Anna and the Apocalypse (2017)

SEPTEMBER 28, 2018

GENRE: MUSICAL, ZOMBIE
SOURCE: THEATRICAL (FESTIVAL SCREENING)

The first job I had out of college was working QA for a software company, and it was infinitely more boring than it already sounds. To keep myself awake (which didn't always work, of course) I used the software to design a very primitive 3D animation (I called it 2.5D animation because it was so boxy - it wasn't far removed from the Dire Straits video) that I planned to use for an animated zombie musical that I wrote. I took it very seriously; storyboarding the entire script, designing some of the sets and characters, etc... but like with all my ambitious ideas life got in the way and I never finished working on it (to be fair, even if I kept it up I'd probably STILL be working on it, as animated films tend to be the work of thousands, not one asshole who didn't even really know what he was doing). Still, I held out hope I could do it someday, and thanks to Anna and the Apocalypse I know that it might actually be good, too! As nutty as "zombie musical" sounds on paper, it works!

Of course, these people know how to write songs, and were smart/talented enough to attract actual actors, so they got one up on me. Our cast is a group of high school seniors, all of whom find themselves at a crossroads - lead Anna wants to travel a bit before going to college, her best friend John is in love with her, another pal feels her relationship with her girlfriend AND her parents slipping away, etc. Basically, their days would suck even if not for the zombie outbreak that decimates most of the town overnight, giving us a group that you not only want to root to survive, but also some character driven stakes that keep us engaged even when the undead aren't on-screen. Some of the character dynamics are a bit muddled (it was a good twenty minutes before I realized Anna and John *weren't* a couple, for example) which occasionally hampers the more personal storylines, but for the most part it's a movie that might work just as well even if the zombies never showed up.

But they do, and more importantly - they don't particularly care about who you'd assume will live or die. It's not a particularly grim movie, but I was surprised more than once to see certain people get bitten, with the film ultimately giving you enough survivors to find the climax somewhat hopeful while also never once feeling particularly "safe", either. I'm sure some will write it off as too "cutesy" or whatever, but if you strip away the songs and some occasional high school drama that adults may roll their eyes at, you're left with a solid zombie story that largely refrains from embracing the cliches (there's only one "evil human", an asshole professor from their school who we know is a prick even before the zombies appear) and thankfully doesn't waste time with people trying to figure out what they are and how they can be stopped.

Which, I guess, is a good a place as any to admit that yes, the writers have clearly seen Shaun of the Dead. There's a scene where Anna sings an upbeat "It's gonna be a great day!" kind of song while remaining oblivious to the zombie carnage around her, and even if you haven't seen that film since 2004 you might be reminded of the bit where Shaun walks to the store, so caught up in his own business he doesn't notice anything amiss. The zombie discussion is also quite similar to Shaun's; these people have seen zombies in popular culture and more or less instantly accept that that is what they are dealing with, no further debate necessary. To be fair, it carves enough of its own identity that it never feels like a "rip-off" of Edgar Wright's film, but don't be surprised if you think of it more than anything from Romero or Kirkman.

But none of those dudes ever thought to have people sing about the zombies! The songs don't sound like traditional showtunes; modern pop musicals like High School Musical are more of an influence than Little Shop or Rocky Horror, and most of the songs are ensembles as opposed to solos or even duets - there might be two of those out of ten or so songs? I didn't keep track, but it's definitely lopsided in favor of letting a good chunk of the cast sing on the song of the moment. The songs themselves are bubblegum pop (unlike the more dance-inspired ones in the HSM films), and the message of most is basically "life can be a drag but you gotta keep fighting on", so it can feel a touch repetitive as it goes - and it doesn't help that the best two songs are also the first two songs, IMO - but there's so much charm it's easy to forgive. Still, if the average Kelly Clarkson hit has you wanting to plug your ears, I would probably skip this one.

Or just skip the songs, as it's not like they drench the film, with as much as ten minutes going by between them. Again I didn't keep count, but it seemed to me there were fewer songs than any other movie musical I can recall, allowing you to "get into" the film in ways most musicals don't allow. The first one doesn't even kick in until a few scenes have passed, so you might already be a bit invested before anyone even opens their mouth to sing (and, as I said, those first songs are the best ones, buying the movie more goodwill than it ultimately needed), which is a smart move for something so offbeat and also without the benefit of an existing stage show or whatever to familiarize yourself with the songs. Unlike La La Land or Greatest Showman, this doesn't have big stars to lure you in, making it all the more impressive that they even got it made, let alone with what seems like a decent-sized budget. The school gets used a lot, but there are big sequences in a variety of other locales (a bowling alley, a Christmas tree lot, Anna's neighborhood, etc.) and plenty of carnage as well, including far more bloodspray (often practical!) than I would have guessed beforehand. The filmmakers clearly aimed to please horror/zombie fans *and* musical fans in equal measures, and I think they largely succeeded.

Given the film's UK roots, largely unknown cast, and polarizing sub-genre, I'm surprised that Orion is opting to open the film wide, but it's a gamble I certainly endorse. It's a crowd-pleaser for sure, and given the film's Christmas setting it will be not just be fine counter-programming for all of the Oscar bait that will start choking our theaters come November, but also the sort of film you'll hopefully be in the mood for anyway, as it's not as mean-spirited as most Christmas horror movies are. Despite the R rating (for language and violence, though the latter is never remotely as graphic as that of Walking Dead), it's borderline family friendly, so it'll be a fine addition to your collection of seasonal Blu-rays. I know I can't wait to throw it on during one of my annual Christmas Eve Watch And Build-A-Thons (where I assemble a large Lego set while watching Christmas specials and movies), and might even make it one of Will's first zombie movies once he's ready for such fare (Shaun will probably come first, natch). Until then, I'm just happy that it exists: a zombie film with charm, satisfying me as a horror fan AND a guy who knows more Taylor Swift songs than you might expect.

What say you?

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