anna and the apocalypse review

As a Scottish zombie Christmas musical comedy, Anna and the Apocalypse sounds like a joke. And for a little while, it feels like one.

Conceived as a High School Musical riff where the shambling undead arrive to wreak havoc on a more trivial teen movie, director John McPhail‘s film leans hard into comedy and irony in its first act. But like the 21st century’s greatest horror comedy (Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead), the film finds its voice and its soul when it drops the wink and becomes a fully realized musical horror movie with actual stakes…and the nerve to literally tear its lovable cast to pieces.

You can sum up the curious appeal of Anna and the Apocalypse in a single sentence: a group of anguished teens, who tend to break into a musical number every ten minutes or so, get a reality check when zombies invade their town and start devouring the populace. If that piques your curiosity in the slightest, you are the audience for this film, which adopts a deliberate Disney Channel aesthetic so it can gleefully paint it red with all kinds of bloody flesh-eating.

You’ve seen the set-up before. 17-year-old Anna (Ella Hunt, just waiting to be promoted to leading lady status in Hollywood) wants to leave her crummy town behind and see the world. She sings about it. She has a best friend who wishes he was more. He also sings about it. There’s the jock ex-boyfriend and an American lesbian on a social crusade and a pair of dorky lovers who can’t keep their hands off each other. They all sing about it (and they’re all played with gusto by some seriously talented young actors). They’re a cute ensemble, all of them instantly likable and all of them quite good at delivering the film’s poppy and catchy musical numbers. For its first act, Anna and the Apocalypse is a nice movie, a cute, if familiar, high school comedy with good songs and charming leads.

And then the horror twist arrives and Anna and the Apocalypse begins its evolution into a different kind of beast. And for a few minutes, the film continues to be a trifle, to be a silly thing that holds you at arm’s distance with an ironic nod – “Isn’t this a wacky thing to be happening? There are zombies and there’s singing!”

However, McPhail adjusts course. As the teens at the center of his film realize that their situation is no joke, that there is no help coming, that their friends and family are dead, the film reacts accordingly. In the movie’s best musical number, the leads stand in a darkened bowling alley, illuminated only by the flashes of gunfire and explosions from outside, where the military are attempting (and failing) to stem the undead tide. The kids sing about their pain and their fear and Anna the the Apocalypse reveals that its jokey premise isn’t a joke at all: this is a horror movie and a musical, with neither genre diminishing the other.

Consider the appeal of the musical. These are stories about emotions so big, featuring characters stretched to such a soulful breaking point, that they must sing. It is the only way to properly convey and communicate their love and pain. Anna and the Apocalypse could have used its set-up to deliver cheeky songs about a zombie armageddon. Instead, it uses its musical numbers to let the surface pains of a typical zombie movie plot take on Broadway levels of anguish. Anna and the Apocalypse is pretty good when it’s being cute. It’s sublime when the camp gives way to the sincere. It’s the Buffy the Vampire Slayer school of genre storytelling: set ’em up with a little bit of irony before you deliver the gut punch.

Horror aficionados won’t be surprised by much of Anna and the Apocalypse. It hits the familiar beats, even introducing a human threat (a vice principal played with gusto by Paul Kaye) that suggests that the living are the real enemy in an undead end-of-the-world scenario. But I’m not convinced that horror aficionados are the intended audience here, even though plenty of them will have a great time. Anna and the Apocalypse is a very good movie, but it’s easy to imagine it directly connecting to the 14-year-old theater kids, the offbeat weirdos who like horror and musicals in equal measure, the kids looking for a genre movie that speaks (and sings) a language that they think they’re alone in speaking. It’s easy to appreciate Anna and the Apocalypse as a weird genre experiment. It’s easier to imagine a generation of younger, burgeoning genre enthusiasts embracing it as a new all-time favorite.

This is a good zombie movie. This is a good musical. Hell, this is even a good example of a film managing to include a major queer character without making her a token or without reducing her sexuality to a single, back-patting reference. But all of those goods add up to something charming and warm and violent and gross and catchy and sweet. There’s a whole lot of movie in this movie. And it works because it’s honest. It loves its genres and it loves its characters and you get the impression that it loves you, the offbeat weirdo who likes horror and musicals in equal measure.

/Film Rating: 8 out of 10

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About the Author

Jacob Hall is the managing editor of /Film, with previous bylines all over the Internet. He lives in Austin, Texas with his wife, his pets, and his board game collection.