2018 | rated R | starring Ella Hunt | directed by John McPhail | 1 hr 33 mins |
So many studio-released genre movies pick a lane and stay in it, that I absolutely delight when one mixes and matches genres to such an extreme that it would alienate half of it’s audience. Few recent movies have done this to the extremes that Anna and the Apocalypse does. A British yarn, the film is a gory, R-rated, teenage comedy musical zombie Christmas movie. Each of these story points has been done to death, but the mixture is both snappy fun and impressively balanced, keeping the whimsical moments whimsical and the dire moments dire, while navigating around one extreme to the next. The movie is positively doused with irony, blood, Christmas decor and the catchy tuneful earnestness of a full blown musical.
Anna Shepard (Ella Hunt) has decided to take a gap year after high school much to the horror of her father and best friend John (Malcolm Cumming). Plans get derailed when Anna’s high school musical life of singing, stomping and spinning lunch tray’s is turned upside down by the zombie apocalypse. Now trapped in the town bowling alley with friends Chris and Steph (Sarah Swire, stealing the movie with something of a Kate McKinnon impression), the group must make their way across the zombie infested town, decked out for the holidays to the school where Anna’s father and the rest of their friends are hunkered down by a Principal named Savage (Paul Kaye) going increasingly mad.
Anna actually kicks off before the zombies show up, with the show-stopping school cafeteria-set musical number where the film informs us of the terrible things in store (no such thing as a “Hollywood ending”) in the most catchy, bubble-gum pop way possible. That slight tip in favor of a Broadway musical with zombies in it, as opposed to a zombie movie peppered with ironic musical numbers, is what makes Anna work where it shouldn’t. It is cute and frothy, but also sincere and grounded when it needs to be. And the musical numbers, which include a ballad (“Human Voices”), a pre-drama declaration of youthful exuberance (“Turning My Life Around”) and a climactic stage fight (“Give them a Show”), are all fully-polished, cleverly choreographed West End show tunes that not only slither in the ear but move the story forward.
It’s the best thing the movie could do. It feels like the work of someone whose zombie movie reference point is Shaun of the Dead, not Dawn of the Dead. It follows the broad strokes of Shaun pretty closely with the school serving as the Winchester pub and Anna’s father for Shaun’s mother. It’s teenage dynamic is very similar to every teen movie dynamic of the last 10 years as well, with the friend group acting like every group we’ve seen from The Perks of Being a Wallflower to Love, Simon. But dammit if the whole thing doesn’t come together with such style and infectious enthusiasm. A well made movie is a well made movie.
I don’t know who this movie was made for. Chances are it’s violence is going to turn off musical fans and the teenage elements will turn off zombie fans – but I had a blast with it all. No, it isn’t anything revelatory, but director John McPhail and this game cast are giving 110% to every element here, mounting impressive musical numbers and zombie-killing set pieces. There is a sense of deja vu coursing through the story, which is next to impossible for any zombie movie not to have, but Anna is careful to keep the character journey front and center, letting the army of the undead become almost perfunctory to Anna’s rise to heroine status against the madness of Savage and keeping her friends alive. The movie shoots the zombie comedy full of adrenaline and candy cane sugar until it is thrilling again. Anna and the Apocalypse deserves a look this holiday season.