“Playing Dead”: Optimism in Anna and the Apocalypse (2017)

I don’t know about you, but if you’re like me, you’ve been struggling with the festive season. It feels wrong to be happy, and anytime I start feeling festive, I immediately feel guilty. I don’t think I am the only one feeling this way, as anytime I see people marketing things on TV or talking about good news, it’s always precipitated by some note about COVID. To see people discussing the disease and then shifting to holiday stuff is quite strange, like a caroler on a burning street. But that said, what greater image is there than a person fighting for some form of optimism despite a chaotic landscape? Not undermining what is going on, simply trying to find some light within it. Now I should say, this time last year, I decided to try on optimism by telling everyone that 2020 was going to be an incredible year. Wow did that ever backfire in every possible regard. That said, I am still determined to find some joy this season, and one thing which brought me happiness was the bizarre and fantastic Anna and the Apocalypse. It might be the perfect film for our current season and era, as it’s a cheery musical which takes place in the middle of a zombie apocalypse. Talk about light in the dark.

Frequent readers will know that I am obsessed with horror musicals, and this one is particularly noteworthy in that its both optimistic and gritty. It’s an R rated film, but it’s also catchy and has a keen sense of humour. Much of this humour comes from how the film uses the musical and zombie genres by blending the tropes we associate with each. It’s not a seamless blend, as the film still wants these genres to oppose one another, that way, the singing clashes with the film’s gory subject. My favourite demonstration of this clash is the song “Turning My Life Around” which occurs early in the film, just as the zombies begin to take over the world.

“Certain death is so much fun”

The film takes place right before Christmas break in Anna’s final year of high school. She isn’t sure what she wants to do with her life, other than travel, and neither do her friends. Everyone she knows is struggling with little issues like school projects, vindictive vice principals, and crushes. But something is growing in the background, quietly edging towards these characters and their little lives. One morning, Anna wakes up and decides to have a fantastic day, in spite of the issues going on in her life. As she closes her bedroom door, we get this sustained shot from under her bed and a dramatic cord, like something is about to crawl out and follow her. And then the door suddenly swings back open to reveal Anna, who forgot to open the advent calendar on her wall. It’s not a jump scare, but it operates in a similar way. We know, just based on foreshadowing, that something terrible is about to happen, and so we are looking and waiting for that danger to arrive. Anna is also oblivious to this tension and foreshadowing, so the suspense just keeps building. However, the film quickly abandons this sense of quiet danger once Anna leaves her house, as she is surrounded by zombies, but doesn’t notice. Now, we can see the threat, but Anna is too busy singing to register that she is danger. The stakes are essentially the same, as although we know what is most threatening to Anna, she is so clueless that we anticipate the attack on her behalf.

“Spent Too Long Playing Dead”

“Turning My Life Around” is a takeoff on the famous zombie scene in Shaun of the Dead (2004), where a sleepy Shaun walks to a corner store and back without noticing the general chaos and bloodshed around him. There is one distinct difference between Edgar Wright’s scene and this one, as Wright’s sequence focuses on the aftermath of an attack, while Anna shows us a zombie invasion. Anna sings and dances right past screaming people and zombies. She isn’t heartless or sleepy, she is just distracted and has her ear buds in. We, however, see the absolute carnage going on in her cul-de-sac, from people being eaten, cars smashing into buildings, a cloud of smoke, and just insanity everywhere. Anna is blissfully unaware, and even stops to fix her coat and sing a note.

Anna’s optimistic song clashes with everything going on, yet it also addresses what is happening, unbeknownst to Anna. The victims she walks past are literally ‘turning their lives around’ by turning into zombies. In fact, the entire song foreshadows the events of the film while also highlighting what is happening in Anna’s small town. For instance, her first line in the song is, “New morning, feels different than before. It’s dawning, this thing I’ve been waiting for”, which is a reference to the film Dawn of the Dead (1978), to the end of the world (different than before), and to the general musical theater tradition. This means that Anna is referencing two genres, horror and musical theater, in addition to what is happening around her, the apocalypse.

Anna, and her friend John who joins the song, misread the fear and horror around them by focusing on the good things about it. John mentions that “It’s brighter, the haven streets are clear” without realizing why they are so clear or why that might be sinister. The lyric “Everyone’s dying here to tell me how to live, but I’m not listening” is perhaps the most obvious example of this misreading. In a traditional musical, such a line would imply that the adults of the world want Anna to live or work in a certain way, but she is a free spirit. In the horror genre, which Anna is not conscious too yet, it’s a literal statement. Everyone is dying, and the way in which they die, being bitten, tells Anna what to avoid and how to survive.

I think what is happening here is that Anna hasn’t caught on to the genre blend happening around her. Prior to this song, her life has been a typical high school drama, with a few musical themes. But now, the horror genre has invaded her life and changed the stakes. So, the film has two types of invasions. We have the literal zombie invasion, but also a thematic kind, as a new genre appears and infects the established one. Much like the zombie victims, the film slowly transforms into a horror film, retaining its musical optimism for awhile before descending into a more dramatic movie. But that said, the song also foreshadows later events in the film, which means that the Christmas optimism shown here never really dies. Its sentiment, “Live for today ‘cause you might be dead come tomorrow”, is everywhere in the film. Perhaps it becomes more literal than Anna first intended, but it is still something Anna and her friends fight for.

When Anna sings about being “miles away” in the song, the film suggests that she will eventually escape the hoard and drive “miles away”. The lyric initially refers to how oblivious Anna is, as she is “miles away” and not paying attention to what is happening. But, in the zombie genre, it tells the audience that Anna will make it out somehow, that she will achieve this goal of being “miles away” from her worries but also from this threat. Until then, as Anna suggests, its “a time to be alive” and a time to fight for that right.

Where is the Light That Used to Shine?

I love this film because it isn’t afraid to mix humor, music, and optimism with its darker subject. It might go into some extremely violent scenes, but its musical nature inherently suggests that there is hope and joy out there. The world doesn’t revert to a horrible place when Anna and her friends are around, as they’re singing and fighting at the same time. Their singing is in fact a defense mechanism, a small form of resistance against the overwhelming horror in the film. Anna thus suggests that optimism and hope are a tool, they are what keeps us fighting and keeps us sane. It is what distinguishes Anna and her friends from the zombies, as both groups move to a synchronized rhythm but for different reasons. The zombie mob stumbles together towards their next victim. Anna and her group dance, but unlike the zombies, they don’t have a reason for moving in such a pattern. I would argue that this illogical singing and dancing in the face of determined and mindless danger is what truly makes the film a Christmas movie.

Like so many other holidays films, Anna argues that horrible things can happen, but we must find joy and live. It’s the only way to combat the depression which comes from such terrible events. It’s difficult to find optimism, but ultimately, that is what distinguishes us from the unthinking undead. And that’s something which appears even in the film’s dramatic and sad ending. Without spoiling the film, as it is a must watch, Anna’s final song acknowledges that life hasn’t gone the way she thought it would, but that she still believes there is something better. It’s crucial to note that the song is called “I Will Believe”, not I believe. There is a big difference. Anna is determined to believe in a better future, regardless of the danger she presently faces. She will continue to fight, believe, and hope, now and in whatever future there is. Resolved, she sings, “but while there is hope, while I still breathe, I will believe”, as snow falls onto her bloody face as she raises her stained candy cane stake for one final stand. This powerful display of optimism and strength is why I admire Anna.

Unlike so many horror films which ridicule or parody musical theater optimism, Anna grants it a certain gravity. It never undermines the trauma occurring in the film, rather, it acknowledges terrible things while still finding humor, joy, and above all else, hope in this bleak environment. Its characters aren’t naïve, at least, not after “Turning My Life Around”. The film allows them to grow and change while still upholding this message. They are just trying to survive, and that is all anyone can do.