Review: Musical zom-com ‘Anna and the Apocalypse’ takes a merry bite out of Christmas
The genre hybrid can be tricky to pull off. But when it’s done right, it can deliver glorious results. In the Christmas zombie teen musical “Anna and the Apocalypse,” a whole lot of genre is stuffed into one neat little package, and happily, giddily, it is perfectly executed, landing like a triumphant triple axel splattered in gore, and wrapped in tinsel.
The idea for the film sprang from the brain of the late Ryan McHenry, a filmmaker and internet jokester best known for his “Ryan Gosling Won’t Eat His Cereal” Vines. His 2011 short film “Zombie Musical” is the basis for “Anna and the Apocalypse,” but tragically, McHenry died of cancer in 2015 while prepping the feature. His co-writer Alan McDonald and producers Naysun Alae-Carew and Nicholas Crum soldiered on, bringing in director John McPhail to helm the project, while Scottish singer-songwriters Tommy Reilly and Roddy Hart penned the addictive pop songs.
It’s safe to say McHenry would be honored by the finished project, which is a wild, rollicking ride, heartfelt in all the right ways, bloody in the best ways, with spine-tinglingly great musical numbers. It’s “Shaun of the Dead” meets “High School Musical,” with a whole lot of Christmas spirit.
“Anna and the Apocalypse” strikes a unique balance, never privileging one genre, each element wonderfully supporting the others. This film is for that Venn diagram of the population that gets as much pleasure out of a fully choreographed, Broadway-style dance routine in a high school cafeteria as they do watching a young woman skewer zombie heads with a large candy cane decoration. It’s for those who don’t even realize they like both of those things.
Ella Hunt stars as Anna, who quickly enters the pantheon of iconic horror heroines — steely yet vulnerable, loyal, cool under pressure and ruthless with her weapon once she gets the hang of it. It’s the night of the school Christmas show when a mysterious viral outbreak hits a small Scottish town. Anna happens to be working at the bowling alley with her best friend, John (Malcolm Cumming). Heading home late, they miss the event, and the next morning, the two friends share a hilarious duet, skipping to school, singing about turning their lives around, earbuds shutting out the flesh-eating mayhem that has erupted around them.
The plot centers on the pair, as they battle their way from the bowling alley to the school, along with Anna’s ex, school bully Nick (Ben Wiggins), neurotic American pal Steph (Sarah Swire, who also choreographed the film) and their movie-obsessed friend Chris (Christopher Leveaux). They’re hoping to connect with their parents and loved ones who are on lockdown under the orders of the tyrannical Headmaster Savage (Paul Kaye). Along the way, love triangles are tangled, emotional confessions are made and futures are reckoned with, all while singing and bludgeoning zombies.
It’s not just the zombie genre mashup that calls to mind Edgar Wright’s zom-com “Shaun of the Dead,” but also the deft execution of a light comic tone and a great big heart. The losses are profoundly felt, the triumphs bittersweet. “Anna and the Apocalypse” draws from generic formulas but feels completely fresh. It’s a blast, and the perfect antidote to sickly sweet holiday fare — this one’s got some bite.
Katie Walsh is a Tribune News Service film critic.
‘Anna and the Apocalypse’
Rated: R, for zombie violence and gore, language, and some sexual material
Running time: 1 hour 37 minutes
Playing: Starts Nov. 30, ArcLight Hollywood; AMC Century City
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