Welcome to Cheat Sheet, our brief breakdown-style reviews of festival films, VR previews, and other special event releases. This review originally ran after the film’s premiere at Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas. It has been updated for the theatrical release.
There are two kinds of people in the world: people who hear the words “Scottish Christmas zombie musical comedy” and start scouring the internet for showtimes, and people who hear those words, roll their eyes, and mutter about the ridiculous extremes of mash-up culture. The latter group will want to skip Anna and the Apocalypse, which is exactly as advertised: a low-budget, high-energy independent musical comedy made in Scotland, and centering on how a group of angsty high-schoolers on the cusp of graduation deal with a sudden outbreak of living-deadism.
That Grinch group is missing out, though. The film probably won’t win over anyone who’s tired of zombie films, the rash of musical entertainment that followed Glee’s breakout TV success, or seniors-facing-the-future stories in general. But for anyone who’s predisposed to like these things, and is ready to see them in a new combination, Anna and the Apocalypse is an entertaining blast of fresh air that just happens to include a fine spray of blood.
What’s the genre?
Scottish. Christmas. Zombie. Musical. Comedy.
What’s it about?
Scottish high-school senior Anna (Ella Hunt) has decided to postpone college for a year while she travels around Australia, but when her father Tony (Mark Benton) finds out, he’s furious at what he sees as her attempt to sabotage her future. Meanwhile, her friend John (Malcolm Cumming) has an unrequited crush on her, and her profoundly obnoxious ex Nick (Ben Wiggins) is taking every opportunity to let her know he’d be willing to bang her again. Student journalist Steph (Sara Swire, also the film’s choreographer) wants people to take her stories about poverty and the homeless seriously, and school audiovisual nerd Chris (Christopher Leveaux) is being told his video work isn’t personal enough. Also: it’s Christmas, always a time for heightened emotions on both the positive and negative ends of the scale.
All these issues are standard high-school struggles, barely a tick on most people’s angst-o-meter. But like most teenagers, the protagonists are all processing their problems as questions about their own identities and their place in the world. Unlike most teenagers, though, they also process their emotions by busting out big original pop numbers about their disappointment and frustration, complete with Swire’s High School Musical-style choreography, which turns the lunchroom, the school hallways, and a local graveyard into small-scale Broadway stages.
And then, suddenly: zombies. Things fall apart quickly during a delirious sequence where Anna and John, rallying after a rough day, each run singing through their neighborhoods, completely oblivious to the murder and mayhem all around them. It’s a sequence familiar from Shaun of the Dead, except in this case, the teenagers aren’t operating in their own zombieish workaday haze — they both have their headphones in, and are tuned into their own inner worlds.
That might seem like a pointed criticism of teen narcissism, except that director John McPhail is unfailingly on these kids’ side. He and Swire make the film about big, joyous gestures and big painful moments, but above all, they make it big. The film’s successes largely come from their ambition and willingness to play the protagonists’ emotions straight and acknowledge why they’d feel real and important, even when the entire scenario around the characters is pointedly ridiculous, ironic, and over-the-top.
What’s it really about?
There are certainly some minor threads running through the film about the importance of friends and family, about appreciating the moment you’re in, and about not giving up on humanity, even when it feels like people are acting pretty shitty. But this isn’t a movie about deep symbolism and heartfelt themes. It’s a movie about smashing zombies’ heads in with watermelons, bowling balls, and whatever else comes readily to hand.
Is it good?
Above everything, actor Paul Kaye (familiar from his role as Thoros of Myr on Game of Thrones) gets a callout for throwing himself utterly into his role as brittle, tyrannical school administrator Arthur Savage. It’s rare for a zombie movie to have a human villain who isn’t a soulless military figure, or a rich out-of-touch elitist. But Savage is something much better: a petty tyrant who sees the entire zombie apocalypse as a challenge to his authority, until he finally cracks and becomes a chortling, expansive nihilist. The late-in-the-game villain number where he belts out his philosophy on death while dancing wildly around the cafeteria kitchen is gloriously demented.
And the cast is strong in general, with Hunt projecting a wounded-but-irrepressible Anne Hathaway vibe, Swire coming across like an underage Gwendoline Christie still finding her badass groove, and Wiggins stopping the show with a number about how well the zombie apocalypse treats people who find destructive mayhem fun. As slight and silly as the story is, and as familiar as the zombie beats are, the performers give it all a lot of heart.
Anna and the Apocalypse isn’t a particularly memorable movie — that giggleworthy tagline, “Scottish Christmas zombie musical comedy,” lingers longer than just about anything else. Some of the individual characters’ storylines drag or squib out into nothing, and as with so many zombie movies, the attempt to make every kill messier and more shocking than the last begins to dull after a while.
But watching it is a cheer-along experience. McPhail and writers Ryan McHenry and Alan McDonald leave the usual anti-zombie weapons (guns, axes, chainsaws) out of the equation, make their zombies preposterously fragile, and give the characters room to dispatch them with absolutely anything that comes to hand, including a seesaw and a spatula. Roddy Hart and Tommy Reilly’s pop songs are integral, actually moving the story along as well as expressing and heightening the emotions. Genre fans will see a lot of Glee mixed with Shaun of the Dead in this film, but it also recalls Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s musical episode, with more polished pop.
What should it be rated?
This is an extremely bloody movie, full of eviscerations, decapitations, and mutilations. It’s also all pretty goofy and humorous. The MPAA would call it an R, but really it could get by with a PG-13 and a reminder for the squeamish that this is a full-contact zombie movie.
How can I actually watch it?
Anna and the Apocalypse opens in limited American release on November 30th, 2018. It will expand to wider release on December 7th. Check the film’s official site for dates and theaters.