Christmas is a terrific time of year. There is an abundance of presents, loads of lovely food and plenty of delightful family company – depending on where your relatives stand on Brexit. So what’s the only thing that could make all of that better? Your answer probably wasn’t to yell the word “zombies” as loud as you can at your computer/phone/tablet/other super-futuristic reading device, but it should have been.
The only thing that can make Christmas better is Anna and the Apocalypse.
To say this film is an ambitious genre hybrid would be an enormous understatement. It’s not only a Christmas movie and a zombie horror. It’s also a high school comedy and an all-singing, all-dancing musical. It’s all marshalled with consummate joy by filmmaker John McPhail, from a script by Alan McDonald and Ryan McHenry that was based on McHenry’s 2010 short film Zombie Musical. McHenry was the creator of the viral Vine video series Ryan Gosling Won’t Eat His Cereal and sadly passed away as a result of bone cancer in May 2015. He’d definitely be proud of the film his creation spawned.
The title character, played by Ella Hunt, is on the verge of finishing school and her father Tony (Mark Benton) is keen for her to go to university. She, however, has booked tickets to do some travelling, which her best friend John (Malcolm Cumming) lets slip one day. That drama is soon sidelined, though, when zombies show up and everyone has to fight for their lives. Anna, John and a group of friends try to make their way back to the school where survivors, including many of their family members, are apparently hiding out.
McPhail’s film skips merrily between genres without short-changing any of its elements. The songs are uniformly toe-tapping, catchy bangers and the undead gore is managed with deliciously squishy practical effects. Bowling balls crush heads, seesaws decapitate zombiefied snowmen and Anna wields a pointy-ended candy cane as if she’s been murdering shambling corpses for her entire life. It’s pretty special.
Hunt’s performance marks her out as a star immediately, capturing the desire to escape, which will be familiar to anyone who grew up in a small town. There’s an interesting tension between her relationship with the delightful, if slightly oafish, John and with bad boy Nick (Ben Wiggins), with whom it is stated she has previously had a romantic dalliance and with whom a spark of something evidently still remains. Anna’s choices aren’t always the right ones, but both script and performance do a great job of making her a character worth rooting for.
And it’s in character that McPhail’s movie really flies. It’s a zombie film and so it’s inevitable that some of the protagonists are going to end up bitten throughout the narrative. Notably, though, every bite in this movie oozes with emotional power as much as viscous arterial fluid. McPhail is able to pick out the moments of humanity amid the gory chaos, and this is what elevates the movie beyond being simply an enjoyable genre mash-up.
Anna and the Apocalypse also has plenty to say about modern teenage life. It would’ve been easy for the film to make a facile point in the vein of early Black Mirror by arguing that smartphone obsession has resulted in a lack of humanity in teens – a sort of modern-day mirror of the zombie-esque consumerism evoked by genre maestro George A. Romero in Dawn of the Dead. However, through the song ‘Human Voice’ most clearly, the film teases out the idea that teenage obsession with mobile technology is about preserving communication, rather than diminishing it.
Indeed, this is a film that has an enormous amount of faith in young people as a whole. In the wake of the chaotic Brexit process and the rapidly escalating climate emergency, Anna feels like a vote of confidence in youth to survive the horrors inflicted upon them by the generation above. It’s an impressive message to smuggle into a Christmas comedy-horror about zombies, but one listen to tearful final ballad ‘I Will Believe’ is enough to cement that worldview in place.
In short, Anna and the Apocalypse is a film that wears many genre costumes over the course of its running time, but remains able to find subtext beneath those outfits. It’s a Christmas watch that’s probably best saved until the turkey and roast potatoes have been digested, because it doesn’t scrimp on undead blood and guts, but it’s a musical packed with joy and heart that benefits from a terrific young cast, as well as a director having the time of his life.
Dir: John McPhail
Scr: Alan McDonald, Ryan McHenry
Cast: Ella Hunt, Sarah Swire, Christopher Leveaux, Paul Kaye, Mark Benton
Prd: Naysun Alae-Carew, Nicholas Crum, Tracy Jarvis,
DoP: Sara Deane
Music: Roddy Hart, Tommy Reilly
Runtime: 108 mins