The Pitch: Anna and the Apocalypse is a 13-year-old’s dream. It’s a simple, starry-eyed zombie movie brimming with beautiful teenagers and the kind of gore that’s too cheeky to ever be truly disturbing. It’s also a musical — one part High School Musical, two parts anthemic modern pop (think Walk the Moon) — and its compositions are bright, cheery, and, in context, novel, serving as a stark, often funny contrast to the violence on display. The film, which began as a BAFTA-winning 2010 short, follows Scottish high schooler Anna (Ella Hunt) as she and a merry gang of classmates square off against both an encroaching zombie horde and an evil headmaster by the name of Savage (Paul Kaye). Oh, it’s also Christmas.
Is It Scary?: Not particularly, but it’s also not really trying to be. Like so many musicals, Anna and the Apocalypse 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 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?
How’s The Music?: On a surface level? Fine. Roddy Hart and Tommy Reilly’s songs are lush and vibrant, but like plenty of Billboard toppers, offer all pomp with little circumstance. The biggest problem with Anna and the Apocalypse is that the songs themselves feel disconnected from the story, as if they were retrofitted to fit the narrative long after they’d been written. The first act is filled with catchy, familiar songs about youth, yearning, and disappointment, but they have a boilerplate quality, as if they’d feel at home in any high school musical. Later, the songs acknowledge the zombie invasion, but only fitfully, with the flesh-eaters getting lost amidst unimaginative lyrics about being lonely, leadership, and taking a stand. In a good musical, the songs are events. Here, they feel like distractions.
The New Flesh: What saves Anna and the Apocalypse is its ensemble. While Hunt is a charismatic performer, her title character pales in comparison to her cohorts. Sarah Swire‘s American outcast, Steph, hits her emotional beats as well as she does her high notes, while Malcolm Cumming melts hearts as earnest, lovestruck classmate John. The standout, however, may be Christopher Leveaux‘s doofy film geek Chris, who pivots nimbly between comic relief gags and moments of genuine, heartrending emotion. It’s as a unit, however, that they truly shine, harmonizing as well in action as they do in song. It’s rare for a horror movie to make you like its marks this much, but Alan McDonald and Ryan McHenry’s script leavens its zaniness and vulnerability, a precarious balance the performers pull off with grace. Hell, even the school bully, Nick (Ben Wiggins), gets his due. One also shouldn’t forget Kaye, who chews as much scenery as the zombies do flesh. His bug-eyed song, buoyed by his over-the-top performance, is the film’s musical highlight.
The Verdict: Anna and the Apocalypse is a lark that will undoubtedly become sleepover fodder for years to come. There’s a rich, hilarious novelty to the film’s juxtaposition of glittering pop and ultraviolence, but by virtue of the clear disconnect between story and song, that novelty quickly wears thin. The performers delight and McPhail is a capable director, but the movie can’t transcend its crackerjack premise — the story is familiar, the songs mostly forgettable, and the gore nothing you haven’t seen before. Still, its structure is ironclad, it moves like the wind, and it manages to achieve some affecting pathos, even if it threatens to squeeze them a bit too hard. That’s enough to cement it as yet another staple of the surprisingly malleable zombie genre, which, 14 years after Shaun of the Dead, continues to strain against the boundaries of horror.
Where’s It Playing?: Anna and the Apocalypse will open in limited theaters on November 30th, and will expand nationwide on December 7th.