ANNA & THE APOCALYPSE is everything you’ve heard: it’s a musical comedy with Zombies set at Christmas. If that doesn’t jingle your bells from the get-go, well you’d best get going. If it intrigues you, even the slightest bit, you’ve got to check it out. This movies is bonkers good!
Immediately upon hearing the premise, you’re probably stuck wondering how the filmmakers could possibly juggle such differing tones, cinematically and quite literally, and you wouldn’t be too off-base doing so. But they do; trust me, they do!
ANNA & THE APOCALYPSE was initially conceived by filmmaker Ryan McHenry, who brought us the classic piece of online amusement that is “Ryan Gosling Won’t Eat His Cereal”. Beginning in 2011 McHenry created the idea for “Zombie Musical” and grew his idea from a short film to a full-length feature, gathered musical talents Roddy Hart and Tommy Reilly to write the songs, and was all set to make his dream a reality. Sadly, his osteosarcoma caught up with him in 2015 and claimed his life. For a time, it looked like it took the film, as well.
Producer Naysun Alae-Carew couldn’t let that stand, though, and bade his team to continue working on the film. He enlisted director John McPhail (WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?) to direct the feature and now we have our film, distributed by Orion Pictures in the United States and premiering in select cities this Friday before expanding December 7th.
Starring relative newcomer Ella Hunt (ROBOT OVERLORDS) as the titular Anna, Malcom Cumming as her best friend John (who’s secretly in love with her), Sarah Swire as Steph, the resident American, and Ben Wiggins as Nick, the heartthrob jock whose despicable heart is wrapped in attractive packaging. If it sounds like HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL, you’re on the right track. What the film does well is tap into the experience of those teenage years, where every emotion feels so big and immediate that it might eat you, and your latest existential crisis is enough to tune you completely out of the world around you. Even if it is literally falling apart.
When the bodies start to drop, or walk, in this case, our heroines and heroes are too concerned with their social lives and smartphones to notice at first. When the curtain is finally pulled away, we’re given a taste of something more akin to SHAUN OF THE DEAD, and the rest of the film plays as a perfect little toddler of these two disparate films. The characters rarely step outside of their confines (Paul Kaye’s turn as Headmaster Savage never veers off the course of strict villainy) and the tropes fall as leaden as if this WERE a High School Musical, but that’s all by design. When the zombie apocalypse begins to encroach on our core group, you’d think your emotions are safe as your attachments are thin at best, but don’t discount the performances and story’s ability to surprise you.
The comedy is omnipresent, and sprouts from every conceivable seed: the students’ dissociation with authority, the menial work one finds as a teenager, the jocks-vs-the artists, John’s unrequited love, and yes, even the absurdity of a zombie outbreak. Unlike THE WALKING DEAD, our protagonists are aware of their reality once being ludicrous fantasy, and even take a moment to ponder which of pop culture’s most noted figures could be taken by the viral apocalypse. Even Ryan Gosling gets a mention.
The music is fiendishly good. The songs are brilliant, well-performed, and timely. The big number of the first third of the film, “Hollywood Ending”, is a wonderful meta-commentary on the characters as they envision themselves and also an inside nod to the audience who know the premise’s full title. It’s an upbeat tune with a splendid dance number (choreographed by co-star Sarah Swire) whose exuberance echoes sinister when it resurfaces at the end of the film. The song “Human Voice” is a testament to that further isolation that now accompanies adolescence, the smartphone. As technology falls silent and disconnects our principle leads, they bemoan their distance with a pop-synth track dedicated to the magic of true personal connections. Keeping the comedy alive are Marli Siu’s “It’s That Time of Year”, an innuendo-laden track about a high-schooler’s infatuation with banging Santa Claus, and Paul Kaye (GAME OF THRONES) belting out every teacher’s fantasy of profanity in “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Me Now”.
What’s that, you ask? The horror? Is there horror? Why, yes, there is! There is zombie killing aplenty, and the occasional living human gets ripped apart, too. It doesn’t take too long for our protagonists to get used to the idea, either. Our chief jock, Nick, takes to the new world normality of the living vs the dead as though he were born for the time; leading the savages like a true LORD OF THE FLIES, he is even given a fun musical number to accompany the maiming. Oh, and if you’re still team John, Nick can sing, too, so tally that into factor.
The story is Anna’s, of course, and rightfully so, but the performance that impressed me the most was Sarah Swire as Steph. As an American dumped into the Scottish Academy at Little Haven to give her homophobic parents distance, she’s a fish-out-of-water who learns to swim with maturity and confidence once the thin constructs of high school social hierarchy are stripped away. Some of the most impactful dramatic moments, and all of the best comedic moments, are hers. I was consistently impressed with her timing and use of facial expressions to act circles around her co-stars. Her singing voice was surprisingly strong, as well. She will be a talent to watch in the coming years.
For an independent feature, the production of ANNA & THE APOCALYPSE was taut and impressive. The sound design was strong, giving the opening scenes in the academy the gravitas that adolescence bestows every footfall, flattened cupcake, and fallen hand on the arm of just-a-friend. Similarly, the makeup effects team paid special attention to continuity, often lost in lower budget features or even those that cross-breed horror with any other genre. When the blood does start to fly, the team takes care to assure that its patterns carry from one scene to the next, so that splash you see on Anna’s face in all the publicity stills follows her to the end. A further testament to the love and dedication poured into this production by those who sought to carry McHenry’s legacy through to his vision.
Ticking all the boxes, this film does what it sets out to do, and it does it all superbly well. The comedy is funny, the songs are catchy, the horror is horrific, and the the apocalypse is apocalyptic. It’s the perfect antidote for this time of year, and will make a welcome addition to many counter-culture kids’ holiday watchlist. It’s the perfect date movie, too:
"she hates musicals but loves horror, he hates horror but loves musicals! How about a comedy the two of you can enjoy?"
ANNA & THE APOCALYPSE is in limited theatrical release this Friday, November 30th, and expands on December 7th. If you like your Christmas a little… off, this is the movie for you!
Until next time, see you at the movies!!!