As a massive fan of happy-go-not-so-lucky genre hybrids, it should come as no shock that I abso-f$%king-lutely dig John McPhail’s Anna And The Apocalypse – his Scottish Christmas horror musical zombie invasion flick with a heart of solid gold (written by Ryan McHenry and Alan McDonald). High School Musical meets Footloose meets Shaun of the Dead, with all the yuletide yucks you could want. Each song so deliberate in message – warnings about social media hypnotism to escaping small-town mentalities – and each zombie interaction coated in appropriate amounts of bloodshed. Gremlins, Anna And The Apocolypse, Black Christmas – my new favorite X-Mas triple feature.
Ella Hunt stars as Anna, a high school teen who dreams of jet-setting before her university stint and the pursuit of a successful career. Father Tony (Mark Benton) disagrees with his daughter’s decision – as any protective parent would – but a freak event keeps Anna from fleeing her simple little community – the zombie apocalypse. Together, with friends John (Malcolm Cumming), Steph (Sarah Swire) and Chris (Christopher Leveaux), Anna must face her manifested demons in zombified form. Singing and dancing her way through hordes of walkers, bludgeoning skulls to the beat of show tunes and 80’s rock accompaniment alike.
Certainly not the same old song-and-dance for genre fans.
‘Tis the season in Anna And The Apocalypse, and despite horror influences, sentiments are every bit as jovial and jolly as the holidays suggest – starting with musical numbers. From Lisa’s (Marli Siu) innuendo-laced Christmas Special number about getting her “chimney cleaned” and Santa “unloading his sack” – in front of a family audience – or a cafeteria number about bullshit expectations and there being no such thing as “A Hollywood Ending,” production quality is that of Broadway life-affirmation.
Lyrics are beyond sincere, sung from the heart and belted with theater-filling confidence. From Steph’s ability to steal a stellar solo to Anna’s fight-dance choreography while wielding a bloody candy cane decoration. Jets-vs-Sharks smoothness, Rock Of Ages coolness (play, not the movie), inescapable Zac Efron cheesiness that is so Disney-sweet yet still youthfully awakening – the apocalypse has never been so addictive.
One must acknowledge the Edgar-Wright-esque zombie carnage that complements every song past Anna’s cheery morning game-changer (headphones on, dancing around ravenous zombies), because this is, in fact, a horror comedy. Musical or not. Sarah Swire acts as both Steph – a social-justice schoolgirl with a passion for journalism – and the film’s choreographer, able to synch beats with thematic beatings. Anna stabbing zombie eyes with pencils while singing about coming into her own, or Nick (Ben Wiggins), the douchebro zombie hunter, bashing undead skulls while crooning his “Soldier At War” tune (hints of Freddie Mercury). McPhail’s first showcase kill – a seesaw snowman beheading – comes at a perfect time when we’re just about to question the film’s commitment to horror, then a geyser of blood erupts from a headless torso. It’s certainly not nonstop slice-and-dice action, but given rhythmic circumstance, gruesomeness contrasts the sunny disposition of each upbeat song.
In a musical, you’re only as successful as your performance productions, and Anna And The Apocalypse is an audible delight of international talent both on-foot and through song. There’s no slouch once backing tracks kick in. You’ve got Hunt as the starry-eyed Anna who’s voice is both full and soothing, but there’s never a domination of talent. Malcolm Cumming is just as enthusiastic when trying to belt his way outside the friend zone, or there’s Swire, who’ll come out of nowhere with a pitch-perfect harmony. Christopher Leveaux, Paul Kaye as zany headmaster Mr. Savage (a very Rocky Horror type character who’ll be an instant fan-favorite), Marli Siu, the aforementioned Ben Wiggins, Mark Benton – everyone brings Broadway bravado to this big-screen singalong, which’ll light up audiences like a 1,000-watt tree-topper.
Some might suggest an imbalance of horror and theatrics, but Anna And The Apocalypse does something genius that so many zombie films ignore – it immediately acknowledges the freakin’ apocalypse. Don’t you hate when films play coy and suggest that zombie cinema has never been invented? “What’s happening, I have no idea!” Blah. Not here. John – without hesitation – remarks that zombies have risen from the grave, and there’s never any dancing around the subject (ideologically speaking, of course). Just killing, carnage and too many high notes to count.
Kudos to a film that knows exactly what it is. Direct ties to Shaun Of The Dead – down to editing techniques and the introductory doomsday number – are all built on even more iconic genre craftsmanship. You can’t pay respect to Wright without mentioning Sam Raimi, for example. It’s never *stealing* mind you, just an acknowledgment that without a paved road for such jubilant madness, McPhail might be singing a different horror tune. All winks and tips of hats, baked into crowd-pleasing, knee-tapping brilliance. As the film’s opening title suggests, “what a time to be alive” indeed.
Anna And The Apocalypse is this year’s feel-good Christmas hit…with zombies as an added bonus. Whatever you’re watching for, rewards are plentiful. Gift-wrapped practical effects slathered in red goo? Deep, touching melodies sung with the most empathetic and resonating passion? Coming-of-age highs, survival horror tension, and a fantastic joke about the one, the only, Taylor Swift? Christmas already boasts some of the best holiday-based horror films, and thanks to John McPhail, fans a have another mandatory winter watch for when they’ve been good little boys and girls – but don’t worry, it’s still naughty in all the right ways.
Anna And The Apocalypse is an enthusiastic coming-of-age musical that cares just as much about bellowed heart and soul as it does keeping horror fans entertained.