8 out of 10
Ella Hunt as Anna
Directed by John McPhail
Anna and the Apocalypse Review:
Think the zombie movie is played out? Maybe so, maybe so, but it seems like people keep coming up with new takes on the genre, thanks to Shaun of the Dead. For all the scale that they have, zombie movies are fairly inexpensive to make for the most part. So the key challenge is for filmmakers to find a new angle, or a new perspective on tired tropes that we’ve seen played out again and again. We have a weekly television series — a few! — that are basically the instructions on a shampoo bottle – give us characters, add zombies, kill characters, repeat.
So it was a matter of time, I guess, before the first Christmas zombie musical film, which reads like it may be unbearably twee and clever. But I assure you, Anna and the Apocalypse is an experience worth having. It would seem a difficult if not impossible task to juggle the bleak, apocalyptic nature of the zombie film with the almost uniformly-optimistic musical, but director John McPhail handles the tonal shifts with precision and grace. These are real kids with real problems, thrown into the end of the world, and the only emotional option is to sing about it. We get Anna (Ella Hunt), our heroine, about to graduate and trying to figure out what she wants to do with her life; we have Steph (Sarah Swire), who feels abandoned by her parents and who feels alienated from her new Scottish school; we have John (Malcolm Cumming), who is Anna’s best friend and wants to take that extra step. These characters and more inhabit the world when the zombie apocalypse happens, and as things tend to do in such situations, people behave irrationally, and the bodies begin piling up (that is, before they come back to undead “life”).
Why does Anna and the Apocalypse work as well as it does, when it could have been cloying and silly? Lots of reasons — the performances, the humor, the unapologetic gore — but the primary reason is the songcraft. Simply put, I wanted the soundtrack immediately. It’s an odd balance, trying to make a full-fledged musical along with a full-fledged zombie movie, but director McPhail makes it look almost effortless, and that’s in no small part due to the brilliant work of Roddy Hart and Tommy Reilly, two Scottish musicians who have written songs that not only fit the playful mood of the film but also stand on their own. Make no mistake, if Anna and the Apocalypse gets proper distribution, we’ll be seeing it at midnight shows, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it found a fiercely loyal following a la Rocky Horror Picture Show. I could see a bunch of kids performing this live at a screening.
The songs aren’t just songs, either – many of them are full-on productions, and the wonderful choreography by Sarah Swire (who plays Steph) adds a real sense of scope to the film. All the voices are strong and backed up by earnest performances, and the pop culture references, while there, aren’t a distraction. These are school kids, after all, and after years of being steeped in post-apocalypse entertainment, they know the score and what to do. But, zombie movies being what they are, Anna and the Apocalypse isn’t afraid to kill off characters that we’ve grown attached to, either. While Anna and the Apocalypse is a lot of fun, it doesn’t go for cheap laughs, and earns the emotion that it seeks.
There are a couple of tonal issues towards the end of the film where John McPhail struggles somewhat — zombie movies end as they must, after all, and trying to find the happiness and optimism there can feel a little awkward — but through the vigor of the cast and the sheer excellence of the songcraft, Anna and the Apocalypse hits far, far more than it misses. This doesn’t have maor distribution yet, but it’s likely only a matter of time. Anna and the Apocalypse is purely entertaining from beginning to end, and if given a chance, will find an absolutely loyal and loving audience. It’s weird to say you saw a cult classic in the making, but that holds completely true here. Anna and the Apocalypse is a great zombie movie, a great musical, a great Christmas movie – hell, it’s just great. Don’t miss it when it comes out.