Can high school students sing and dance their way to safety during a zombie cataclysm in small-town Scotland at Christmas time? That’s the delightfully crazy and highly entertaining question in “Anna and the Apocalypse,” a horror-musical-comedy loaded with cartoonish gore and peppy production numbers performed with full “let’s put on a show” gusto by an appealing cast of little-knowns. Although this combo of carnage, crooning, and comedy is just a tad overlong, it has the originality and crowd-pleasing energy to become a Christmas movie hit when it opens theatrically in the U.K. and U.S. just in time for the holidays.
“Anna” registers as more than just a throwaway novelty item thanks to simple yet highly effective emotional underpinnings. For the first 15 minutes there’s not a drooling ghoul in sight. We’re in classic, John Hughes-style teen movie territory, with singing and dancing added. Anna, played with star-in-the-making sparkle by Ella Hunt, is a clever senior at Little Haven High. Her decision to travel abroad instead of going straight to university has angered her widowed father, Tony (Mark Benton), who’s also the school’s janitor.
Bouncy pop tunes and power ballads neatly express the dreams and insecurities of Anna and her friends. Her platonic bestie, John (Malcolm Cumming), is of course secretly in love with her, while her ex, a smug bully named Nick (Ben Wiggins), thinks she’ll come running back. Steph (Sarah Swire, also choreographer of the film’s excellent dance routines) is a socially and politically switched-on American lesbian dumped in Little Haven by rich and absent parents. Film geek Chris (Christopher Leveaux) has found a soul mate in Lisa (Marli Siu), a budding cabaret artist who takes center stage at the school’s Christmas show.
Lisa delivers one of the film’s laugh-out-loud highlights when she performs a slinky song in the spirit of Eartha Kitt’s 1953 hit “Santa Baby,” all the more hilarious in such a straight-laced context for its inappropriately lewd lyrics (e.g. “Come on, Santa, unload your sack”). With her suggestive stroking of a microphone stand and a chorus line of bare-chested boys in spangly shorts also in the frame, this sequence proves to be a genuine show-stopper.
The gory stuff gets going when Anna and John bound out of their houses the next morning wearing headphones and singing about how it’s great to be alive. As they skip along in blissful aural ignorance, a full-blown zombie apocalypse unfolds behind them, complete with blood-spattered houses, corpses strewn on front lawns, and marauding creatures dressed in Santa suits, cable-knit sweaters, and other Christmas-themed fashion violations.
The catchy tunes by Roddy Hart and Tommy Reilly take on a grittier tone once Anna and John realize what’s happening. After meeting their pals at a bowling alley, where director John McPhail (“Where Do We Go From Here”) stages some of his most creative and comedic zombie kills, the youngsters slaughter their way toward perceived safety at the school.
“Anna” works like a charm for the first hour and only dips a little when school administrator Mr. Savage (Paul Kaye) flips out and becomes a tyrannical monster who’d go so far as to feed janitor Tony to the hungry hordes in order to save his own skin. Kaye throws himself into the role admirably, though the film dedicates a bit too much screen time to Savage’s crazed antics. It’s hardly a fatal blow. “Anna” picks itself up, dusts itself off, and comes home with a finale that’s so satisfying and sincere, it’ll make some viewers misty-eyed.
Sara Deane’s razor-sharp widescreen photography, Ryan Clachrie’s brightly-colored production design, and Fi Morrison’s spot-on costuming are standouts in a craft package that’s tops on a modest budget. The film is dedicated to the memory of Ryan McHenry, who wrote and directed the 2011 short film “Zombie Musical,” upon which “Anna” is based. McHenry, credited here as co-writer and originally slated to direct, passed away at age 27 in May 2015.