One of 2018’s best holiday films has a sadly small release in the US and UK. This is Anna and the Apocalypse – a Scottish independent zombie Christmas musical comedy. The genre melting pot is undoubtedly its USP, but somehow all ingredients – executed solidly – mesh fantastically across its 93-minute run time. It is a shame that much of the UK release in particular has been relegated to post-9pm screenings; granted, late nights provide the ideal atmosphere for zombies and cult classic musicals, but categorising Anna this early in its life does the film nor its audience no favours. While not geared towards all ages or audiences (the 15/R gore ensures that – after all, it is half a horror film), its immense heart, strong performances, and the catchiest of songs should earn it fans outside die-hards of the genre(s) and marks it as one of the decade’s best holiday films.
The film centres around a high school student struggling with the death of her mother and planning on travelling before university, much to her father’s chagrin. Her friends have problems of their own: her best friend is not-so-secretly in love with her, her ex is an annoyance, and the vice principal is intent on making student lives hell. To everyone’s surprise zombies overrun her town the night of the school Christmas pageant, trapping her and her friends away from their loved ones and necessitating a desperate slash and dash through the undead to reunite. There is singing and dancing throughout. To quote the titular heroine, “what a time to be alive.”
With so many genres at play, Anna wears its influences on its sleeve – there are elements of Edgar Wright, John Hughes, and countless classic musicals popping up throughout. Yes, Anna might not be as sharp as Shaun of the Dead or as well-constructed as West Side Story, but it offers a celebration of all these tropes and types as the basis for a small-scale apocalypse, the end of the world as a backdrop for personal growth and heartbreak and hopes.
Musical theatre and horror are both genres that thrive on heightened emotion, which this film’s comedy cleverly undercuts and keeps grounded (often during fight scenes or gloriously in-universe dance numbers). The contradictory tropes of the movie musical and horror flick lead to plot points and twists subverting each audience’s expectations: the song structure can be misleading if one expects a typical musical formula, and the teenage girls largely keep their heads in the zombie crisis while the teenage boys immediately, and hilariously, overreact. By utilising the strengths of its influences, Anna indulges the inherent fun of these tropes while supporting the emotional journeys of its main characters. The film does not take itself seriously, but its respect for its characters’ personal and apocalyptic obstacles create truly moving moments.
On a related note, there is no focus on the why, how, or other (metaphorical or literal) meaning of zombies in Anna. With the film’s micro focus and quick pacing, this proves a strength. This is not to say the zombies are not frightening, genuine threats; director John McPhail considers the main idea behind his monsters to be ‘kids dealing with death.’ It plays into the coming-of-age arc at the film’s emotional centre, which is compounded knowing that Anna’s creator and original director Ryan McHenry (of Ryan Gosling Won’t Eat His Cereal fame) died of cancer in 2015. According to songwriter Roddy Hart, the team abandoned the project before coming back to finish it as a tribute to the late filmmaker, and McPhail states that the story became darker in ensuing revisions. The fact that Anna and her friends fail as often as they succeed – often with catastrophic consequences – adds a poignancy and reality to the ridiculous premise.
The cast is a key factor to selling the silliness, heartache, and danger. Yes, the characters fit into the broadest definitions of high school stereotypes – the jerk jock ex-boyfriend, the lovebirds, the perpetually friend-zoned – but they are played so sincerely it is impossible not to root for them (the only exaggerated character is Paul Kaye’s uptight vice principal, but what high school film is complete without one?). Ella Hunt’s Anna is an infinitely sympathetic heroine whose own dreams drive her as much as her survival instinct (massive props to fight director Emmaclaire Brightlyn for choreography that demonstrates this growing confidence and maturity). Other standouts include Sarah Swire’s wonderfully rage-filled student journalist and Malcolm Cumming’s best friend hiding his crush behind bad jokes and worse Christmas jumpers.
And there’s the music. Just try to stop humming ‘Turning My Life Around’ or ‘Hollywood Ending’ (an LA Online Film Critics Society’s best song nominee) – it is near impossible. The film’s most memorable musical numbers come in the first half, before the zombie threat reaches its peak, though simultaneous singing and zombie-bashing is tremendous fun when it comes. The uneven song placement would slow the film’s pacing if the second half’s mounting body count did not raise the stakes significantly.
There are a few times where benign lyrics match over-literally with macabre on-screen action; the tonal whiplash keeps these moments somewhere between slapstick and tragicomedy. These are not moments of cinematic genius, but the commitment and boldness that characterises Anna’s approach to its characters and genres means that, despite all odds, they work. And this is the film’s magic that transcends the late-night cult horror categorisation. Its aching sincerity keeps it in the great Christmas film tradition but committing fully to the laughs and carnage creates a bold, unique piece that captures hearts and deserves a wider release.
Anna has its share of clichés, some jokes land better than others, and there may be a plot hole in the final act big enough for a zombie to claw its way through – it would be a stretch to say it redefines movie musicals or zombie flicks on its own. But it is a hilarious, high-stakes ride with one of the strongest heroines on screen this Christmas and a fantastic example of both genre’s possibilities.
by Carmen Paddock
Carmen is an American living in Scotland. She holds a Masters in International Film Business from the University of Exeter / London Film School, and while now working in technology she keeps her love of film alive through overenthusiastic writing and an unhealthy amount of time spent at the cinema. Favourite films include West Side Story, 10 Things I Hate About You, Ever After, and Thor: Ragnarok. Follow her on Twitter @CarmenChloie