Make no mistake; Anna and the Apocalypse is the best zombie Christmas musical you will see this year. This under-the-radar production from director John McPhail is an utter delight that melds genres in unexpected and surprisingly delightful ways. Not since Rocky Horror Picture Show has a film combined elements of horror with comedy and catchy songs to such good effect. This is a bona fide musical with large parts of the running time dedicated to the various cast members breaking out in song, often whilst stabbing, smashing and skewering the zombie hordes that have taken over their town. Much of the joy comes courtesy of a completely unselfconscious performance from Ella Hunt as the titular Anna, the teenager who leads a group of fellow students in a quest to reach the safety of their school, where other survivors are holed up. We never find out how, where or why the zombie outbreak begins and, you know what, none of that really matters because no such explanation is ever going to make sense anyway, and the fact that it happens in the days before Christmas only adds an extra element to the silliness. Collectively, the various characters comprise all the high school stereotypes – the cool girl, the nerd in love with his best friend, the arrogant thug, the uptight lesbian, the cutesy couple, the psychotic headmaster – but McPhail delivers surprises with regard to the fate of the various characters which veers away from the predictability that we have come to expect.
Anna lives in Little Haven with her father (her mother having died some years earlier, of course), spends her time with best friend John (Malcolm Cumming) and is counting the hours until she can skip town and travel the world. We know Anna is cool because she wears her school tie loose and askew, whereas John’s nerd credentials are signposted by his hideous Christmas jumpers, but the two share a friendship that transcends their differing positions within the social strata of the school. For the first 15 to 30 minutes, it is classic John Hughes teen angst territory, except the dreams and insecurities of Anna and her friends are expressed via catchy pop tunes and power ballads. John is, of course, secretly in love with Anna, whose ex Nick (Ben Wiggins) is a smug bully convinced she’ll come back to him. Steph (Sarah Swire, who also served as chorographer for the dance scenes) is a socially and politically conscious American abandoned in Little Haven by her rich parents, while aspiring filmmaker Chris (Christopher Leveaux) has found a soul mate in Lisa (Marli Siu), a budding singer whose performance of an entendre-laden song at the school’s Christmas concert is as hilarious as it is unexpected.
The following morning, Anna and John bound out of their houses wearing headphones and singing about how great it is to be alive, completely oblivious to the zombie apocalypse that is unfolding around them; blood-spattered lawns, strewn corpses and walking dead adorned in all sorts of Christmas clobber. Following a sequence inside the bowling alley where Anna works in which zombies are despatched in myriad creative and comedic ways, the teens set forth on a mission to reach the school (belting out tunes along the way) where Anna’s father (Mark Benton) and others are hunkered down and at the mercy of the maniacal Principal Savage (Paul Kaye).
From Hunt’s perfectly pitched performance to Sara Deane’s widescreen photography, Ryan Clachrie’s production design and the fabulous songs composed by Roddy Hart and Tommy Reilly, everything is spot on here and McPhail, whose only other feature directing credit is 2015’s Where Do We Go from Here?, has combined carnage, crooning and comedy to deliver that most rare of cinematic offerings; a Christmas movie that is actually worth seeing. Based on the 2011 short film Zombie Musical by Ryan McHenry, who is credited as co-writer and was slated to direct but unfortunately passed away in 2015 at the age of 27, Anna and the Apocalypse is a fitting legacy; an energetic, highly original piece of work that is an absolute treat and certainly deserves to find a substantial audience.