'Anna and the Apocalypse': Film Review

Parkhouse Pictures
Night of the singing dead.
11/30/2018

A plucky gang of high schoolers sing and dance their way through the zombie apocalypse in this British comedy horror musical.

Committing to its audaciously goofy premise with a commendably straight face, Anna and the Apocalypse is an all-singing, all-dancing, zombie-themed teenage comedy that occupies the hitherto unexplored middle ground between High School Musical and Shaun of the Dead. Arriving just in time for the holiday season trailing warm festival reviews, this Scottish-made labor of love was clearly produced on a skimpy budget, but it has the kind of novelty angle and playfully pulpy attitude that could translate to cult success at the box office.

Anna and the Apocalypse grew out of Zombie Musical, a 2011 short written and directed by Ryan McHenry, who tragically died of cancer in 2015 at just 27. Working from a script co-written by McHenry, director John McPhail expands the darker original into a sunny, sing-along, flesh-chomping zom-com romp. The 97-minute running time feels a little baggy while the songs, by Roddy Hart and Tommy Reilly, are serviceable foot-stompers rather than memorable show-stoppers. All the same, this schlocky horror picture show combines a zesty young cast with an infectious comic energy. It opens in both U.K. and North American theaters on Friday, with Orion handling the U.S. release.

Ella Hunt (Robot Overlords) stars as Anna, a smart high school senior in the fictional backwater town of Little Haven, whose plans to travel the world rather than take up a college place bring her into conflict with her overprotective father, widowed school janitor Tony (Mark Benton). Riffing on classic teen-movie archetypes, Anna also has a sensitive best pal who is secretly in love with her (Malcolm Cumming) and an alpha-jock old flame who still believes she holds a torch for him (Ben Wiggins). The film's Canadian choreographer Sarah Swire also plays a dramatic role as a transplanted student aching for the far-away girlfriend she will not see over the holiday season. Swire shines in one of the film's standout musical numbers, an inappropriately racy love song to Santa performed to an all-ages audience at the school Christmas concert.

As they wrestle with adolescent angst, young love and parental friction, these self-absorbed teens are initially unaware that their small town has suffered a freakish disaster and is now awash with zombies. Indeed, during one of the film's key musical set-pieces, Anna skips and bounces through her suburban neighborhood in giddy Gene Kelly mode, blissfully ignorant of the bloodthirsty carnage unfolding behind her. Simon Pegg pulled a similar stunt in Shaun of the Dead, of course, but a good joke is always worth repeating.

Soon, however, the town's ever-growing cohort of rampaging zombies becomes impossible to ignore. Anna and her plucky peers are forced to band together and fight for their lives against flesh-eating snowmen, homicidal Santas and undead soldiers. By nightfall, they have plotted a risky path back to school, where the town's last few human survivors are under siege from the zombie hordes. But the impending apocalypse has also brought out the worst in the living, too, especially the school's sadistic headmaster Mr. Savage (Game of Thrones alum Paul Kaye), who is exploiting the crisis to exercise his crazed thirst for power.

In between sparing bursts of comic-book gore and gleefully puerile humor, Anna and the Apocalypse paints an incongruously sweet, innocent picture of contemporary teenage life, where the bonds between friends and doting parents still matter even as the end of all humankind looks imminent. At times it feels like a George A. Romero movie directed by John Hughes. Imagine The Breakfast Club, but this time with splattered human brains on the breakfast menu.

Sara Deane's bright widescreen photography gives the pic an appealing candy-colored palette and makes resourceful use of even the more grungy Scottish locations, which were mostly shot along the Clyde River estuary west of Glasgow. Anna and the Apocalypse may not be the most technically polished or slickly produced film released over the winter holidays, but it certainly puts a fun alternative spin on the season of vulgar excess, and feels like a fitting memorial to the young writer-director who conceived it but did not live to see it made.

Production companies: Blazing Griffin, Parkhouse Pictures, Creative Scotland, Constellation Creatives
Distributor: Orion Pictures
Cast: Ella Hunt, Malcolm Cumming, Sarah Swire, Christopher Leveaux, Ben Wiggins, Marli Siu, Mark Benton, Paul Kaye, Ella Jarvis
Director: John McPhail
Screenwriters: Ryan McHenry, Alan McDonald
Producers: Naysun Alae-Carew, Nicholas Crum, Tracy Jarvis
Cinematographer: Sara Deane
Editor: Mark Hermida
Music and lyrics: Roddy Hart, Tommy Reilly

Rated R, 97 minutes