Inventive Anna and the Apocalypse a Bloody Blast of Mirth, Music and Mayhem
It begins like any other coming of age high school melodrama. Senior Anna (Ella Hunt) can’t wait to graduate. She’s planning to take a year off to travel abroad before heading to university. Her devoted single father Tony (Mark Benton), the school’s janitor, is gobsmacked by this unexpected revelation, and even though he disagrees with his daughter’s decision he still wants to find the best way to support her if he can. Meanwhile, Anna’s best friend John (Malcolm Cumming) is hoping to let her know his feelings are less than platonic before the end of the school year even though she’s still silently crushing on bad boy Nick (Ben Wiggins). Additionally, mutual friends Lisa (Marli Siu) and Chris (Christopher Leveaux) keep flaunting their own romance to everyone in their general vicinity, while American transplant Steph (Sarah Swire) is just hoping to make it through Christmas without becoming an emotional wreck what with her parents vacationing in Mexico and her current girlfriend unable (or unwilling) to make time for her over the holiday.
Throw in a few bouncy musical numbers, some double-entendres and a handful of whimsical sight gags, and that’s the opening section of Anna and the Apocalypse in a nutshell. It’s High School Musical meets Pretty in Pink and this includes all the colorfully histrionic baggage that goes along with that sort of cross-pollination of teenage-centered genres, director John McPhail not exactly hiding his film’s roots at any point during this purposefully obnoxious and joyfully exuberant opening section. But then comes the zombie apocalypse and all bets are off, Anna and her friends’ relationships and family problems suddenly paling in significance when they’re taken in juxtaposition to the end of civilization as everyone knows it.
Based on the BAFTA-nominated short film Zombie Musical, sadly McPhail’s film isn’t without a tragic backstory. Originator Ryan McHenry, who intended to direct this feature-length adaptation, died in 2015 from cancer meaning his designs for the material could never be realized. Thankfully, McPhail and screenwriter Alan McDonald have done a terrific job picking up the pieces. They have masterfully expanded on McHenry’s vision, gifting it with character-driven finesse while making sure to keep the focus on Anna and her cohorts no matter how ridiculous events become. Better, McPhail stages some truly fantastic musical numbers, not the least of which is the energetically endearing “Hollywood Ending” and the gruesomely hysterical “Soldier of War,” these only two of the film’s winning lineup of tunes written and composed by Scottish singer-songwriters Roddy Hart and Tommy Reilly.
I think what I liked most about this effort is how authentic all of the relationships feel. McPhail remembers that, no matter how silly and funny all of this is, no matter how emotional things can get, this is still a horror movie at heart, if only still one that happens to be filled with a bevy of imaginative musical numbers. By keeping things focused on Anna and her friends, by making sure all of them, including Nick, Tony and the high school’s nasal-voiced pencil-pusher of an administrator Principal Savage (a sensational Paul Kaye), are three-dimensional characters with their own wants, desires, laudable attributes and personal failings, I actually cared about what was going to happen to the members of this ragtag group of survivors. In their own individual way they either won my heart or inflamed my ire, and as such as I was fully invested in seeing who was going to make it to the end without getting bitten.
The entire crop of young actors who make up this ensemble are tremendous, Siu’s magnificent rendition of one of the more salacious and innuendo-filled Christmas songs I think I’ve ever had the pleasure to hear a signature moment the actress should utilize for her highlight reel for as long as she can. But it is Hunt and Swire who have all the makings of becoming bona fide stars. They’re wonderful, each infusing their respective characters with a level of depth that caught me by surprise. If they ever wanted to team up for a buddy comedy, hard-edged legal drama, cartoonish action extravaganza or anything else in-between I’d be first in line to see what it is they’re up to, these two spirited performers showcasing a magnetic ease in front of the camera that’s spellbinding.
It can get pretty cutthroat, and as playful as the movie can be that does not mean McPhail skimps on the blood and guts. The filmmaker seems to take jovial relish in unleashing as much carnage and chaos as he can, Nick’s utilization of a baseball bat and Anna’s handling of a pointy-edged candy cane both unrelentingly vicious whenever the moment calls for it. The gore effects are imaginative in their shocking intensity, and even when played for laughs a moment of dismemberment can still chill to the bone once the characters take a second to realize all that is happening around them and what they are personally going to have to do if any of them want to survive.
Comparisons to other horror-comedy hybrids like An American Werewolf in London or most likely Shaun of the Dead are probably inevitable, as are allusions to other horror-musicals like The Rocky Horror Picture Show or Repo! The Genetic Opera. This seems unfair to me, for while McPhail’s film and McHenry’s source material can’t help but pay homage to those past titles (not to mention affectionately tipping its hat to Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead impresario George A. Romero), Anna and the Apocalypse is still its own gleefully absurdist undead animal that deserves to be judged on its own merits outside of any historical inspirations. The film is a spectacular blood-soaked blast of mirth, mayhem and music, and even if this might be the end of the world the filmmakers have still delivered a raucous celebration of high school Sturm und Drang that’s an apocalyptic delight I cannot wait to watch, and sing along with, again sometime soon.
Film Rating: 3 (out of 4)