Review #17: Anna and the Apocalypse

Back in August, the New York Times ran a story film called “After a Director Dies, Friends Finish His Life’s Work: A Zombie Musical.” That musical was/is Anna and the Apocalypse. The circumstances surrounding it are quite sad, but the fact that the late Ryan McHenry was able to have his work finished – and finished this well – is something kind of like inspiring. I recommend the read.

So, yes, Anna and the Apocalypse is a musical. In the Broadway (or… I guess, West End) sense of the term. Imagine Shaun of the Dead but starring high school theater kids, and you’re 80% of the way there. This is a British movie about a zombie outbreak wherein a bunch of teenagers burst into song when the narrative feels it’s appropriate.

See this clip, which lacks zombies but will give you a pretty good sense of what’s going on. It’s pulled straight from the movie but has had lyrics overlaid on it because I guess they didn’t feel like there was enough going on onscreen. They’re distracting, but you get it.

Having been a theater kid myself in high school – you can find videos of me acting back then here on YouTube, which I don’t recommend – I have a particular affinity for this type of thing. And in general I love me a good musical. And on that level alone, Anna and the Apocalypse is a success. The songs are catchy as hell, so much so that I went home and immediately queued them up on Spotify and was already singing along with No Such Thing As a Hollywood Ending.

But the music isn’t just catchy; it’s narratively necessary, pushing along the story and allowing the characters to really express themselves in a way that your average archetype typically cannot. There is only one song of 12 that doesn’t work. It’s called “Human Voice,” and it’s a pretty good song taken on its own… Unfortunately, it has absolutely nothing to do with the scene in which it’s placed or even, to be honest, the movie itself.

Being a screed against the digitization of modern communication, it doesn’t really work to have a bunch of people singing about wanting to hear an actual human voice when they’re literally locked in a room with other people all while having phones without service. And technology in general plays basically no role in the film. There is no scene where someone is on their phone and then gets eaten and it’s all technology’s fault and etc. So… to what end? Human Voice comes off like a rant on the part of a lyricist who wanted to get something off of his chest by putting it into the actors’. It’s irrelevant and its irrelevance is distracting … but it’s also only four minutes long and is, again, performed well. Obviously, I am still thinking about it, but it doesn’t detract too greatly from the film in general.

Fifteen minutes in, a couple sitting a few seats over from me got up and left. At two different points in the movie, a Chatty Cathy to my back left got up as well; her companion certainly seemed to enjoy it, though, laughing almost as often/hard as I did. I can only assume that this was a failing on their part to understand what they were in for and also a general inability to enjoy things that are good on their own merits. Musicals are great, y’all. Full stop. And this is the best movie musical since I don’t know when.

I’m curious how it would work on a stage. I think it could definitely be adapted, the kind of thing that would play Off… or maybe Off-Off-Broadway. It’s already inspired a book – the first chapter of which is available online, and I’m seriously considering checking out the rest.

If this were 2012, I think Anna and the Apocalypse would be my favorite movie of all time. The fact that it isn’t now makes me actually feel old.

Happy birthday, grandpa.

I say 2012 specifically because that’s the year that Joseph Khan’s Detention hit theaters for precisely one week, presumably to capitalize on the lead performance by Josh Hutcherson coinciding with his ascent to the cultural consciousness with The Hunger Games. I saw it at a press screening on a whim because I had to be in the area for an unrelated thing, and I was blown the heck away. A time-travelling sci-fi/slasher/romantic comedy/coming-of-age drama from the guy who made basically every good music video ever (and would go on to make Taylor Swift’s video worthy of sensation). I saw it only a couple of years out of high school, and it felt so true to the emotions of my experience, even if I couldn’t relate to… well, any of the specifics.

It has been my favorite movie ever since, and each of my ten or so watches has just solidified that fact. Since then, movies like Girl, Asleep and The Edge of Seventeen have threatened its place, but not really any movies that aren’t coming-of-age tales about teenagers. I relate to them in a way I try not to dwell on.

Or, at least, I did.

I felt the seeds of change a little earlier this year, actually, while watching Eighth Grade. I loved that movie – four stars for sure – but I found myself on Kayla’s father’s side rather than his daughter’s. There are only a handful of quote-unquote adults in Anna and the Apocalypse, all of whom exist largely to crush the dreams of the younger generation. As such, I didn’t particularly relate to them… but I also didn’t connect with the, uh, youths in the way I expected I would, or the way I know I would have a few years back.

I guess I’m just little too far removed from these archetypes. McHenry originally pitched it as High School Musical but Troy Gets Eaten by Zombies, and everyone is about as surface level as you would might expect hearing that. I didn’t really think about that much in years past. I guess I do now.

That isn’t to say I was entirely outside Anna and the Apocalypse or didn’t feel anything during it. Quite the opposite. I felt a lot of things. I was thrilled, excited, tense, and delighted. I literally cried at least one actual tear during a particularly emotional moment, and my girlfriend cried three separate times.

That’s because this film fundamentally works. It’s a modern day Christmas Carol but with more red and less message. It is a film that aspires to be exactly the thing that it is, and it is a triumph in that. Seeing it, this truly unique little thing, in a theater is an unexpected joy, because it’s exactly the kind of movie you never see in a theater. It’s the kind of thing that you only hear about in retrospect, like on a blog or in a Youtube video. Or that shows up as a recommendation in whatever streaming service feed it ultimately winds up in. And you check it out on a whim, and you’re like, “Whoa. That was amazing.”

I knew Anna and the Apocalypse was coming. I have five Facebook friends in common with director John McPhail, at least one of whom has been raving about the film all year. So I’ve been looking forward to it for quite some time. But even so, I successfully avoided knowing anything concrete beyond the premise. I avoided trailers and spoilers, and I’m glad to have done so, because it still felt like I was making a discovery. That I got to do so on the big screen made it feel even more special.

But I look forward to seeing it on a small screen to. As soon as it hits Blu-ray, I’ll be adding Anna and the Apocalypse to my collection. And an annual viewing to my Christmas tradition.

Eight Point Three out of Ten

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