Given that the United Kingdom has produced some of the most enduring popular music of the 20th Century, it is surprising that it hasn’t produced more enduring, original musicals. On the stage, Andrew Lloyd Webber and his collaborators have crowded out the market for over 40 years, taking inspiration from pre-existing texts, some of which were not written by Brits – The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux, Cats after T.S. Eliot’s poems.
The best musicals focus on aspiration, with visionary protagonists singing their dreams, The Greatest Showman, beloved of this website, being the most recent example. In the movies, the last great British screen musicals were Tommy (1975), based on a rock opera by The Who, about a mute, visually and aurally impaired young man (Roger Daltrey) with a talent for pinball, and The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), directed by an Australian and featuring Americans in the leads. Although as far as musical sequences are concerned, the finale of Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979) – ‘Always look on the bright side of life’ – was a suitable epitaph. I must confess that I’m not a fan of Pink Floyd: The Wall filmed by Alan Parker – it doesn’t work as a narrative. As for Absolute Beginners – don’t get me started.
The non-zombie antagonist is Savage (Paul Kaye, whose credits include playing a zombie at the Winchester pub in Shaun of the Dead, an inspiration behind the film). He desperately can’t wait to be King – sorry, Head Master – once the current incumbent has retired, and displays questionable attitudes towards the teenagers performing in the end of term show. Antagonist number two is Anna’s ex, Nick (Ben Wiggins) who cyber-shamed Anna, but wants her to crawl back to him.
In the film, written by Alan McDonald and Ryan McHenry and directed by John McPhail (2015’s Where Do We Go From Here) zombies turn up gradually and are mostly older people. As with Shaun of the Dead, the fun comes from the kids crunching the head with bowling balls and other appropriate props, which only goes so far. Anna’s imperative is to rescue her father and, erm, catch a plane.
In many ways, Anna and the Apocalypse is an anti-musical. Zombie hordes place a real dampener on ambition and there is pathos when characters we care about are bitten. Songs like ‘No such thing as a Hollywood ending’ underline the point. Ultimately, the film turns on a clash between Anna and Savage, whose twisted ambition is aided by circumstance.
Musicals are judged by their songs – their hooks. Sadly, the tunes here don’t linger, the lyrics nonsensical. When one character sings ‘I need a human voice’, you wonder, ‘as opposed to a Google assistant?’ In a sense, the zombie musical has already been done to death in the extended pop video Michael Jackson: Thriller directed by John Landis. The image of the King of Pop dancing with a collection of grave dodgers pretty much shows the limits of the sub-genre.
Nevertheless, the cast are infectiously personable and there’s definitely a market for a film that bunches together genre tropes and takes them on the road. Ultimately, Anna and the Apocalypse is a film that wishes it was The Rocky Horror Picture Show but doesn’t enshrine the pleasures of the musical in a horror movie context. I’m still waiting for the next great British movie musical.
Anna and the Apocalypse is out on Blu-Ray today!