Synopsis – A zombie apocalypse threatens the sleepy town of Little Haven – at Christmas – forcing Anna and her friends to fight, slash and sing their way to survival, facing the undead in a desperate race to reach their loved ones. But they soon discover that no one is safe in this new world, and with civilization falling apart around them, the only people they can truly rely on are each other.
My Take – The horror sub-genre of zombie films have become so run down that freshman filmmakers are forced to bring something distinctive and fresh to the table in order to stand even the slightest chance of making an impression. A perfect example of this would be how recent films like Cargo, Train to Busan, The Cured and The Girl with All the Gifts bring in the needful in order to cater to their devoted fan base and bring in a newer audience as well. While some talented filmmakers have also mixed genre with comedy to bring in excellent results like Shaun of the Dead and Zombieland, the particular form of cocktail yet remains quite hit or miss.
And now some talented and wacky filmmakers have brought in something which no one could have possibly thought of – a Zombie Apocalypse Christmas Musical Comedy. An accurate description that’s likely to draw in fewer viewers than it frightens off. Originally written by Ryan McHenry for his 2011 short film, Zombie Musical, before his unfortunate passing in 2015, the concept has been adapted to feature length by director John McPhail and writer Alan McDonald, with the songs co-written by Tommy Reilly and Roddy Hart, to surprisingly likable results.
With a gleefully silly premise that’s backed up with some strong comedy and entertaining performances throughout, the film proves an immensely enjoyable watch. Although its musical side may leave a little to be desired, the film certainly deserves bonus points for creativity, and will likely find a long shelf-life in the midnight slot for many holiday seasons to come. For fans of the genre, this film will be an absolute delight from beginning to end.
Set during Christmas Eve, the story follows Anna (Ella Hunt), a high school senior looking forward to the end of school, as she plans to travel to Australia and see the world against the wishes of her protective widower dad (Mark Benton), who instead expected her to head to university in the fall. While John (Malcolm Cumming), her best friend is supportive and constantly hangs out with her despite being friend-zoned, he secretly hopes she will reconsider. However, none of that matters the next day, as they wake up to find their little Scottish town in a zombie-filled chaos.
Bodies are strewn across lawns, fires burn in the distance, and neighbors are screaming as undead citizens of the town begin giving them a 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 here. The pair head off to school in search of survivors and along the way meet up with other friends including lovebirds Chris (Christopher Leveaux) and Lisa (Marli Siu), and Steph (Sarah Swire) the American-social activist- recently dumped lesbian who is an outsider to both her peers, Nick (Ben Wiggins) John’s bully/Anna’s ex and of course Savage (Paul Kaye), the tyrannical school headmaster.
The jokes, pop songs and grizzly kills keep things zipping along as the teenagers try to save themselves and their loved ones. Without a doubt, the film 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.
Given its core premise, comparisons with the likes of Shaun Of The Dead are inevitable, but the brand of humor here is a little more on the nose than Edgar Wright‘s comedy classic, something that led me to remember Attack The Block, which is far more similar to this film. Here, director John McPhail and co-writer Alan McDonald do a fine job pf balancing the dark of the violence and the light of the laughs. The songs and laughs don’t come at the expense of those key zombie film ingredients, death and gore.
Anyone worried that that the film might skimp on bloody fun: there’s more Shaun of the Dead in its DNA than High School Musical. The zombies go hand in hand with the high school drama rather than being an accessory to it, and the two are inextricably tied together by the film’s end. It’s not a scary film by any means, but as far as zombie films go, the film does a great job at getting the undead just right and the horror stuff wouldn’t work so well if it wasn’t for the excellent comedy throughout. The film is more or less a cartoon, its zombies theatrically shuffling, donning splotchy makeup, and bleeding in jet-powered spurts.
That said, director John McPhail‘s punchy, dynamic vision provides a few effective jump scares and plenty of pregnant tension, as well as a nod to director George Romero’s ability to seed dread with a single zombie bite. There are also some hilarious kills that suit the film’s loony tone; where else will you see a head pop like a zit between two bowling balls? While I won’t say that every single joke lands throughout, but the majority of the humor here is hugely entertaining, and with its playfully ridiculous vibe (particularly in the early stages of the zombie outbreak), it managed to put a big smile on my face.
However, the boldest part of the film is that it’s a musical, and it’s not just a film with a couple of quick songs, there’s a good handful of big musical numbers that take up a large part of the film. Naturally, the uncertainty of the future is enough to get the students to burst into song, leading a soundtrack that’s the highlight of the film. Ranging from the requisite Christmas songs to pop ballads and boy-band anthems, the musical numbers are more substantial than the oft-disposable tunes they’re riffing off of, and similarly help to build on the clear tropes that the characters are based on (the jock, the nerd, the activist, etc.).
With a low budget and limited resources, director McPhail is able to expertly mimic the styles of bigger productions, as in a cafeteria number featuring students dancing and stomping on the tables with tricky Broadway-friendly choreography provided by Sarah Swire, who also plays Steph, a wise-cracking, world-weary American kid abandoned by her wealthy parents.
However, the biggest problem with film is that it’s such an obvious mashup of other films, moving from homage right into rip-off. If it was popular in the horror/teen/musical canon, it’s here. A fact which stops the film from becoming quite the epic one would expect such a mix of genres to become.
But what ultimately saves the film is its ensemble. The star of the show here for me was certainly the very beautiful Ella Hunt, who plays the title character. Clearly a performer with some definite star quality and versatility and one for the future hopefully.
While Hunt is a charismatic performer, her title character pales in comparison to her cohorts. Sarah Swire hits her emotional beats as well as she does her high notes, while Malcolm Cumming melts hearts as earnest, love struck classmate John. The standout, however, are Christopher Leveaux and Marli Siu who pivot nimbly between comic relief gags and moments of genuine, heartrending emotions. Ben Wiggins also gets his due. Paul Kaye is also brings in a wonderfully wicked performance. On the whole, ‘Anna and the Apocalypse’ is a hilarious and energizing film that uses it horror, comedy and musical beats in a perfectly fun amalgamation.
Directed – John McPhail
Rated – R
Run Time – 93 minutes