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Plot: one woman dares stand up against an evil industrialist empire.

The second Babes with Blades feature came three years after the entertaining but ultimately misguided Warrioress (2015). The Flower Of Sarnia was conceived and conceptualized during post-production on Warrioress (2015), and it was to be even more ambitious than the first. Once again everybody from the Babes with Blades stunt team was involved but this time Cecily Fay would not only write, produce, direct, edit, act, and score – she would also double as costume designer and action choreographer. Seeing it as an opportunity to showcase her team it’s a vehicle by, with, and for stunt people. A labor of love for everyone involved. The Flower Of Sarnia became Babes with Blades: The Flower Of Sarnia before being rebranded to just Babes with Blades. And that’s what it ultimately is all about. Call it truth in advertising. Babes With Blades delivers exactly what it promises. It’s about babes… with blades.

Whoever thought that Cecily Fay would give up after the protracted release of Warrioress (2015) might as well looks elsewhere because Cecily isn’t going anywhere. No, it seems all the troubles she was beset with during production of her debut feature only added more to her resolve to get a second out. And that perseverance and determination is at least to be admired, even in light of how Babes with Blades presents no real progress (from a technical – or writing standpoint) from Warrioress (2015). We’d love nothing more for Cecily than that she’s able to produce that one feature that would finally break her through to an audience beyond martial arts enthusiasts. To its credit Babes with Blades is in every way to superior to things like Geisha Assassin (2008), a glorified martial arts demo reel that didn’t so much pretend as to have a story. No. Babes with Blades suffers from exactly the opposite, the action scenes sometimes get in the way of the story. Where character scenes would’ve sufficed there are seemingly never-ending action scenes. Sometimes it just is better to have a character forward the story arch with words instead of punches, kicks, and blades.

The galaxy trembles under the tyrannical rule of the Visray empire. The planet Sarnia is “under seige” (no, really). Azura (Trudie Tume) is taken captive by the invading forces. Twelve years pass, and Azura (Cecily Fay) has escaped the clutches of her captors and now hides on the mining planet of Draiga 5. There she survives by staying out of sight. One day Azura is discovered and imprisoned by Visray patrols. She’s sold to slavetrader Sef (John Robb, as Jon Robb) and is forced into gladiatorial combat for the amusement of Section Commander Sorrentine (Joelle Simpson). Sorrentine is grooming her son Peltarion (Daniel Everitt-Lock) as a successor. The catacombs are overflowing with rebellion and the headforce – the brave Viridian (Cheryl Burniston), the feisty Amber (Yennis Cheung), and pricefighter Dahlia (Lauren Okadigbo) – have managed to plant a deep undercover operative in the court with Kewan (Michael Collin). Before long Azura is deemed recuperated enough for gladiatorial combat. It’s at this juncture that Kewan hands her an arcane tome from which she learns ancient martial arts.

Empowered by the knowledge from the tome Azura comes face to face with the fearsome and feared Andromeda (Jo Marriott) and later Freya (Heather McLean). Much to the chagrin of both Sef and Section Commander Sorrentine both end up defeated in the arena, and Azura soon becomes the people’s favorite combatant. With Azura’s popularity ever increasing the freedom fighters realize that the hour draws near. In Azura they not only have a formidable champion, but also their new messiah, linchpin, and figurehead for their plebeian revolution, an insurgence strong enough that it may topple the cruel Visray regime that has long oppressed them. When it’s time for Dahlia to combat Azura in the ring the various rebel factions must come together. Azura’s motives are of a more personal nature. Exacting revenge for the slaying of her people, and Section Commander Sorrentine is the most directly responsible. The only question is: can Azura put her vendetta aside and rise to lead the revolution?

While by no means original Babes with Blades manages to pack just about everything in what is not really a whole lot of story to begin with. The general template is that of Bloodsport (1988) with a central character archetype straight out of Spartacus (1960) and a non-ambiguous good-evil out of Star Wars (1977). All of that is overlain with a negligible dystopian science-fiction component and steampunk cosplay aesthetic. Sadly, it takes the route of Lithuanian shlockfest Amazons and Gladiators (2001) rather than that of Mortal Kombat (1995) (a masterclass in storytelling/worldbuilding through economic exposition and succint character introductions) or Gladiator (2000). At one point Azura is even put in a weaponized necklace, sort of like the kids in Battle Royale (2000). When Azura comes to face to face with Andromeda and Freya both get an introductory line in their respective fight, but the screenplay never introduces them properly, nor what milestone they represent in Azura’s ascent to legendary hero. Pacing is problematic at best and once past the 55 minute mark (when Azura’s gladiatorial combat wraps up) Babes with Blades sort of collapses in on itself.

All of this could have been easily resolved had each contestant represented an actual obstacle and a milestone in Azura’s growth as a character. This would have made her eventual duel with Dahlia that much more powerful, especially if we weren’t privy to the fact that Dahlia was actually a rebel – and even moreso if the reveal of Dahlia’s true loyalties coincided with the coup d'état staged by the uprising rebellion (that now anticlimactically transpires post the arena fights) crushing the Visray empire in one swift blow, simultaneously putting Azura in gladiatorial combat with her arch nemesis. Andromeda and Freya now appear as regular contestants and not imposing figures they were probably were meant as. Script problems aren’t the only thing that grind Babes with Blades down. There’s the expected shaky camerawork that either is hyper-active or positioned in such a way that the action is occasionally hard to follow, or that completely irrelevant things clog up the frame. The lighting in the Magna Science Adventure Centre in Rotherham, South Yorkshire is mostly put to good use. Some of the more vibrant hues give it that artsy Mario Bava feel. The exteriors of the Crossness Pumping Station in London are good for what they are, but that’s about it. Given that this is the work of one woman makes it impressive in a technical sense. At least Cecily Fay is not Neil Breen. No, Fay’s modest catalogue is perhaps closest to pre-2013 Rene Perez.

And it’s not as if Cecily Fay, Lauren Okadigbo, and Yennis Cheung are novices either. No, that’s about as the furthest from the truth as you could get. Cecily Fay was a stunt performer in Prometheus (2012), and Skyfall (2012). Lauren Okadigbo was a stunt performer in Wonder Woman (2017), Justice League (2017), Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018) and most recently doubled for Zendaya in Dune (2021) and Nathalie Emmanuel in F9 (2021). Yennis Cheung was in a handful of Hong Kong and South Korean martial arts movies in late 90s before relocating to the UK. That about makes Lauren Okadigbo the Helen Steinway Bailey of the piece. Music commentator and punk rock monument John Robb (of The Membranes and Goldblade, as well as editor-in-chief of Louder Than War magazine) is surprisingly solid as a poor man’s Vinnie Jones or Jason Statham. The focal point, of course, is Cecily herself. Don’t be fooled by her diminutive stature and petite frame, Fay is Britain’s own Angela Mao Ying, JeeJa Yanin, or Veronica Ngo and it’s nigh on unbelievable that this woman is practically unknown.

To its credit Babes with Blades offers a veritable avalanche of high-octane Hong Kong-inspired action routines but is marred by non-existent cinematography, choppy editing, a hokey score, and amateur actors with more enthusiasm than talent. The near-constant barrage of death-defying action sequences, both with weaponry and without, work exactly the way you want them to; but it are the character – and exposition scenes where Babes with Blades fails most glaringly. As Warrioress (2015) before it Babes with Blades has the thinnest veneer of story as a preamble to have as many action sequences as humanly possible and like that one this too often looks like a Luis Royo, Boris Vallejo, or Frank Frazetta canvas brought to life. In other words, Babes with Blades is full of, well, babes in skimpy constumes and/or impractical armor. Fay’s Lollipop Chainsaw cheerleader costume pretty much is a futuristic make-over of the little number she wore in Warrioress (2015). Babes with Blades probably would do good in hiring Ukrainian bellydancer Diana Bastet as their resident costume designer. Whether Babes with Blades is actually an inprovement over Warrioress (2015) depends entirely on your preference for no-budget, shot-on-video action demo reels with an absolute dearth of story. Since this one comes bearing The Flower Of Sarnia as chapter title that reasonably suggests there’s going to be sequels at some point. When, and if, it does hopefully it comes bearing Ken Kelly or Lorenzo Sperlonga poster art.

Plot: can Anna save Christmas from the maws of the living dead?

Is it possible to re-enact an earlier movie almost verbatim, spice it up just enough with that original touch that only great directors possess, and pass it off as something new? Apparently, the answer to that is: yes, you can. Anna and the Apocalypse is the Scottish answer to Shaun Of the Dead (2004) – but is centered around young adults and has a musical backbone. Perhaps Rachel Bloom’s limited series Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (2015-2019) has left a more of an impact on Hollywood than we’d give it credit for. No matter how much Anna and the Apocalypse steals from the original Edgar Wright classic it somehow staunchly remains its own thing. Anna and the Apocalypse is incredibly vanilla on all fronts, but especially so on the horror aspect. This is not a valentine to George A. Romero nor to all things living, dead, and undead for that matter. At heart this is your average, albeit expertly photographed, teen drama – be it with a zombie apocalypse.

What sets Anna and the Apocalypse apart from more conventional zombie horror is that before anything and everthing else it’s a teen drama first. It does the exact opposite of what Shaun Of the Dead (2004) famously did before. Where Edgar Wright made a zombie horror with a rom-com subplot, Anna and the Apocalypse is a rom-com with a zombie horror subplot. And it plays it completely straight too. Whenever the music swells characters will break into impromptu song-and-dance numbers. These numbers arrive at logical places in the story (especially for anybody who has a passing familiarity with either Bollywood or musicals in general) and enhance characterisations in ways that dialogue can’t. As such Anna and the Apocalypse is more of the The Breakfast Club (1985) and Freaks and Geeks (1999) persuasion with colorful production design and feel-good writing etching towards Enchanted (2007) on a limited budget. If the late John Hughes ever did a zombie horror, it’d probably have looked like this. Except that it’s obviously never as swooning and sophisticated as anything Hughes ever did.

Little Haven, Scotland is the sort of sleepy town where never much of anything happens. Anna Shepherd (Ella Hunt) is about to finish school and supposed to attend the university of her choice. Instead she’d love to travel for a year and see the world, but she doesn’t want to disappoint her widower father Tony (Mark Benton). Her best friend John (Malcolm Cumming) is an art student – and madly in love with her. Anna is too preoccupied with the unpleasant rumors that her ex boyfriend Nick (Ben Wiggins) keeps spreading about her to notice. Her friend Chris (Christopher Leveaux) is an amateur filmmaker and currently struggling with an assigment from Ms. Wright (Kirsty Strain), and his girlfriend Lisa Snow (Marli Siu) will be performing at the Christmas recital. Transfer student and budding investigative journalist Steph North (Sarah Swire) has difficulty selling an article critical about the growing housing - and vagrancy problem in the area to tyrannical principal Arthur Savage (Paul Kaye). Anna and John are working at the local bowling alley and Chris and Steph are volunteering at the homeless shelter when that night a zombie apocalypse occurs. The next morning Anna wakes up completely oblivious to the shambling living dead around her. Anna decides to return to the bowling alley and there she and Steph are forced to kill cleaning lady Mrs. Hinzmann (Janet Lawson). When the army send in to evacuate the school and the town is devoured by the undead the gravity of the situation dawns upon them. The only way to rescue their loved ones is to face and oppose the hordes of walking dead blocking the way.

Anybody who has seen Shaun Of the Dead (2004) will immediately notice how blatant and obvious Anna and the Apocalypse is about its naked homaging thievery. Yet despite repurposing the Shaun Of the Dead (2004) plot almost entirely and even re-enacting key scenes what makes Anna and the Apocalypse work is the pervading feel-good Christmas spirit and the rom-com undercurrent. John McPhail must have loved Freaks and Geeks (1999) because he dresses Ella Hunt exactly like Linda Cardellini in that series. The interludes alternate between angsty teenybopper songs that are surprisingly emotional and edgy self-aware songs with bitingly ironic lyrics. Lisa’s raunchy Christmas carol is an unrelenting barrage of spicy double-entendres, racy witticisms, and a boatload of unbridled sexual innuendo and is side-splittingly hilarious for exactly those reasons. Since horror was never its primary focus the winks and nods to classic zombie cinema are, understandably, far and few between. Mrs. Hinzmann is the most obvious, directly referencing Bill Hinzman or the first zombie that Barbra encounters in Night Of the Living Dead (1968). Ms. Wright is a direct, and obvious, nod to Edgar Wright. Anna riding John around in a shopping cart kinda-sorta resembles the corresponding scene with Peter and Roger in Dawn of the Dead (1978). Principal Savage’s demise at the hands of the undead at least in part evokes that of Rhodes’ in Day Of the Dead (1985). The scene with Anna and John bonding in the snow is reminiscent of Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine Of the Spotless Mind (2004).

The cast consists mostly of workhorse television actors and while nobody’s acting is particularly awful, only Ella Hunt and Marli Siu transcend the material in the positive sense. Hunt had starred in Robot Overlords (2014) prior and was an extra in Les Misérables (2012). Other than that there isn’t really a whole to say, either positively or negatively, here. The effects work is delightfully old-school with a good amount of in-camera practical effects with digital enhancement and computer imagery for the more ambitious shots. In a time where apparently everything is now done digitally (from exit wounds, blood spatters to muzzle flashes and atmospheric effects) it makes you long for those now distant simpler times when practical effects wizards as Stan Winston, Tom Savini, Greg Nicotero, John Carl Buechler, and Kevin Yagher were in constant demand. The ubiquity and affordability of digital effects has become somewhat of a bane to modern cinema and while we understand it from an economic viewpoint practical effects had a charm all their own. Anna and the Apocalypse is probably not going to usher in a new age of practical effects, it’s a little too vanilla for that, but at least its heart is in the right place. Plus the whole Christmas theme is merely decorative, never serving to either distract or annoy.

While your mileage obviously may, can, and likely will, vary Anna and the Apocalypse works well enough as both a rom-com and as a zombie horror. What it lacks in flavor, bite, and personality as far the horror aspect is concerned it more than compensates by being a colorful Christmas-themed romance that banks heavily on the feel-good. As these things go, you could do far, far worse. Don’t go in expecting any major revelations or grand deviations from a well-established formula. This is not that kind of movie. Anna and the Apocalypse never diverges from the well-trodden path and its adherence to formula and convention is what makes it a very easy viewing. Which isn’t to say that this is some overlooked classic. It obviously is not. It’s just as light as it is vapid. For those of whom who always wanted a Shaun Of the Dead (2004) for the young adult crowd, this is your chance. There’s a time and place for stuff like this. Anna and the Apocalypse is good for what it is, even if it never aspires to be anything more.