Apart from Stoker’s Dracula, I’m not sure I have really ever been a wild fan of the vampire tale. Over the years, I have encountered some memorable and unique takes on vampire stories (the films: Lost Boys, Fright Night, Let the Right One In, Cronos, Near Dark, to name a few; the novels: Let Me In, ‘Salem’s Lot, I Am Legend, The Historian, and most recently, The Passage), but for every novel retelling in film or fiction of the vampire myth, along comes something like The Twilight Saga. In short, I simply believe the genre is, at this point, over-saturated.
The same may be said for the zombie apocalypse. I boarded this train long before it became fashionable to do so. In the early ‘80s, I discovered George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead and from there explored the totality of the singular mythos he created. At that time, I also sampled several of the Italian zombie films of Lucio Fulci (Zombi, City of the Living Dead, and The Beyond). However, even this particular genre grew tiresome as these films quickly devolved into spectacles recalling the theater of the Italian Grand Guignol, the totality of the films becoming less important than the display of novel and increasingly violent ways of dispatching humans and zombies alike.
Both the vampire and the zombie have remained staples of horror fiction and film right up to the present. With regard to the latter, The Walking Dead breathed some fresh life into the ambling undead. However, with its success, it was inevitable that storytellers of all kinds would try to cash in on the comics’ and the television series’ successes. Thus, what was new again quickly grew stagnant.
Long ago, there was this girl…she was a drama student and heavily into musical theater. In an effort to find more common ground we could share, I set aside my prejudices against such trite entertainment and committed myself to the task of discovering what about it appealed to her. It should be noted that she was in and out of my life before I had the opportunity to follow through with my pledge. Nevertheless, I went ahead with my plans. Of course, I stuck to the most mainstream and popular shows of the day (mostly those of Andrew Lloyd Webber: Cats, Phantom of the Opera, Sunset Boulevard, etc., but also Les Misérables, Jekyll and Hyde, Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King…), and I was surprised to discover that I actually liked some of it. Next, I tried opera, but that didn’t stick (though some day I hope to see in its entirety Wagner’s Ring Cycle).
In short, what I’m here trying to communicate is that the idea of The Musical no longer held for me an inherent aversion. Of course, there are those I like, those I tolerate, and more that I avoid as a matter of mental self-preservation. But really, for the first time, I experienced the broadening of horizons and an appreciation for more than the hard rock music and tales of adventure, fantasy, and what goes bump in the night, which, at that time, were all that made up the buffet to satiate my entertainment appetites. It was as if my eyes had only ever been opened a fraction and now, they were opening ever wider.
There is, of course, more to this embrace of ever-expanding interests, but let’s stay the course upon which we originally set…
All of this brings me to the present. Perhaps Joss Whedon’s Buffy, The Vampire Slayer initiated the trend with the episode, “Once More, With Feeling,” but it seemed to quickly become not that uncommon for television series developers to entertain ideas of having musical episodes. We even, now, are saying goodbye to four seasons of a critically-acclaimed television musical comedy, My Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (my favorite number from the first two seasons—sadly, we are behind in episodes, having had other programs pull away our attention for the past two years…there’s just too many to explore and follow with any regularity—is entitled, “I Gave You a U.T.I.” It’s hilarious, check it out).
So, by now, it goes without saying that I appreciate a well-executed musical, particularly some bizarre and unexpected mash-up of story and song.
And along comes Anna and the Apocalypse to put a whole new spin on zombies, musicals, and the Christmas movie, of all things.
To say that I was hooked from the opening number would be an understatement. “Break Away” is a short, punchy, phenomenal song and a clear indicator of what the film has in store for the viewer. For the most part, the film’s musical numbers exist as pieces that are able to stand alone on their own, apart from the film itself. Other songs, “Hollywood Ending” and “Soldier at War” are equally infectious, and “It’s That Time of Year” is simply hilarious in its subtle raunchiness. It’s that rare pairing where song advances story yet also can bear the burden of actually being a good song that one can appreciate separate from the film. This is what the makers of Anna and the Apocalypse have accomplished triumphantly.
Though the story is simple and the characters mostly stock stereotypes that provide easy access to their motivations, the film as a whole does not suffer from this. This is a rare occasion where familiar tropes do not lessen the impact or import of the events occurring beyond the characters themselves. Moreover, each character is portrayed in such a way that they do rise slightly above the familiar stereotypes on exhibition, and one does find oneself invested in each character’s narrative, particularly those of the three leads. Ella Hunt is beautiful and carries successfully the weight of the film as its conflicted titular heroine, and Sarah Swire is charming as the gay American transplant to the Scottish high school, the main setting for the film, who, though socially awkward at times, displays a biting sarcasm and endearing vulnerability. More importantly, her sexual orientation is not made an issue in the film. She is who she is and that is all that matters. Malcolm Cumming as John is Anna’s best friend whose love for her goes tragically unrequited. The actors have a definite chemistry that gives authenticity to the relationship while making it all the more poignant in the end.
This isn’t a deep film, by any means. It is meant to be fun and funny, and it succeeds in doing just that. This is paint-by-the-numbers filmmaking, but don’t let that dissuade you. Just sit back and let yourself get swept up in the subtle spectacle and the amazing soundtrack. And if that isn’t enough…
Zombie-kill by teeter-totter. Just sayin’…
We need more films like this to breathe new life into these tired genres. For now, I’ll take this as a small step in that direction and bide my time until I get a Cthulhu Mythos-inspired musical. Or an X-Files or Supernatural musical.