Code Red offers up the marginally-intriguing notion that Josef Stalin’s Russia invented a kind of zombie-creating chemical in the closing days of the battle for Stalingrad, and that said chemical was stashed away for 70-odd years on a Bulgarian military base. Not surprisingly, that storage plan turned out to be a poor long-term option, and before you can say, “Man, can’t those former Soviet Bloc republics do anything right?” there’s a whole lot of zombie mayhem going on.
Actually, I lied about how fast it all happens. The zombie mayhem takes a good 45 minutes to get rolling – half the movie’s length – and there’s a good deal of exposition and ill-advised “character development” to get through, first. Wisely, the filmmakers decided to start the film with a burst of WWII-style action, which is shot with impressive brutality and a good deal of kinetic verve, although perhaps a bit too much homage to first-person-shooter video games. (Some shots are framed with the barrel of the gun entering the frame from the lower corner as the camera pans across the scene. Subtle, guys.) These opening ten minutes assure the audience that yes, this is an action movie, and there will be plenty of ‘splosions and bodies flying through the air and walking dead later on.
The 1943 action then segues to the present day, with an American Special Forces operative being briefed by the Scottish military (sure, why not?) about a clandestine operation in Bulgaria to investigate certain disturbing reports. Anyone not clear on the nature of those reports must have been sleeping through the first ten minutes of the movie. The American colonel duly arrives in Bulgaria to interview Anna Bennett, the doctor who filed the report. Bennett is played by Manal El-Faitury, and her wild hair and engaging presence serves to liven up the rather dreary proceedings.
Unfortunately, she also has a kid, played by the likeable Mya-Lecia Naylor, and you know what this means: the kid in peril is going to be the engine that drives the action of the movie. And so, with a predictability that approaches the sublime, she becomes just that. (She runs around carrying a stuffed bunny, fer Chrissake.)
Insofar as plot goes, there isn’t much left to say: there is a big explosion (engineered by the Evil Russians! Boo hiss!) and a lot of zombies as a result, and a lot of people running away from them and a lot more shooting them. (This all takes place on a military base, after all, so there’s no shortage of firepower.) For what it’s worth, these are the fast-moving 28 Days Later style “rage” zombies, not the shuffling, George Romero-esque zombies of your parents’ generation. They’re also former Communist Bloc zombies, but sadly that doesn’t seem to make any practical difference. A lost opportunity, there.
Perhaps in order to make up for the predictability of the plot, the filmmakers opt for plenty of jittery handheld camera in the action sequences, both to mirror the flight-and-pursuit situation of the victims and also to lend a you-are-there feeling of witness. This can be effective in small doses but leads to nausea when overdone; this movie falls somewhere in the middle.
Actually, “middle of the road” is a pretty apt description for Code Red. The performances are competent if not outstanding; the cinematography, which favors muted tones and plenty of shadowy, enclosed spaces, sets the mood effectively while rarely being surprising. Makeup and special effects are adequate; there is plenty of gore without being over the top. The movie gets the job done, but rarely offers anything more than that.
Bonus features on the DVD are thin, with the promised making-of featurette being just a series of talking-head interviews with the principal actors. It’s not very enlightening. A trio of behind-the-scenes videos taken during the shooting is rather more interesting, but nothing that we haven’t seen many times already elsewhere. Finally, the film’s opening World War II sequence is re-presented here without the interruptions occasioned by the film’s current-day plot threads. It’s a lively twelve minutes to be sure, but one that’s unlikely to be watched though more than once.
Hardcore zombie hounds – and there seem to be quite a few of you out there – may find the film’s unusual premise and Eastern Bloc setting engaging. Casual fans, though, are apt to find Code Red to be a generic exercise in by-the-numbers spookiness. There are worse ways to spend a couple hours of your life, but Code Red is unlikely to be your new favorite movie, either.