Have yourself a zombie Christmas musical
'Anna and the Apocalypse' is one of the great alternative Christmas movies.
Anna and the Apocalypse is the type of movie I love the most: the kind that makes you wonder what the cast and crew were smoking when they thought it up. The fact that director John McPhail tries for the audacious and succeeds is icing on the cake. This is a movie that deserves a rabid cult following, and the best review I can give is that you stop reading right now and rent it wherever you digitally find your films.
For those who might need more convincing, let me offer four words: zombie teen Christmas musical. Four tastes that should curdle together and yet combine into something sublime. A better musical than The Greatest Showman that also delivers more gripping zombie thrills than anything on the last three years of The Walking Dead, McPhail and his cast and crew create something special.
Bubblegum and guts
Made in Scotland and taking place in a sleepy town that finds itself beset by the zombie apocalypse, Anna and the Apocalypse might call to mind Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead. Like that film, it follows a group of young protagonists (led by Ella Hunt’s Anna) as they head back to their school for shelter. Both films could also double as coming-of-age stories, although Shaun’s is more of a late-in-life growth. But while Edgar Wright’s film had one killer sequence scored to Queen, Anna and the Apocalypse is a full-fledged song-and-dance spectacle.
By focusing on a group of teenagers, the film’s musical aspects make sense. How else to convey those feelings of adolescent angst and adventure? As Anna and her friends yearn to break free from their small town or vent their emotional frustrations, songs like “Break Away” and “Hollywood Ending” capture that time when every emotion feels uncontainable. The songs are witty, pop-fueled ditties that, in the early going, might not be out of place in High School Musical, and that makes sense; it’s the music these kids would be listening to (and it makes for a great soundtrack).
But it’s obviously not all sunshine and hearts, and the zombie violence is just as gnarly and blood-soaked as the early songs are bubblegum-scented. The film is never really scary and uses its goriest moments for comic impact, but McPhail proves that there’s still tension to be had from slow-moving hordes of the undead. There’s also a wickedly dark and funny subplot back at the school, where the headmaster (Paul Kaye) has gone drunk with power as he keeps close tabs on the outbreak’s survivors, including Anna’s father. The film’s stakes never overpower its goodwill and humor, but the zombie moments are stark enough to keep the film from treating the threat as a joke.
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Heart as well as guts
There are a million ways Anna and the Apocalypse could go wrong, most of which stem from tone. Too light and poppy and the zombie scenes become a joke. Too dark and the music can’t cut through the grimness. There are only two ways I could see this weird concoction working: Either lean hard into irony so everything is a joke, which is probably the easiest way and the least satisfying, or take the concept seriously.
While Anna and the Apocalypse is often funny, its greatest asset is that McPhail chooses to go for the more difficult route, treating his characters with sincerity and heart. Anna and the Apocalypse is entertaining when Kaye stops to vamp for a song or a preening douchebag sings “When it comes to killing zombies, I’m the top of my class/While you were hiding, I was kicking some ass,” and it has some clever gore moments, such as a wonderful zombie kill with two bowling balls. But it truly shines when the film’s heart shines through and the characters’ yearning is treated as serious business.
Like I said, the early songs work best not because they’re witty (although they are), but because they capture that soaring, overflowing rush of emotions that accompanies the teenage years. But when the zombies arrive, McPhail doesn’t lose sight of the film’s beating heart. What started as a celebration of teenage joy and excitement instead captures the fear of growing up in a world that is more dangerous and destructive than you’d believed, and one where your parents won’t always be there to protect you from the monsters that lurk out there.
McPhail balances the goofy humor, memorable songs, zombie violence and adolescent allegory without the whole thing falling apart. He keeps the violence at a cartoonish level in most places to balance out the exuberance of the music, but the film takes the threat seriously enough that the deaths that occur, particularly in the film’s back half, have weight and heartbreak. And where too many zombie tales revel in despair, Anna and the Apocalypse ends on a touching reminder to keep hope alive even at the end of the world.
Of course, a game cast is also essential to walking this kind of tightrope, and McPhail surrounds himself with a cadre of great young actors, most of whom are unknown to American audiences. Hunt, in particular, is revelatory, balancing teen angst and flippancy with badass survival instincts and a wonderful voice. Kaye is a lot of fun as the human villain, bringing just the right amount of camp to keep the film from getting too dark. Christopher Leveaux is winning as Anna's best friend, who harbors a crush that he’s too scared to do anything about, and Ben Wiggins is phenomenal as Anna’s ex, who gets an opportunity to indulge his worst impulses when the zombies erupt. The film veers slightly into love triangle territory and then, in its final act, takes a surprising and endearing turn for all the characters, bringing them to a place that is far from where the formula usually goes.
Anna and the Apocalypse is fueled by the energy of a cast and crew doing something original and probably a bit insane, and it creates a sense of pure joy as we realize they’re actually pulling it off. It’s become an annual must-watch Christmas film.