Following the success of his short film Zombie Musical in 2011, the late Ryan McHenry(responsible for the ‘Ryan Gosling Won’t Eat His Cereal’ vines) began developing a feature length version for his debut. He sadly passed away in 2015 while the film, co-written with Alan McDonald, was still under development. John McPhail was brought in as director and Anna and the Apocalypse was completed.
Set in the sleepy town of Little Haven, Scotland, on Christmas Eve, Anna and the Apocalypse follows 17-year-old Anna (Ella Hunt) and her friends and family as they battle a zombie apocalypse with the added bonus of song and dance. While the film starts off with strong Glee vibes (even though McPhail has reportedly said he bailed on watching the television show after the team suggested he do so), it gradually moves past that as the teenagers stop moping over how hard their normal lives are and realise that it’s time to shed some zombie blood.
Like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies but where the other thing is actually good and not Pride and Prejudice, Anna and the Apocalypse has been described as “Shaun of the Dead meets La La Land”. Say no more, I am sold.
The film does not quite live up to that promise, but that was always going to be a big ask. It’s certainly nowhere near as funny as Shaun of the Dead, but it does have a handful of laugh-out-loud moments, particularly when upbeat musical numbers are juxtaposed with the bloodshed being carried out. Most problematically, however, it often stalls when it tries to be serious, and while this does give it a bit of heart, it feels wrong in the context i.e. a Christmas zombie musical. Nevertheless, the performances from the young cast are strong for the most part, even if at times the lip-syncing is a bit obvious.
Obviously the music – by Roddy Hart and Tommy Reilly – is nowhere near the brilliance of Pasek and Paul (responsible not only for La La Land but also The Greatest Showman and Broadway’s Dear Evan Hansen). But judged on its own merits about half of the songs are pretty decent and work well to break up the repetitive nature of the zombie narrative. Highlights include ‘Turning My Life Around’ which involves Anna and her best friend John (Malcolm Cumming) dancing through the streets oblivious to the chaos occurring around them, and ‘Soldier at War’, an Eye of The Tiger-type anthem which sees Nick (Ben Wiggins) boast about being the top of the class in zombie killing. In the earlier pre-apocalypse scenes we are also treated to a rather enjoyable “being a teenager is so tough” number (‘Hollywood Ending’) and a sexually-charged song at the Christmas concert (‘It’s That Time of Year’ performed by Marli Siu) which somehow made it past rehearsals without the school administration realising it might not be appropriate.
Late in the piece ‘Nothing’s Gonna Stop Me Now’ is also rather enjoyable, with Paul Kaye channelling his inner Disney villain (with swearing added) in his role as the incoming headmaster, known to the students as ‘Savage’. He’s as one-dimensional as they come, but we’re not really here for the character development are we?
In fact, McHenry and McDonald do appear to be striving for character development, but they oddly oscillate between really clunky and unnecessary dialogue (early on a character shouts “BOYFRIEND!” as she grabs him and plants a kiss), as well as a lack of exposition at other times, expecting the audience to fill in the dots. It’s only a small gripe, however, because anyone seeing this film is clearly seeing it for the musical numbers and/or the zombie slaying. And that’s incredibly enjoyable roughly half of the time when they get the comedy/drama balance right.
So is the meshing of zombies and musical numbers a revelation? Not really. You can make a musical about anything these days (case in point: who thought Rocky would be turned into a Broadway musical?) and zombies aren’t the most exciting threat in the horror genre given their lack of speed or skill. But for a Christmas movie a bit outside of the box, Anna and the Apocalypse is worth seeing if for no better reason than temporarily blocking out the traditional Christmas carols played on loop for the month of December and replacing it with the film’s (mostly good) soundtrack.
This review was first published on 27th November 2018 at Film Blerg.