Mess with the gas, get a nasty rash.
The Battle of Stalingrad during World War II didn’t exactly go down as we were taught from the history books. According to the diary of a lunatic German soldier, the Russians performed biochemical genocide with a secret weapon. Napalm made sure all traces of the event were erased. But what was never meant to be, will rise again. Not all evidence was destroyed and something is about to leak in a Bulgarian munitions warehouse, eight storeys down below the earth.
The Benelux DVD packaging of ‘Code Red’ is somewhat misleading. The front cover art (as shown below, the red one without the gas mask) pretty much has you thinking your standard shoot-’em-up action flick. So, perhaps best to read the synopsis for once, if you don’t want to be under the wrong impression of watching a low budget cash-in of ‘Red’ (2010) and/or ‘The Expendables’ (2010) or even ‘Taken’ (2008), since the blurb on the cover proudly proclaims “from the writer of ‘Unknown’,” which happens to be the 2006 film with Jeremy Sisto and Jim Caviezel about five men trapped in a warehouse – a decent film on its own, if I may say so – and not the lamentably bland, similarly titled Liam Neeson vehicle from 2011. Ah, those devious and misleading advertising tactics of the marketing people behind home entertainment. Make sure the package at least looks and reads the same as one of those famous mainstream action titles, and it will surely sell. Oh well, all this on a side note, of course.
‘Code Red’ obviously isn’t quite like the aforementioned action movies. Far from, actually. Here’s the set-up, in a nutshell (because there’s so little else to the film, that it all fits perfectly in there). During the Second World War, Joseph Stalin was a few steps ahead of the Nazis in his attempts to create super soldiers. A mysterious gas was developed that could reactivate the bodies of recently deceased troopers. After an isolated incident in the town of Volgograd (aka Stalingrad), all evidence of the events was destroyed. Except for the diary of Hans (Valeri Yordanov), the one surviving soldier of the bloodbath. Hans later committed suicide in an insane asylum, but more than half a century later his diary made it into the hands of American authorities. They now suspect that the biochemical nerve gas is still being contained in a big, island-based military weapons depot on Bulgarian grounds. Captain John McGahey (Paul Logan) is sent in, undercover, under false pretense of inspecting a recent string of arms thefts on several military bases throughout Eastern Europe, to find out more about the storage facility. What we’ll all soon be in for, is flat-out zombie mayhem right up until the very end.
Looking up Valeri Milev‘s output as a director so far, the guy might just raise a bit of your average genre fan’s interest. He made three feature films in three consecutive years. One being the sixth installment in the successful ‘Wrong Turn’ franchise. No idea if ‘Wrong Turn 6: Last Resort’ (2014) is any good, but it’s a popular reference at any rate. His latest, ‘Re-Kill’ (2015) – or his first, apparently, since online sources claim it was shot and put together before ‘Code Red’, then picked up for distribution by After Dark Films but afterwards dropped again and released at a later point – looks like the zombie concept re-imagined within a hyper-realistic format. Since the overflooded zombie genre went stale already ten years ago, perhaps Milev managed to actually inject some new vigor into it? And then there’s ‘Code Red’, his other zombie-themed outing and the type of film one best enters with low expectations anyway. Turns out that it’s by far not as bad as it could have been, but also not as good as it should have been. Milev co-wrote, directed and co-edited his first feature effort. Perhaps a bit too many duties for one man to handle and, as to be expected, it shows.
The film opens with a prologue sequence set during World War II and all the action looks quite amazing and intensely brutal. You’ll have to be able to deal with the shooting style and quick editing, as a variety of techniques are used (shaky handhelds, guerrilla steady cams, cameras mounted on weapons and actors) but the whole sequence generates such a rush while viewing, you’re bound to hit that rewind button a couple of times for a handful of ‘Wow!’ moments. The “horrors of war” take on a whole new definition, as bullets and explosions make debris, blood and guts splatter around all across the screen. It makes the opening scene of ‘Saving Private Ryan’ (1998) want to wear diapers. Well lit and color-graded, this prologue sequence looks downright sinister. It appears we’re off to a decent, nice and bleak start, doesn’t it? Well, not exactly…
Intercut with the historical war scenes, we’re also introduced to present day’s Captain John McGahey, who gets the rundown of the WWII events and the briefing of his Bulgarian mission by his Scottish superior, General Owen (Forbes KB). Right away it’s clear that Logan isn’t up there with the A-list actors. What can you expect? The guy has starred in Jim Wynorski‘s ‘The Curse Of The Komodo’ (2004) and some flicks by infamous production company The Asylum. With titles like ‘The Terminators’ (2009) and ‘Mega Piranha’ (2010) on his résumé, it’s peachily certain he’s not going to win an Oscar any time soon. But he seems to be aware of that, especially in interviews, so he has my sympathy. And to be fair, while Logan can’t pull much of his weight as a dramatic actor, ‘Code Red’ does benefit from his assets as a more physical actor. Shooting, fighting, running; Logan has no problem convincing us on screen that he was the right man to play the part.
This brings us to the screenplay. The story and characters, while setting things off promising during the first thirty minutes or so, are seriously neglected after the first act. The narrative falls flat shortly after the island-wide outbreak of the virus, with each action scene’s purpose being not much more than to get us to the next action scene. It all quickly results in a race for survival, with our few protagonists out to find each other and get the hell to the highly guarded bridge and off that damned island. It’s a bit of a pity, really, since at least two characters come with a decent exposition in a private/family situation we could actually care about, but the script ignores to develop or even maintain any of that. It involves the American silenced scientist Anna Bennett (Manal El-Feitury), who got suspended by her Bulgarian superior after reporting an incident with a revived soldier, who went stark-raving mad when exposed to a gas leak. All the more a pity, because leading lady El-Feitury seems a capable actress who could have used more material to work with. Her character comes with a little daughter, Miriam, played by Mya-Lecia Naylor. The girl also manages to convince just fine, which makes you question the acting abilities of the adult cast even more. Also, it’s perfectly plausible that Anna brought along her kid to Bulgaria, because she had to move there for work. But whatever happened to the father in their lives, is apparently something we shouldn’t even question, let alone care about. McGahey also mentions to Miriam – in an utmost casual manner when they’re having a break from escaping zombies – that he had a little girl like her too, who is now up in heaven with her mommy. Okay, what happened there, writers? Thanks for throwing that info in there and all, but would you perhaps care to tell or, preferably, show us what happened to McGahey’s wife and kid? Oh, I see, you just wrote that line in there to have McGahey not make it off the island in the end because he becomes infected during his last zombie bash and the audience will be okay with him dying because he can then be reunited again with his wife and daughter in heaven. Such clever script writing! Ah, what the heck, we’re watching a ‘shoot-splat-boom’ type of flick about a zombie outbreak; what are we complaining about?
The special make-up and visual effects departments both did a good job, so that’s at least something to be happy about. Since we’re dealing with some kind of virus that only effects the living and/or the very recently deceased, the latex prosthetics involve lots of gruesome blisters and horrendous facial deformities. Always a pleasure to behold. And the fights, shootings and killings are all very violent and bloody. Most of the other side characters are just villains anyway, served up in the plot to meet their grisly demise one way or another, so another excuse for the special effects crew to go nuts on them. Clichéd, coke-snorting criminal/pimp Vladi (Nikolay Stanoev) is without a doubt one of the more, uhm, colorful characters that you’ll love to see taken a big chunk out. All the action does move at a brisk pace and is well-choreographed, but as mentioned before, the filming and editing can get a little hectic at times. If you can’t handle that, you might get annoyed. There’s also a chance you’ll find the ending quite insufferable, since everything all ends so abruptly (yep, on that bridge), that you’re just not sure whether to be relieved or frustrated by it. It’s like they just couldn’t decide on how to end the film on paper (or perhaps didn’t even bother to wrap things up properly) and went right ahead shooting it. We really lack an ending here, and the only way I can see that getting fixed, is by a sequel that picks up right where this one left things hanging: on that godforsaken bridge.
It’s hard to positively judge or negatively criticize a film like ‘Code Red’. A story like this, is unoriginal. Most characters are underwritten and the narrative takes us nowhere (even quite literally into unfinished business, since nobody bothered to come up with a decent ending). But then again, it just sets out to bring us an action-packed zombie-infested thrill ride, which it accomplishes to some reasonable degree of success. ‘Code Red’ feels a bit like the B-movie cousin to films like ’28 Days Later’ (2002) and ‘Doomsday’ (2008). Milev‘s effort does have a bit of that same energy, but not as much thought put into it. A certain gas station scene in it that might even have you remembering Umberto Lenzi‘s ‘Nightmare City’ (1980), although I very much doubt that Milev put it in there as a reference. ‘Code Red’ is not a bore and on a technical level not incapably put together. At least zombie freaks should get a fun watch out of it. It goes for fast-paced mayhem and shocks instead of scares and tension. All fair enough, but we’ve all seen it done slightly better by now. In its own realm, ‘Code Red’ stands its ground. But compared to so many other zombie action horrors from recent years, the balance swings towards: close, but no cigar.
Trailer on YouTube.