Review: Anna and the Apocalypse

Anna and the Apocalypse

7 out of 10

A gleefully off-beat mash-up of teen angst, jabs at yuletide cheer, horror movie gore, and show-stopping song and dance numbers, Anna and the Apocalypse runs through a handful of dissimilar genres at the same time to maximally entertaining effect. Coming across like the result of George Romero, George Cukor, and John Hughes getting together to write a screenplay while on a boozy eggnog bender, Anna and the Apocalypse is the kind of unique project that’s an instant cult classic waiting to be discovered by music, horror, and Christmas movie nerds alike. While it might be too cute and sentimental to appeal to everyone who loves those genres (it IS a Christmas movie, after all), Anna and the Apocalypse comes about its irreverence and crowd pleasing nature from a place of honesty. To make something this crazy sing, literally and figuratively, is a lot of hard work. Thankfully, Anna and the Apocalypse isn’t trying insufferably hard to court cult movie status. It’s trying just hard enough.

It’s a few days before Christmas, and high school senior Anna Shepard (Ella Hunt) finds that the seasonal stressors are only contributing to her desire to flee the small Scottish community of Little Haven, skip university next year, and do some travelling. Her school is in the throes of putting on their annual holiday spectacular – overseen by the school’s downright tyrannical headmaster (Paul Kaye) – but while all of her closest friends are losing their heads, Anna, who refuses to participate in the show, is on the verge of an epiphany about what she wants to do with her life. Unfortunately for her, that epiphany is about to coincide with the ramping up of a viral outbreak that’s turning people into bloodthirsty zombies. Keen to rescue her loving janitor father (Mark Benton) from the cafeteria where he’s become trapped with other survivors and cut off from the outside world, Anna meets up with some fellow young folks along the way who also skipped the musical spectacular and have their own reasons for wanting to break back into the school.

Anna is joined in her daunting and blood soaked quest by John (Malcolm Cumming), a sweet, but naive young man with a penchant for cheesy Christmas sweaters and an unwavering crush on our hero; Steph (Sarah Swire), an American transfer student and head of the school newspaper who wants to retrieve her confiscated car keys from the principal’s office; Chris (Christopher Leveaux), a film nerd who wants to rescue his beloved girlfriend (Marli Siu) and ailing grandmother; and and Nick (Ben Wiggins), a hard headed, video game obsessed alpha male that Anna previously hooked up with who’s now using the zombie apocalypse as an opportunity to showcase all the skills he learned at home with his mates in a practical setting.

Directed by John McPhail with a keen sense of how to keep all of the story’s potentially clashing tones and tropes in check and a keen sensibilities that belie the film’s low budget, Anna and the Apocalypse is indebted in no small part to every zombie movie, High School Musical, and ensemble teen flick that came before it. Working from a script by Alan McDonald and based on a BAFTA winning short film by Ryan McHenry (best known as the creator of the “Ryan Gosling Won’t Eat His Cereal” meme, who tragically passed away from cancer at the age of 27 before the feature adaptation was made), McPhail proves to have a wonderful eye for production design and set pieces. The school itself and a lot of the small town locations are a nice balance of the bland and the picturesque (captured quite gorgeously by cinematographer Sara Deane), which are only enhanced by the omnipresence of holiday decorations and the decay and mayhem caused by a zombie apocalypse. The action sequences are basic, but appropriately chaotic, and the musical numbers can’t be as grand as those in a Hollywood production, but McPhail and his team have learned and swiped from the best in every genre they’re seeking to touch upon. The overall mechanics of Anna and the Apocalypse are rather close to Shaun of the Dead – leave the house, try to save a loved one, find a safe place to lie low until this all blows over – but instead of ever feeling like a rip off, McPhail and McDonald’s work is inspired and honest rather than cheap imitation or audience pandering. Anna and the Apocalypse is a confident film that knows exactly what it wants to convey, even though it’s half a dozen different movies playing out at the same time.

The song and dance numbers (choreographed by co-star Swire) are the biggest highlights here, as they probably should be. There’s an upbeat pop song earworm that sets up the overall vibe and purpose of the film before anything gets too crazy, a bit from the school musical that’s rife with cheeky, barely concealed innuendos, a swaggering and bragging number where the bully gets to boast about how the zombie outbreak has given his life meaning, and most memorably a duet between Anna and John where both are leaving their respective houses and are more than blissfully unaware that everything around them has gone to complete shit. That last number is like watching the opening of Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead remake reimagined as a peppy, aspirational bit of sunshiny teen pop. The tunes from Roddy Hart and Tommy Reilly are clearly aiming to appeal to whatever Broadway enthusiasts there might be in the crowd, and their efforts pay off splendidly.

Anna and the Apocalypse finds its anchor in Hunt’s capable, balanced and strong heroine. Unlike the supporting players, Anna isn’t called upon to do anything overly ridiculous (or at least anything that seems out of character), and Hunt is able to balance the young woman’s naturally occurring teenage frustrations with a sense of heroic purpose. She has wonderful chemistry opposite her co-stars, especially Cumming and Wiggins, which helps to sell an otherwise rickety romantic subplot. Swire, Siu, and Leveaux all get ample opportunities to shine and provide the best moments in the film that don’t expressly deal with Anna’s problems. Everyone has something worth fighting for here, and McPhail and his cast do a find job of making sure that the audience remains invested in the plight of all the characters, not just Anna.

Not everything here works as well as it should. Kaye’s increasingly villainous and unhinged principal is too over-the-top to be taken seriously, but his actions are clearly meant to be menacing, and the actor’s campy and flamboyant turn never helps the character find its footing. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there comes a point in Anna and the Apocalypse where things need to start becoming serious, and while some of the film’s most shocking and tragic moments have a degree of unpredictability, the overall upbeat approach of the film’s first half doesn’t pivot all that gracefully into graver territory. Anna and the Apocalypse probably won’t lead exactly where viewers will be expecting it to, but how it gets there becomes more obvious and predictable as the film rolls along.

But considering the overall originality and unique vision of Anna and the Apocalypse, those are relatively minor complaints. Too often these days, filmmakers are producing cheesy romps and genre mash-ups with the express goal of making the next big cult phenomenon. They’re often made with a lot of technical and narrative skill, but little soul; frequently confusing the creation of elaborate and memorable moments with originality, wit, and thoughtfulness. Anna and the Apocalypse isn’t that kind of movie. It has a lovable, genuine, and disarming “let’s all put on a show” ethos that’s refreshingly upfront and honest about its wacky concept and cultural touchstones. It doesn’t smack of a bunch of people getting together expressly to make a cult film happen inorganically out of bits and piece from other successful film, but like a group of professionals who got together because they thought Anna and the Apocalypse sounded like a fun and worthy idea. It’s a cult movie that has been made for all the right reasons, and not one that has been engineered solely by people courting such status.

Anna and the Apocalypse is the kind of film that I can see a teenager citing as their favourite movie somewhere down the road, and I’d be perfectly okay accepting that as an answer. It’s a crowd pleaser with a somewhat basic story and a high degree of ingenuity and difficulty. It’s something made more for the teens than the adults, but it’s worthwhile viewing for anyone simply wanting to have a holly, jolly, gory, singing, dancing, spooky good time.

Anna and the Apocalypse opens in select Canadian cities on Friday, December 7, 2018.

Check out the trailer for Anna and the Apocalypse:

Andrew Parker
Andrew Parker fell in love with film growing up across the street from a movie theatre. He began writing professionally about film at the age of fourteen, and has been following his passions ever since. His writing has been showcased at various online outlets, as well as in The Globe and Mail, BeatRoute, and NOW Magazine. If he's not watching something or reading something, he's probably sleeping.