The zombie/comedy sub-genre, zom-coms if you will and really why wouldn’t you, is well-populated with examples ranging from American Zombie to Zombieland. There are great ones (Return of the Living Dead), beloved ones (Shaun of the Dead), underrated ones (Zombeavers), and fantastic ones you’ve never seen (Deadman Inferno).
And now, thanks to some talented and wacky filmmakers in the UK, there’s also a massively entertaining Scottish musical one.
Anna (Ella Hunt) is looking forward to the end of high school, but while her widowed father (Mark Benton) expects her to head to university in the fall she has other plans. She wants to see the world and experience life before settling in for more schooling, and the revelation results in the expected clash between generations. Her best friend, John (Malcolm Cumming), is supportive, but his not-so secret crush on her leaves him hoping she’ll reconsider. The decision is seemingly taken out of her hands, though, when they wake up the morning after the school’s big holiday show to discover their little Scottish town in zombie-filled chaos.
Bodies are strewn across lawns, fires burn in the distance, and neighbors are screaming as undead friends and family give chase looking for a bite to eat. Anna and John are attacked by a dead guy in a Frosty the Snowman costume, and after knocking his head off and dodging the geyser of blood that follows they realize the end of their world is nigh. The pair head off to school in search of survivors and along the way meet up with other friends including Steph (Sarah Swire), Chris (Christopher Leveaux), and Anna’s ex, Nick (Ben Wiggins).
Anna and the Apocalypse is an absolute and utter blast that pops off the screen with bright holiday colors, energetic performances, and plenty of big laughs even as blood spurts, flesh is torn, and the body count rises. Raising it all up even higher is its equally thrilling status as a kick-ass musical with song and dance numbers peppered throughout the carnage.
The songs range from big, toe-tapping, cheer-worthy numbers to more intimately-affecting ones, and we even get a catchy showstopper overflowing with holiday-themed innuendo. Lyrics express the inner thoughts of the characters, and if there’s a theme among them it comes down to a desire to connect with others and break free of life’s mundane nature. It’s a soundtrack you’ll want to own as soon as the end credits roll.
Director John McPhail and co-writers Alan McDonald & Ryan McHenry — it’s McHenry’s 2011 short, “Zombie Musical,” that inspired the film — does a fine job balancing the dark of the violence and the light of the laughs. Think Shaun of the Dead meets High School Musical for the overall tone and feel, and you won’t be far off. There are lots of laughs here, but moments of real loss and tragedy rear their head with emotional weight earned through time spent with these bright-eyed teens.
The cast is terrifically engaging as they deliver fully with both their characters and their song and dance skills. Hunt commands the title role with a captivating presence and energetic performance that sees viewers alternately pumping their fists at her determination while feeling the pain of all that’s holding her back. Cumming is equally delightful as the underdog who wins our hearts and laughter. Swire, meanwhile, pulls double duty here by delivering a fun but heartbreaking performance while also acting as the film’s choreographer. One of the many standouts is Paul Kaye who plays the school’s hard-ass assistant chancellor, Mr. Savage. It’s a wonderfully wicked performance that would be right at home in Pink Floyd’s The Wall.
Anna and the Apocalypse is a funny, sweet, and energizing film, and while it leans heavier into comedy than horror it manages more than a few affecting turns and bloody beats — including a not-so subtle nod to Joe Pilato’s death in George Romero’s Day of the Dead that lets loose with the red stuff. Fans of Christmas horrors, particularly of the fun variety, are gifted this year with two new gems — Anna and the Apocalypse and the equally terrific Better Watch Out — and if that’s not evidence that Santa Claus exists I don’t know what is.