We don’t know about you, but sometimes in the midst of awards-grubbing, pedigreed Hollywood films with highfalutin’ themes — gay conversion family drama; racial tension in the Deep South played out between a New York goombah and a pristine jazz musician; addictions and fame and royal court intrigues, oh my — sometimes we just need something a little more disrespectful. Grungy, goofy, bloody. You know, something much like Anna and the Apocalypse.
Now, we’re not going to tell you this high school musical Christmas zombie flick is a cinematic masterpiece, because we don’t want Santa to put us on his naughty list for lying (especially when we’ve done so many other delightfully devious things for that), but we will tell you that if you need a break from all those exhaustingly noble intentions wafting through the digital haze in your local cineplexes, you won’t find a better waste of your time than director John McPhail’s Scottish-set divertissement.
The sleepy town of Little Haven is about to get a whole lot more carnivorous with the never-explained outbreak of zombie fever just in time for the annual high school Christmas variety show, and a bomber cast of archetypes and musical tropes you can hit with every severed limb and digit.
There’s Anna (Ella Hunt), the plucky heroine ready to graduate and take a gap year to escape her small town doldrums; her loving Dad (Mark Benton), who wants his daughter to go immediately to university (and is still overprotective since the death of his wife and Anna’s Mum); her bestie John (Malcolm Cumming), who bravely covers up his romantic feelings for her with bad puns and worse Christmas sweaters; their extended crew, including hot nerd Chris (Christopher Leveaux); his girlfriend, the high school musical lead, Lisa (Marli Siu); bad boy Nick (Ben Wiggins); and last, but by no means least, school paper journalist and all around badass lesbian Steph (Sarah Swire).
Oh, and let’s not forget the school principal with a presence more onerous and threatening than the encroaching zombies, Mr. Savage, rendered in a gloriously over-the-top music-hall-meets-punk-rock fashion by seasoned U.K. character actor Paul Kaye.
Anna and the Apocalypse is a patchwork cast of diverse characters dealing with the end of times in their own individual ways, consciously so, according to director McPhail: “We live in a melting pot. You walk down the street, and not everybody is going to have the same accent or going to be the same type of person. We wanted each character to feel individual. Even with their voices, we wanted them all to sound different, or to have a different tone of the voice. So even with the musical numbers, you can identify each of them.”
The songs themselves — by Roddy Hart and Tommy Reilly — are perfect distillations of ’80s pop and B-movie genre making. There’s the Breakfast Club homage of “Hollywood Ending,” set in the school cafeteria; bad boy Nick’s “Eye of the Tiger” ’80s pastiche “Soldier at War” performed against a backdrop of bashed heads and dismemberments; and the sniveling showdown between Anna and Mr. Savage in “Give Them a Show.” (Kaye, vocally, is reminiscent of Keith Moon in the filmed version of The Who’s Tommy.)
There are missed opportunities in Anna and the Apocalypse. A sequence of teachers who are now zombies in the staff lounge could have gone all the way with a zombie choreograph (instead of just having them jerk around, like zombies, in general time to the music). And the musical sequences themselves are often just shy of being masterful.
Despite this, the zest of the cast carries the movie forward, with special kudos to Wiggins for keeping Nick from becoming a bland rebel (his featured song is a standout) and Hunt’s graceful normality as the title character. Even when she’s wielding an oversized candy cane as an instrument of death, she just seems so average that you go along with her.
Best of all, though, is Swire’s fiercely independent Steph. She may look like Annie Lennox (a character uses it against her as a slur), but’s she got the vocal chops of a Broadway belter. And while McPhail has said that what he loves about Anna and the Apocalypse is “that we have a gay character who nobody talks about being gay,” what he doesn’t say — though it bears pointing out — is that, when all is said and done and sung, it’s the lesbian who saves the world from doom.