not quite alone…there is the zombie.

There are really only two things to talk about here. The first is the visual effects team. Smalls and the handful of other zombies have the sunken eyes, green skin and gnarly teeth that are the standard since George Romero started working in color. But it’s the ability to make a small movie look bigger with a few well-rendered CGI shots that’s noteworthy here: Vegas burns convincingly through a long aerial shot; Molly and Nick huddle in their useless Porsche, the dome light shining like a star in the vast black desert night; Fighter jets streak past Molly while she stumbles through the desert. Director Colin Minihan pulls a Robert Rodriguez by wearing multiple hats as editor and co-writer, and he utilizes every tool at his disposal to make his zombie movie look good.

The second thing to talk about is star Brittany Allen. The ability to carry a movie is a gift very few possess. Movies of all shapes and sizes fail because their leads lack this gift. Molly is not a very likeable character. She’s a drug addict who has shipped her son off to her sister’s house for a stable upbringing. She’s manipulative and abrasive, yet Ms. Allen imbues Molly with so much humor and humanity that you hope she finds happiness though the world is ending. Dreamy flashbacks à la Arrival help her cause, but the film hinges on Molly in the desert and Ms. Allen is able to pull off the kind of tour-de-force that could fuel a franchise.

Minihan and co-writer Stuart Ortiz seem to be reaching for something feministic with It Stains the Sands Red. The desert strips away Molly’s artifice and defenses, forcing her to confront what is best and worst in her self. The relentless need to survive that fuels her drug addiction transforms into the quality that drives her through the ordeal in the desert. Smalls moves from predator to a dangerous pet that responds to only her, serving as macabre proof that she is capable of nurturing a relationship. But Minihan and Ortiz make a terrible miscalculation by including a rape scene that serves no purpose other than to show Smalls’ loyalty to Molly. It’s an ugly, lazy way to convey a plot point. There are countless better ways to do the same thing.

We hit peak zombie everything around 2013, but characters like Molly show there’s still a little life in the creaky, undead subgenre. She is our low budget Ripley, capable of doing everything Rick Grimes of “The Walking Dead” can do, but in stiletto boots and leopard print tights.

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