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[Herald Interview] Singing and dancing in zombie apocalypse

Scottish director talks death, “Anna and the Apocalypse”

As Korea’s biggest genre cinema display, Bucheon International Fantastic Film Festival has earned a reputation for the grotesque and zany alike. For zombie fans in particular, the July festival just west of Seoul is a holiday season on par with that other in October, and its 22nd iteration running through Sunday doesn’t disappoint. Catching attention among the pack is teen zombie Christmas musical comedy “Anna and the Apocalypse.”

Ella Hunt stars in “Anna and the Apocalypse” (BIFAN)
Ella Hunt stars in “Anna and the Apocalypse” (BIFAN)

Despite its R rating, the film cultivates a mostly light-hearted, even campy tone. BIFAN has split the wide offerings into two sections -- World Fantastic Red and Blue -- and “Anna” appears in the family-friendlier Blue section. 

“I wanted to break the acts up into three different genres,” the film’s director John McPhail explained in an interview with The Korea Herald on July 14. “So the first act was a zany teen comedy where you got to know these characters -- see all the angst and what it is they wanted out of life.” That sets up the second-act teen action and third-act flat horror genres.

The characters McPhail introduces in the small Scottish town are exaggerated high school archetypes opposed by cartoonish villain Headmaster Savage. It makes for undeniable potential for fun from first glance. So much so, in its world premiere at the Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas, in September, the original screening quickly sold out, and it eventually was expanded to six screens across two time slots. 

“People just saw that it looked like a lot of fun,” McPhail mused. 

Ben Wiggins co-stars in “Anna and the Apocalypse” (BIFAN)
Ben Wiggins co-stars in “Anna and the Apocalypse” (BIFAN)

The director himself had never worked on a musical or horror film of any kind before, though he recalled the moment seeing “Night of the Living Dead” for the first time at 8, and said he has watched every zombie film he could since. Yet if a zombie musical comedy doesn’t seem a natural fit, it’s not without precedent. The director traces inspiration to 1998 Korean film “The Quiet Place” and its 2001 Japanese remake “The Happiness of Katakuris.”

“With the music and all that side of it we didn’t just want to break in song to be like ‘Oi, it’s been 15 minutes, people want a song. Whack one in,’” the director said in his thick Glaswegian accent. “The musical aspect was just part of it.”

The music, composed by Scottish pop singer-songwriters Roddy Hart and Tommy Reilly, wouldn’t feel totally out of place on a late-teen Miley Cyrus or Hilary Duff album, especially early as the students sing of dreams to not become like every boring adult -- an easy nod to the zombie plot yet to come -- or hopes for a “Hollywood ending” in an elaborate cafeteria dance number. 

The story really comes together the morning the zombies enter, as Anna and best friend John dance through the streets with earbuds in, oblivious to the mayhem and apocalypse around them. It then shift gears into full-on zombie gore and survival mode.

While zombie films have often had political messages attached to them -- the Scottish director was asked by one cinemagoer if this expressed his message about Brexit -- McPhail emphasized it was more focused on death.

“The main theme of this film is kids dealing with death, because what the zombies are is just that element of death, that danger that can come out of nowhere,” the director explained. “You don’t want to lose your friends -- you don’t want to lose anybody -- at such a young age, but it’s part of life, it’s part of how it works ... that was a big part of it more than just this sort of political sort of mass consumerism.”

With several characters dealing with non-zombie related deaths as well, that specter also had its fingerprints on the production of the film. McPhail was not originally slated to direct. That spot had been meant for Ryan McHenry, who directed the short “Zombie Musical” in 2011 but died of bone cancer in 2015 at just 27. Afterward, the script veered into darker territory.

“It’s hard because this is sort of like a dream project of mine as well and to get it in such a way is, it’s not sobering but it’s heart-breaking,” the director said. “I’m proud of this film. And it’s my film. My team, we made this. This is my cast, and I cast this. But to get the job in this way isn’t the way I’d love to get it at all.”

John McPhail
John McPhail

As to if he’ll stick to just one genre in his next effort, “I honestly don’t care. It’s the strangest thing,” he answered. “Whatever kinda jumps out is what I wanna go for.”

“I was given the script for a K-pop musical film,” he added. “It was great, I just didn’t wind up going down the road right now.”

“Anna and the Apocalypse” is slated to release in the US and UK in time for the holidays in late November, and has secured distribution in Germany, Japan and other territories. As for Korea, “We’re just waiting to see how that goes.”

The film’s final screening at BIFAN is Saturday at Bucheon City Hall at 2:30 p.m.

By Kevin Lee Selzer (