‘Twas the season of Christmas and all through sleepy Little Haven, hordes of flesh-hungry zombies ravaged the streets, leaving Anna and her pals to do some savin’ — and singin’ and slayin’, too.
If your line of logic got tangled up like an un-rewound Blockbuster tape upon that line hitting your eyes, you’d be forgiven. A zombie-horror movie set during the holly-est, jolliest holiday? Talk about taking Christ out of Christmas! Talk about “destroying” the nativity scene with buckets of blood! Talk about, like, bending suppositions and delivering fun unalloyed by rites of the season and expectations of the types of films most popularly launched from post-Thanksgiving to pre-New Year’s Eve! (Yeah, we got you with that last one.)
Like the candy-covered gingerbread houses all Christmas-observers made in their youth, Anna and the Apocalypse — the Scottish flick from Glaswegian director John McPhail (Where Do We Go From Here) — takes an already-delicious base and an attitude colored with a goal of escapism, then grabs two fistfuls of ingredients and slaps them (because screw careful construction when splashy merrymaking is an option) on the foundation. Horror is the gingerbread walls, floors, roof of Anna and the Apocalypse. Lurching, moaning zombies are the peppermint windows; ludicrously infectious musical numbers the gumdrop fence in the yard; and gleeful, outrageous comedic moments the decorating icing that glues everything together. It shouldn’t be tasty, this sugary amalgam, but it is. And like it, Anna and the Apocalypse is difficult to resist: catchy songs penned by Roddy Hart and Tommy Reilly, a sashaying confidence that colors every square inch of the screen, slight cheesiness that oozes through a surprisingly sincere story, naughtiness worn on the sleeve and a tongue affixed to the inside of a cheek, and zombies that make The Walking Dead’s look like Halloween Horror Nights rejects. But unlike the stomachache you’d get after scoffing down the actual culinary creation, the film gifts nothing but excitement, toe-tapping joy, and good tidings to all.
As zany as Anna and the Apocalypse is, what with all its delicious add-ons, the film benefits greatly from its rather simplistic premise: Anna (Ella Hunt) — a high school senior on the cusp of graduation who longs to see the world outside her quaint town in a gap year before university, struggles with the prospect of saying goodbye to her best friend John (Malcolm Cumming), and is getting the cold shoulder from her widowed dad (Mark Benton), who doesn’t agree with her choices re: higher education — one day finds herself fighting off the undead. To take down the zombies and reach her father and several others who are trapped in the school and subject to the wrath and rule of the power-crazed headmaster Mr. Savage (Paul Kaye), Anna teams with John, who harbors unrequited romantic feelings for her; school theater star Lisa (Marli Siu) and her beau Chris (Christopher Leveaux); American transfer student and recent dumpee Steph (Sarah Swine, who’s also the film’s choreographer); and her dick of an ex-boyfriend Nick (Ben Wiggins). As Anna and company go slashing through the snow, bashing zombie brains with candy canes, they also burst out into song and dance — all meant as a way for the teens to process that the end is nigh.
A riotous romp reminiscent of Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead (the sequence in which Anna, chipper as can be, struts through Little Haven blissfully oblivious to the zombies that litter the roads hits the funny bone with the same irreverence Wright’s farcical horror-comedy does) and a sexed-up, horror-fied High School Musical parody that leans into the extravagance of its blow-out, La La Land-like numbers, Anna and the Apocalypse is something of a Christmas miracle: it’s both hilarious and ho-ho-horrifying. The film is suspenseful and skin-crawly thanks to its zombies and the battles required to best them; socially relevant thanks to the script that crackles with smart, expertly timed jokes like chestnuts do over an open fire; plucky from McPhail’s direction and spunky from Sara Dean’s cinematography; resonant for all the facts of life it manages to bring into the fold; and charming due to the cast, comprised of faces most viewers haven’t seen before, that gives everything they’ve got to the story.
With anyone else behind the wheel of Anna and the Apocalypse — based on the short Zombie Musical by late director Ryan McHenry (the talent who gifted us those “Ryan Gosling Won’t Eat His Cereal” videos), who died at the age of 27 in 2015 — the film might have failed, and undoubtedly would have lacked the zizz that makes Anna so absurdly entertaining. It may not be the seasonally appropriate (and often woefully boring) Hallmark pic the whole family can watch as they sip on their mugs of hot cocoa, but Anna and the Apocalypse is merry and bright nonetheless — a cult movie in the making that paints the yuletide gay and gory and offers cinematic freshness to the most wonderful time of the year.