Traditionally, the western and horror films of legend are male dominated. But the real fan knows that the lifeblood of these genres are women characters; from icons like Annie Oakley and Ellen Ripley to the classic ‘final girl’ archetype who outwits the psycho-slasher, the ladies have been the strong, soulful yin to the dark yang of the bad guy. So when the genres collide and the dusty, outback western meets the apocalyptic zombie epic, the lead actress was going to have to be something special. Meet Vanessa Moltzen, star of Bullets for The Dead…
A VCA graduate with key roles in genre pics I am Evangeline (2015) and Tracy (2016) to her credit, Moltzen commands the screen as Annie Blake in debutant director Michael Du-Shane’s splattery mash-up of hard-bitten frontier adventure and gut-gnawing undead shocker. Audiences get their first look at the statuesque Annie as she robs a bank and slays some innocents, a big-screen entrance as good as any in recent memory.
“We see her at the beginning of the film as a cold-blooded killer, (but) she needed to have some redeeming qualities,” says the actress, who left behind her Sydney base for an extensive location shoot in the Queensland wilderness. “It was apparent that Annie had a depth that was complex, and a pain from family history that was a struggle to overcome. I found her through research and improvisation."
Working from the broad outline provided in the script by Du-Shane and co-writer Joshua C. Birch (based upon their 2011 short, 26 Bullets Dead), the actress wove a backstory that helped reveal Annie’s psyche and shape the performance. ”I didn't want to make her some cardboard cut-out,” says Moltzen. “She had strong reasons for her reckless ways, was brought up in a less than ideal environment that shaped (her) behaviour.” The actress also saw in Annie a yearning for blood ties and the bond they create. “She lost her family so she created a new one in her gang of outlaws (played by Renaud Jardin, Troy MacKinder and Karl Blake). She is fiercely loyal and protective of them.”
One unique aspect of Annie’s character is her sexual guile, an allure that generates a palpable physical chemistry with tough-guy bounty hunter Dalton (Christopher Sommers; picture, below, with Moltzen), who is taking the gang in for the price on their heads. “It’s a front at first, used to intimidate and challenge Dalton to see if he can handle her,” says Moltzen, who spends most of the film in her period undergarments. “But underneath, she desperately longs for someone who can see beyond her tough exterior. Back then, a woman her age would have been expected to be demure and married with a child. She is none of those things so she owns what she has. It’s most likely that she is a virgin.”
Du-Shane’s film is rich in western iconography and imagery, with Moltzen’s Annie Blake recalling such great cinematic frontierswomen as Barbara Stanwyck in Anthony Mann’s The Furies (1950) or Raquel Welch’s title character in Burt Kennedy’s Hannie Caulder (1971). “I watched a lot of westerns,” she admits, citing Kelly Reichhardt’s Meek's Cutoff and Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven as key influences. “The relationship to the harsh landscape and the expectations of the woman’s role in society was interesting to explore,” she says, also noting the bush shoot was not always an easy one. “I had a scorpion at my feet one day,” she laughs, “(but) I love being out on location. The smell, the grit, the texture of the landscape, the muggy air, the hot sun, it's all is part of the story.”
As for the bloodbath that comes with starring in a zombie flick, Moltzen admits to ending the shoot a little rattled. “I watched a bunch of zombie films beforehand as research, and I know there are some cracker scenes in our film that zombies fans will love,” she says, enthusiastically, “but on set it can be quite shocking to see all that blood and guts. I don’t need to do another scary film for a while.”
Screen-Space managing editor Simon Foster will co-host a Bullets for The Dead Cast & Crew Q&A, courtesy of the distributor Monster Pictures, on Thursday, August 18. Full details and ticket information at the venue website here.