I have been working as a film journalist since 2010, dividing the first four years between radio broadcasting and entertainment writing in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. In 2014, I entered Fresh Fiction (FreshFiction.tv) as the features editor. The following year, I stepped into the film critic position at the Denton Record-Chronicle, a daily North Texas print publication. My time is dedicated to writing theatrical film reviews, at-home entertainment columns, and conducting interviews with on-screen talent and filmmakers, as well as hosting a podcast devoted to genre filmmaking (called My Bloody Podcast). I've been married for seven happy years, and I have one son who is all about dinosaurs just like his dad.
Preston Barta // Features Editor
AUSTIN – One of the most exciting films that premiered at Fantastic Fest 2017 was ANNA AND THE APOCALYPSE, a hysterical Christmas zombie musical (yes, you read that correctly) about a teenager (Ella Hunt) and her friends (including Malcolm Cumming, Sarah Swire and Christopher Leveaux) who are visited not by Santa for Christmas but a zombie outbreak!
The trailer released last month, which you can watch here or at the bottom of this article, so you can get a taste of what you’re in for. To let you in on more of the fun, we chatted with the cast and director John McPhail for ANNA AND THE APOCALYPSE at Fantastic Fest. We talked about the film’s fascinating themes, the detailed sets, the humor and the idea of individuality in coming-of-age stories.
Preston Barta: I really want to tap into some of the themes in this film, because I think that’s what surprised me the most about this film. On the surface, this film looks like a fun, horror musical, but once you see it and pay attention to the lyrics to the songs, you notice there comments on how technology today has turned us into to zombies, love and modern relationships.
John McPhail (director): “Yes. From day one when I came onboard, there was this coming-of-age story, that loss of innocence, and these questions like, ‘What kinda world do we live in for our kids?’ That was all there in Ryan McHenry’s original drafts. (Trivia: The late McHenry was the person behind all the great Ryan Gosling cereal videos.) I feel like we tackled them with grace. Many of those themes come through the character moments, and I feel like these guys [pointing at his cast] took those elements and really nailed them.”
Ella Hunt (“Anna”): “Yeah, we were really excited to take on something that — Yes it’s a zombie musical, but it’s deep rooted in honest stories about young people. It doesn’t stereotype them. You may have the archetypal characters but they’re so well-rounded that we get to explore what it is to be a young person being disillusioned with what they expect and their hopes for life. It’s a survival story but it’s about coming of age.”
Sarah Swire (“Steph” and the film’s choreographer): “I think what the writers, [McHenry] and Alan McDonald, wanted was to develop this story, or concept of what will our parents think of their children, what world are they leaving behind for other people to live in and to discover and thrive, and be kind of like the core moral of how these other beautiful themes kinda blossom out of.”
Aesthetically, this movie is also beautiful. It reminded me of going through a haunted house, where each scene was so lush and detailed.
Malcolm Cummings (“John”): “Yeah. I think shooting in the school was an insane experience, because that was unit based and we had this kinda green room sort of thing going on. We just had so much fun tearing about that school and were just encouraged to indulge in that, because we’re playing school kids in this film so we need to misbehave a little bit. So on day one of shooting we were all getting under a ball pit to try and get away from zombies in this ridiculous scenario; we’re just immediately friends. We’re like all absolutely fine with being right in each other’s faces and stuff like that. So it was really special to just have everything and everyone there and early on in that early part of shooting was so cool.
Hunt: “My most magic moment was there’s a scene between [Cummings] and I where we’re making snow angels. They set the snow and the scene, and it was so beautiful, and we were overlooking this lake and it was just so special to be making something so aesthetically beautiful and also honest and exciting. And we had such fun shooting that scene cause it’s play. It’s young people being young.”
Speaking of that particular scene, which is a rather light and sort of romantic scene. Was it challenging at all to balance the different tones of the film? Because you have a scene like that that’s very sweet and then you go to something that’s a little horrifying like the fleshing-eating snowman, and then you have something that’s super funny, like the scene that got the most laugh out of the audience: The sexualized song on stage where Marli Siu (“Lisa,” another student at the school) sings about unblocking the chimney.”
Hunt: “[Laughs] Unloading Santa’s sack.”
Cummings: “I think this is the thing, I think sometimes when we’re representing things, we think that life isn’t like that, when in fact it does move that quickly. When horrible things happen, humor is one of the most amazing ways to deal with some of the hardest moments in life–“
Hunt: “Especially as a teenager.”
Cummings: “Yeah, you’re just going all over the place and people are sad, and happy and everything in the same day, and through this, I think everything was so meticulously thought out and had been developed for so long that it was actually pretty easy because the transitions were just there.”
Hunt: “Yeah, and [McPhail] really helped us balance that. Right from the start of the audition process, [producers Naysun Alae-Carew and Nicholas Crum] — because we didn’t have [McPhail] attached on as the director at that point — were like, ‘To make the film we want it to be, your performance has to be real and it can’t be mocking.’ As an actress, that was so exciting to hear that direction for something as playful as this. It was a real joy.”
What I really like about zombie movies, and the horror franchise in general, is all the incredible death scenes, and there are some good ones in ANNA AND THE APOCALYPSE. What are some of your all-time favorite movie deaths?
Cummings: “I mean this is kind of a cheat, but there’s a YouTube compilation of all of Sean Bean’s deaths (see video here), and I just think that that video is just pure poetry because that man has had so many TV and movie deaths. It’s like he doesn’t even go for the same thing every time. Even if he dies the same, he’s got these thought out reactions during that situation. I love all of those. They’re gold.”
McPhail: “The first thing that pops in my head is not really a death, but in ZOMBIE (1979). When the zombie eats the shark in the sea (see video here, which features one of my favorite movie scores), that for me is like… that’s out there! Zombie eating a shark? It’s a real shark and a real stunt man. It was amazing, but that was the ’70s.”
Swire: “Yeah, I can’t even think of anything. I think these two answers are the best.”
McPhail: “Hans Gruber at the end of DIE HARD, or all the ones in PREDATOR.”
Cummings: “Yeah, those got pretty creative. FIRST BLOOD.”
McPhail: “All the Arnold Schwarzenegger movies, like RUNNING MAN. [Does an impression of Arnold] ‘Sub zero, now plain zero.”
Christopher Leveaux (“Chris”): “Voldemort dying.”
Hunt: “Oh, and King Joffrey’s death in GAME OF THRONES. When he died, I think we were all like, ‘Finally!’
McPhail: “At the end of DREDD, the way the antagonist dies in slow-mo before hitting the ground.”
Being that this is a coming of age story. So much about this movie promotes individuality. What is the most unique thing that you can say about each other as people?
Swire: “That’s heavy.”
Leveaux: “Malcolm, nutters; Sarah, nutters; Ella, nutters; Chris, nutters; and John, nutters. It’s real nutters. In our own very specific, nutty way. [All laugh.]”
Hunt: “I can’t do one word, but when [Cummings] was first attached to the film — we’d seen a lot of people audition for John — and he came into the room, I hadn’t chemistry work with him, and he came in having been cast, and he was wearing this kind of bright green jumper with an elf or something on it.”
Cummings: “Oh yeah, I wore my Christmas jumper to the reading. It said ‘hashtag elfie.’ People said, ‘Oh, you got the jumper you’re gonna wear in the film.’ I said, ‘Nope. I brought this from home.”
Hunt: “So I think with [Cummings], he’s so was John. That was incredible to see.”
Swire: “I think Marli Siu asked if Malcolm was method? I was like, Why?’ Cause he’s so much like John.”
Cummings: “I was so method before this film was even on IMDb. [All laugh].”
McPhail: “One we can point out is Ben Wiggins (“Nick”), who you would think is a total douche bag, but is actually the sweetest, loveliest young man in the entire world.”
Hunt: “[Swire], she’s a firework. So most people they kinda go up and down during the day. [Swire’s] always up. She was on set like 24 hours a day. If she wasn’t acting, she was choreographing. She stayed up throughout the entire shoot. I was like, ‘How does she do it?'”
Cummings: “Your laugh sums it up.”
Swire: “Like I’m slowly losing my life… What I can say about [Leveaux] is that he is super selfless but also extremely mischievous.”
Cummings: “He can’t sit still, so he either has to do the nicest thing for someone or he has to just be mischievous and disappear and run away. So it’s like he’s either doing the loveliest thing like bring you a muffin and a coffee, or he’s gonna hide and try to jump-scare you and hide your things.”
Swire: “Ella is Anna. No one could play this role except her. She’s so badass, so professional, so generous and wise beyond your years… And [McPhail], he’s like coffee. Our big brother.”
Cummings: “[McPhail] is a shrug and a film reference.”
Swire: “A film reference we’ll never get.”
ANNA AND THE APOCALYPSE will release in select theaters Nov. 30, expanding nationwide Dec. 7
This article originally ran last year, on Sept. 24, 2017, but has been updated for its theatrical release.