Anna and the Apocalypse is out now in theaters. Did you catch it over the weekend? What do you think about its mix of High School Musical and Shaun of the Dead? Check out our review below, then let us know down in the comments.
It's safe to say that so-called “superhero fatigue” is nothing next to zombie fatigue. As if there weren’t enough gritty zombie dramas like The Walking Dead, Shaun of the Dead inspired a whole generation of filmmakers to try their hands at a funny zombie comedy, to mixed results. But every once in a while, you get a fresh new vision, a film that nods to what came before while carving a whole new path for itself. This year that film is Anna and the Apocalypse, the weirdly fun and heartfelt mix of Shaun of the Dead and High School Musical, with a dash of Buffy the Vampire Slayer for good measure.
Snow is falling, Christmas carols are being sung everywhere, and the living undead are tearing apart your small Scottish town. What is a girl to do but kick butts, bash heads, and sing her way through the apocalypse? Story wise, Anna and the Apocalypse isn’t much different from your run-of-the-mill teenage musical. The titular Anna (Ella Hunt, a Buffy for a new generation) is tired of her small town life and wants to see the world before heading to university. Her best friend John (Malcolm Cumming) wishes he was more than that to her. Their film nerd friend Chris (Christopher Leveaux) and his musical theater girlfriend Lisa (Marli Siu) can’t keep their hands off each other, and the socially conscious Steph (Sarah Swire) wants to change the world.
The entire cast is instantly likable, even Anna’s jock ex-boyfriend when he’s not being a bully. They all feel trapped in their high school world, so of course the film establishes their sorrows through an inspiring and catchy song. Sarah Swire pulls double duty as a co-star and the film’s choreographer, and her work shines during the film’s first big number “Hollywood Ending." The song is destined to be a new high school anthem for teenagers everywhere. The characters’ problems are relatable, and the actors play them with genuine energy and palpable chemistry. You can sense the filmmakers were as inspired by John Hughes as they were by Edgar Wright or George Romero.
The film’s first act feels like a delightful musical version of The Breakfast Club, focusing earnestly on the high school shenanigans. Songwriters Roddy Hart and Tommy Reilly showcase their ability to not only make toe-tapping, cheer-worthy tunes with cheeky lyrics that will have you smiling, but also emotional ballads that convey heartfelt messages to make you cry, and even a show-stopping ode to Santa filled with so much innuendo that should become a new holiday karaoke bar staple. You should also consider yourself lucky the soundtrack is already out, for the wait between the film’s world premiere last year and its release was excruciating.
Once the zombies finally show up, the film goes into high gear and becomes more of a comedy, with Anna having to fight her way back to the school where her dad (veteran English actor Mark Benton) is trapped with a few survivors and the over the top, evil-eyed headmaster (Paul Kaye doing a performance for the ages). Director John McPhail shows a wide array of horror inspirations, with Sam Raimi and Edgar Wight being the most noticeable. The latter shows specially during one of the film’s standout scenes where Anna puts on her headphones and goes about her day, doing a lively and fun musical number while completely clueless about the death and mayhem happening all around her.
The sight gags and tongue-in-cheek violence (the first kill of the film involves a snowman beheading) show perfect Shaun of the Dead-inspired fast editing and comedic timing without sacrificing the gore and the horror, and McPhail makes full use of the juxtaposition of the bright and sunny holiday colors with the gruesomeness of a zombie attack. The script by Alan McDonald and the late Ryan McHenry is self-aware without diving into parody, and the witty dialogue is razor sharp, specially when commenting on how the rest of the world is faring after the zombie uprising (the kids even jokingly try to guess which celebrities have turned into zombies).
Before you ask, no, the zombies never sing, nor does the film have self-referential funny songs about the undead. While it never goes as deep into horror territory as some diehard horror fans might like, Anna and the Apocalypse knows to respect the genre, and it isn’t afraid to go far darker than most movies about high schoolers. John McPhail continues to play with color as the film’s look gets darker and darker and the characters lose their innocence and realize just how helpless they are, before taking matters into their own hands. This is best shown at a pivotal scene in a darkened bowling alley, with gunfire and explosions of the army fighting outside as the only source of light. The kids break into a heart-aching song that also gives an important message about our dependence on technology, and McPhail pulls the curtain and finally enters the horror part of the film.
Anna and the Apocalypse doesn’t invent a new wheel, but it succeeds at everything it seeks out to do while also becoming a new Christmas classic. As a comedy it is hilarious, as a horror film it makes you afraid for the characters’ gruesome deaths, as a teenage film it is earnest and relatable, and as a musical it will have you singing along to the soundtrack for days.
|The Good||The Bad|
|Catchy music that will be stuck in your head for days||Doesn’t go very deep into horror|
|Relatable and likeable characters||The main villain comes a bit out of nowhere|
|Self-aware humor that pokes fun at the genre|
|Everything about “The Fish Wrap” rapping scene|
|Manages to make its genre mashup feel natural|