Ladies and gentleman, we’ve got a new cult classic on our hands. Sometimes you can just tell; you see a movie that does something new, riles up the audience, and you know this one is destined for cult status. This time, that film is Anna and the Apocalypse, John McPhail’s jaunty, toe-tapping musical, which plays a bit like a High School Musical Christmas special violently interrupted by the zombie apocalypse.
Ella Hunt stars as Anna — a knockout performance that establishes the young talent as a bonafide star in the making. Hollywood take note, this lady’s got the goods. On the brink of high school graduation, Anna is desperate to see the world and leave her small town behind, much to her father’s (Mark Benton) chagrin. While Anna is definitely the hero of the film, Anna and the Apocalypse is filled out with a classic teen musical ensemble, all of whom shine in their respective roles. There’s Malcolm Cumming as Anna’s heart-stricken best friend John, the Ducky of the group who suffers from a severe case of unrequited love. Despite her better judgment, Anna has an eye for Nick (Ben Wiggins), the pretty bad boy/school bully. There’s the wannabe filmmaker (Christopher Leveaux), his musical theater BAE (Marli Siu), the woke teen lesbian (Sarah Swire), and the power-hungry headmaster, appropriately named Savage (Paul Kaye), who torments them all.
They’re lusty, longing teenagers and they express their feelings by bursting into song in the cafeteria and dancing past the lockers in the halls, and whenever they do, Anna and the Apocalypse courses with energy. Songwriters Roddy Hart and Tommy Reilly have done fantastic work here, and each new song will have you bopping your head along, wondering how long you’ll have to wait before you can download the soundtrack and listen to it ad naseum. There are rousing ensemble numbers, heartfelt solos, and badass rock ballads galore, and the music evolves with the action of the film beautifully. And of course, there is Christmas music, including a hypersexualized riff on “Santa Baby” that may just be the biggest crowd-pleaser of the bunch. It’s a testament to the quality of the music that it’s almost impossible to pick a favorite —the musical element isn’t just a gimmick, there’s genuine songcraft here.
But Anna and the Apocalypse isn’t just a musical, it’s a zombie movie and that element fares just as well in the horror hybrid. The musical numbers take center stage in the first act, but once the zombie plague is unleashed, the film dabbles in the tropes of the zombie genre with a steady hand, playing against expectations and taking cues from genre classics, old and new alike. Shaun of the Dead is clearly a big influence on the film, including an early musical number that follows Anna — wrapped up in a musical number — through the streets of the ravaged townscape, singing, dancing, and utterly failing to notice the carnage all around her. It’s a clear tip of the hat, but it doesn’t feel like a rip-off.
McPhail takes another, much more important cue from Shaun of the Dead — in between the jokes and genre-skewering self-awareness, Anna and the Apocalypse creates characters you genuinely care about. When the blood starts flowing in the requisite third-act carnage, you’re completely invested in the rag-tag band of survivors, even the ones you should hate on paper. Death has genuine, emotional impact, including more than one scene that’s just downright heartbreaking. The odd man out here is the evil headmaster, and while the reliable Paul Kaye gives a boisterously wicked performance, swinging for the fences in every scene, ultimately Savage just isn’t necessary. He works as an engine for the plot, but he could have been excised entirely and the film would have flowed a bit more elegantly.
If there’s one failing in Anna and the Apocalypse, it’s that it tries to do a bit too much. The musical element soars, the zombie element kicks ass, but there’s one more major factor, it’s also supposed to be a Christmas movie. That gets lost in the rest of the action and ultimately the Christmas sweaters, candy cane weaponry, and a steady stream of jingles feel like little more than set dressing. It’s good set dressing! But if you’re looking for a dose of Christmas spirit, you might walk away a bit disappointed. “Christmas zombie musical” is a tall order and the film can’t quite find the balance. Anna and the Apocalypse has distinct “modes” — zombie mode, Christmas mode, musical mode — and while the film largely succeeds in tying those modes together with clever set pieces, it never quite makes them feel like a cohesive whole.
Those weaker elements disappoint considering how strong the rest of the film plays, but they do little to put a damper on the damn entertaining delights Anna and the Apocalypse has to offer. This movie is a crowd pleaser of the highest order. It’s got a killer cast, including a kickass heroine you would gladly follow into battle, and confident, commanding style. Anna and the Apocalypse looks great. Slick and stylish, with moments of gore that are played for gross-out and laughs in equal measure. You will hum along, you will tap your toes, if you’re a big softy like me, you’ll cry, but you will definitely have a great time and you will want to see it again as soon as possible at a midnight screening where everybody knows the words. I'm going to give "Anna and the Apocalypse" an 8 out of 10.