Anna and the Apocalypse (Fantastic Fest): Singing! Dancing! Zombies! Christmas!

Anna and the Apocalypse

Starring Ella Hunt, Christopher Leveaux, Malcolm Cumming, Sarah Swire

Directed by John McPhail


The Christmas-themed zombie musical you didn’t know you need in your life.

The story behind the making of Anna and the Apocalypse is a sad one: based on the BAFTA-award winning short film Zombie Musical, director Ryan McHenry (also known for viral YouTube video “Ryan Gosling Won’t Eat His Cereal”) sadly passed away from cancer before he could make the feature. As a result, John McPhail (Where Do We Go From Here?) took on the mantle of director and, with a cadre of catchy tunes, created not only one of the most gleefully delightful cinematic experiences in recent memory but a loving ode to McHenry and his original work as well.

Anna and the Apocalypse features a simple setup: Anna (Ella Hunt), a high schooler with aspirations of leaving her tiny Scottish town and traveling the world before entering university, is thrust into the middle of a zombie apocalypse. Together with a small group of friends (and her prick of an ex-boyfriend) they must fight through hordes of zombies to reach the school, where her father and others are dealing with their own threat: the holier-than-thou headmaster Mr. Savage (Paul Kaye) who possesses an affinity for following the rules and reminding others he’s better than them.

Along they way, they break out into song, as one does when faced with the impending apocalypse. With nine primary songs scattered throughout the film’s 107-minute runtime, it’s remarkable just how good they all are; even those less-than-inspired moments, in which there is no accompanying choreography or zombie action, will put a smile on your face or draw a tear from your eyes. When the songs are put on the back-burner in favor of some zombie action, the Christmas-themed score, replete with requisite bells dinging and donging, offers its own head-bobbing excitement as Anna and her friends fight their way to safety.

Given its roots in parodying (satirizing? Maybe both.) High School Musical, it’s no wonder that much of the film shows clear inspirations from those zombie comedies that come before, principally Shaun of the Dead. One scene sees Anna, embracing the “New Morning” that awaits her, sing and dance her way through zombies, completely oblivious to the carnage around her; another tune, a rockin’ number sung by the school’s headmaster Mr. Savage, features the line “Nothing’s gonna stop me,” a subtle nod to the infamous Queen scene.

It might seem like it’s aping a little too much from the film; Hell, it was my main thought throughout, as I counted no less than five overt references to the film, sometimes subtle, sometimes glaringly obvious. But after discussing it with a friend after and reflecting a little deeper on it, it’s apparent that it’s done less with a wink and a nod and more with the flair of someone acknowledging its inspirations while still endeavoring to make it wholly its own.

Anna and the ApocalypseSome might argue it loses a little steam in the end, though I feel like this is an almost intrinsic flaw of the horror comedy: heavy on the comedy before it recedes into the background in favor of the horror. I’m inclined to agree, but with a caveat: it’s kind of hard to care when the consistency of the performances (and the songs!) never falters. Standout among them is Kaye, whose weaselly face and snide, high-pitched voice reminded me of The Duke from Moulin Rouge!, the inspiration of which becomes more apparent when he has a duet with Anna’s father Tony, a nebbish man who only wants best for his daughter. In this case, it’s to see her alive before Savage – and the zombies – get their way.

But through it all, every character brought something unique to the table, yet all approached the material with a sort of passion you don’t often see in a movie like this. A Christmas-themed zombie musical? It’s the sort of thing that might make you cringe at the thought. I never did. As soon as I discovered it was playing at Fantastic Fest it shot straight to the top of my list. But it’s not inaccurate to say that a movie like Anna and the Apocalypse is a risk, and in the wrong hands it could have been another zombie relegated to the bargain bin at Wal-Mart.

The risk paid off. John McPhail and his talented team have created not just a great movie but a great musical as well. I’d be hard-pressed to name another film that put as big a smile on my face as Anna and the Apocalypse did.

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Brad McHargue

Brad is a digital marketing specialist and screenwriter based in Denver, CO. He serves as programmer and host of the Telluride Horror Show, a 3-day genre festival in Colorado.

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