Anna And The Apocalypse

UK (2017) Dir. John McPhail

We’ve seen pretty much every kind of zombie movie you can think of – violent horror, comedy, animated, even a rom-com but I suspect this might be the first musical zombie flick. You heard that right. If ever two genres were unlikely to be paired up, chances are these two would be near the top of the list.

It’s Christmas and the small town of Little Haven is entering into the festive mood, with the local secondary school hosting their annual Christmas show. For Anna Shepherd (Ella Hunt) however, things are frosty when she tells her father Tony (Mark Benton) she wants to travel instead of going to university. Meanwhile at school, Anna’s best friend Steph (Sarah Swire) is at loggerheads with the tyrannical deputy-headmaster Mr. Savage (Paul Kaye) over the school’s blog.

But this will soon be the least of their worries as a deadly epidemic has struck, turning people into zombies. As Anna and her best friend John (Malcolm Cumming) are working at the local bowling alley, zombies attack the school, forcing the survivors to barricade themselves in. Anna, John, Steph, and Chris (Christopher Leveaux) discover what has happened and fight their way through hordes of zombies to get the school.

Anyone expecting the story to be profound and complex has never seen either a musical or a zombie film, two genres that practically demand a straightforward narrative, which Anna And The Apocalypse is happy to adhere to. The obvious difference is the main protagonists being schoolchildren (as portrayed by a group of 20-somethings, natch), allowing the slice-of-life elements to feel a lot more relatable whilst adding a darker side to the tragedy with the victims being so young.

Perhaps the school setting also made it easier for writers Alan McDonald and Ryan McHenry (whose Zombie Musical this is based on) to fit the songs into the story since they mostly deal with adolescent issues like young love, unfair adults and school life. This doesn’t mean the songs are exclusively theirs – in the obligatory homage to Shaun Of The Dead, Mr. Savage sings Nothing Going To Stop Me Now as our teen heroes fight off the attacking undead.

That’s the only discernible Shaun reference I could see, a curse every British zombie film will unfairly have to endure by way of comparison, so Anna is fortunate enough that it is more likely to be held up against musicals like High School Musical or La La Land. Having said that, there is an inescapable sense that the former might be a key influence by the way the school and the children all behave more like American kids than Brits.

Now, if this was Grange Hill with zombies, then you’d be talking but it isn’t, meaning the characters are rather tropey – Anna is the perky heroine, nerdy John is secretly in love with her, Steph is the rebellious lesbian, Chris is the arty one, his girlfriend Lisa (Marli Siu) is the horny one, and Anna’s ex-boyfriend Nick (Ben Wiggins) is the alpha male (or thinks he is).

Character development is minimal as expected since the opening act merely sets up the various dramas with some haste the cast have to resolve as well as surviving the zombie grinches intent on ruining Christmas. The usual path is redemption but one area where the script is clever is in who is left to live another day and who becomes a rotting corpse, outside of Anna of course.

One character, it goes without saying, unlikely to rethink their attitude as a result of this harrowing experience is Mr. Savage, remaining spiteful and self-important to the end. He assumes the role of the one who jeopardises everyone else’s safety for his own but since the surviving parties only converge at the end, this particular cliché is avoided for most of the run time, and only has little effect to the plot when it does finally arrive.

It should be obvious the reason for this is the musical numbers, designed less to the drive the story forward and more to explain the emotion of the cast in that moment, or reiterate their role in this tale. Nick, for example, sings about his bravado as a zombie arse-kicker, Anna often laments the way her life is going nowhere. Two songs there mostly for fun are Hollywood Ending, suggesting life is never as good as it in the films, and Lisa’s smutty song at the Christmas show which earns her a standing ovation.

Whilst not particularly memorable, the songs are catchy enough, covering pop, light rock and “stagey” numbers, likely get toes tapping if one is so inclined, the infectious energy of the cast helping to encourage this. Anna singing how wonderful the morning is as zombies slaughter her neighbours in the background is an example of this working well, the ballads are a little mawkish in comparison.

Horror fans might find the less prominent gore underwhelming, but nonetheless effective and top quality work, with heads being cut off and blood spattered everywhere. Similarly underperforming is the humour; when it’s not overtly juvenile it is simply predictable but a few sniggers sneak through when we least expect them.

Aside from Mark Benton and Paul Kaye, none of the cast were known to me but they all seemed to have a fun time making this film, throwing themselves into every aspect of it, though I can’t say if they handled the singing or mimed to someone else’s voice. Ella Hunt and Sarah Swire both show the most potential to break out and go onto bigger things, depending on the roles they are offered or choose.

Deciding if Anna And The Apocalypse is a success depends on how seriously you take it. Granted it is easy to be sniffy about it if you expect more gore than Glee but the effort was there and weak ending aside, it’s rather fun in its own way as a very different zombie/Christmas movie.