×

Film Review: ‘Anna and the Apocalypse’

'High School Musical' meets 'Dawn of the Dead' in a zippy zom-com-musical set in Scotland during Christmas time.

Director:
John McPhail
With:
Ella Hunt, Malcolm Cumming
Release Date:
Nov 30, 2018

Rated R  1 hour 47 minutes

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.

Popular on Variety

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.

Film Review: ‘Anna and the Apocalypse’

Reviewed at BiFan Film Festival (World Fantastic Blue), July 21, 2018. (Also in Fantasia, Edinburgh, Fantastic Fest film festivals.) Running time: 107 MIN.

Production: (U.K.) A Vertigo Releasing (in U.K.), Orion Pictures (in U.S.) release of a Blazing Griffin production, in association with Parkhouse Pictures, Creative Scotland, Constellation Creatives. (Int'l sales: AMP Int’l, London.) Producers: Naysun Alae-Carew, Nicholas Crum, Tracy Jarvis. Executive producers: Al Niblo, Anne Mensah, Todd Brown, James Norrie, Mark Thomas Peter van der Watt, Tracy Brimm, Steve Jarvis, Orion Lee. Co-producers: Steven Little, Charlotte Walsh.

Crew: Director: John McPhail. Screenplay: Ryan McHenry, Alan McDonald. Camera (color, HD, widescreen): Sara Deane. Editor: Mark Hermida. Music and lyrics: Roddy Hart, Tommy Reilly.

With: Ella Hunt, Malcolm Cumming, Sarah Swire, Christopher Leveaux, Ben Wiggins, Marli Siu, Mark Benton, Paul Kaye, Ella Jarvis, Janet Lawson.

More Film

  • Dan Scanlon (L) and US producer

    Berlin: Director Dan Scanlon Discusses Pixar’s 'Onward,' and His Michigan Inspiration

    Pixar’s “Onward” saw its world premiere at the Berlin International Film Festival, and the film’s director, Dan Scanlon, and producer, Kori Rae, talked to the press at the festival about the film, which follows brother elves on a magical quest to reconnect with their late father. Tom Holland and Chris Pratt voice the brothers who [...]

  • Johnny Depp arrives for the 'Minamata'

    Johnny Depp on 'Power of the Small' at Launch of 'Minamata' at Berlin Film Festival

    Johnny Depp arrived at the Berlin Film Festival Friday to support the film “Minamata,” in which he plays celebrated war photographer W. Eugene Smith. In the film, based on real events, Smith is pitted against a powerful corporation responsible for poisoning with mercury the people of Minamata in Japan in 1971. Directed by Andrew Levitas, [...]

  • "Last Film Show"

    Berlin: Orange Studio Launches 'The Last Film Show,' 'Old Fashioned, 'Love Song For Tough Guys' (EXCLUSIVE)

    Under the new leadership of industry veteran Kristina Zimmermann, Orange Studio, the film/TV division of the French telco group Orange, is launching three new projects at Berlin’s European Film Market: “Last Film Show,” “Old Fashioned” and “Love Song for Tough Guys.” Directed by Pan Nalin (“Samsara”), “Last Film Show” follows Samay, a 9-year-old boy living [...]

  • Bootlegger

    Best Friend Forever Acquires Cannes' Cinefondation Prizewinning 'Bootlegger' (EXCLUSIVE)

    Brussels-based company Best Friend Forever has acquired international sales rights to Caroline Monnet’s feature debut “Bootlegger” which won best screenplay at Cannes’ Cinefondation in 2017. A well-known contemporary artist, Monnet has shed light on Indigenous identity and has debunked stereotypes through her works, which have been shown at the Whitney Biennial in New York, Palais [...]

  • Greed

    'Greed': Film Review

    I’ve got this friend who makes his own clothes. Not the generic kind cut from dowdy prairie-dress patterns, but chic, design-it-yourself garments that look better than most anything you’d find on a ready-to-wear rack. I figure he’s the only person I know who’s not guilty of contributing to the kind of sweatshop misery writer-director Michael [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content