Zombie Musicals and You: A Guide to What You Never Knew You Needed More Of
There are really only two things I miss about living in NYC: not having to drive and being able to see strange shows that pop up out of nowhere in every possible performance space you can imagine. I still have vivid memories of one such fever dream of a musical. Inspired by Night of the Living Dead, this musical tried to purport itself as a rock opera and a biting piece of George W. Bush/Iraq War satire. It failed pretty hard as both, but it did feature an absurd scene of the then current present being mauled by zombies on a golf course while bragging about saving the world through war.
Anything can be turned into a musical. That’s not a signifier of quality; it’s an invitation to try.
The zombie musical isn’t exactly the most popular subgenre of musical theater, but it does exist on stage and screen. It does make sense in its own strange way, too. Zombies are a mindless horde of slow moving horror, shambling around with the goal of consuming living brains. Give them some matching movement and a beat to dance to and you have a supernatural chorus line ready to burst out of the wings. That’s a far stronger connection and motivation than the typical “we’re in the same place so we might as well join in” logic of musicals.
For the purpose of this post, we’re going to define zombies as the reanimated dead (and not through religious phenomena or miracle—sorry Jesus Christ Superstar). They will be kept separate from the (not joking) far more popular vampire musical form. The driving force of these stories is the horror of the dancing dead as they interact with the living. This is also not an all inclusive guide. We’re scratching the surface and sticking to shows and films I’ve seen and enjoyed.
Anna and the Apocalypse
Anna and the Apocalypse is the new kid on the block for horror movie musicals. I find it utterly delightful. It’s the story of Anna, a high school student, who finally gets a break from her dull life when the zombie apocalypse hits during Christmas time. Her and her classmates sing, dance, and fight off the undead menace with any weapon they can imagine, including Christmas decorations and even a couple of watermelons. The pop theater score is catchy and clever and the low budget filmmaking really adds to the charm. “No Such Thing As a Hollywood Ending” is the best song in the show and it does what a good early ensemble number should do in a musical: foreshadow the plot and prepare you for what’s to come.
The Guy Who Didn’t Like Musicals
The Guy Who Didn’t Like Musicals is the newest musical from Team StarKid, creators of A Very Potter Musical, Holy Musical B@tman, and Firebringer. I’m breaking my own rules here as there is nothing in The Guy… that conclusively says the horde is undead. They do function very much as zombies and someone compares them to zombies once, so it’s good enough for me. It’s a meta horror musical comedy about a man who wakes up to discover his entire world has turned into a musical because of a pandemic that is forcing people to live their lives through song and dance.
The Guy Who Didn’t Like Musicals is available to watch on Team StarKid’s YouTube page.
The Happiness of the Katakuris
Takashi Miike is one of those directors who you just don’t know what to expect from. Yes, chances are he’s going to freak you out a little bit (or a lot—usually a lot) with his films. I don’t think anyone anticipated him directing The Happiness of the Katakuris, a full blown horror comedy movie musical about a family trying to run an inn on a mountainside where the guests keep dying. From the bizarre stop motion opening sequence foreshadowing the death and destruction to come to the surprisingly diverse score, The Happiness of the Katakuris is easily my favorite zombie musical and arguably one of the best movie musicals ever made.
The Happiness of the Katakuris can be streamed on Amazon Prime. It’s also available to rent or purchase on Google Play and YouTube.
It might be hard to believe, but there is a zombie musical that has become part of the educational theater canon. Zombie Prom is a pretty standard romance story for the stage. A young couple falls in love, is forbidden to be together, and spend the rest of the show fighting for their happy ending. The difference is after Toffee is forced to break up with Jonny, Jonny jumps into a nuclear reactor. Three weeks later, Jonny comes back to high school as a zombie and no one knows what to do. Zombie Prom is a wonderfully absurd show, a send up of the Golden Age romantic comedies through the lens of 1950s horror comics that still delivers on all the expected beats of a classic musical.
Evil Dead: The Musical
Listen, if the musical calls the creatures in it zombies, I’m not going to argue with it. Evil Dead is a slapstick, gory, horror musical comedy adaptation of Evil Dead and Evil Dead II (with references to Army of Darkness, as well). The creative team leaned into the absurdity of turning this into a musical with song titles like “All the Men In My Life Keep Getting Killed By Candarian Demons” and “Stupid [B].” The show is also intended to be performed with a splash zone, an area in the audience where you will be covered in stage blood; ponchos are traditionally provided. The show has had a long and successful life in regional theater around the world and it’s what it deserves.
You can listen to the original cast recording on Amazon Prime.