Funny zombie movies have revolutionized a corner of the horror industry, and musicals are a fine art when well-executed. Anna and the Apocalypse attempts to meld both of these genres together under the larger heading of “Christmas movie”, bringing viewers something well outside the realm of Dickens or Rudolph this year.
Anna and the Apocalypse is an expansion of Ryan McHenry’s short film Zombie Musical (McHenry was nominated for best director at the 2011 British Academy Scotland New Talent Awards, while Naysun Alae-Carew scored a win for producing). The short is a fifteen-minute glimpse at what happens when a girl heads to school and finds the world overrun by zombies, but that’s where the similarity between the films largely ends. Instead, Anna and the Apocalypse aims to be a coming of age story about a young woman (played by Ella Hunt) eager to see the world after she completes her basic education—but before she can complete her year, ace her exams, and board a plane to Australia, the zombie apocalypse happens.
It’s a shame that conceit doesn’t get moving a little faster, because the first half hour of the film is dead weight. It gives the most basic set ups for each character, throws in some songs and uninspired dancing that would look right at home in an actual high school show (everyone turn! okay, now stomp together!), and gives us a couple of odd numbers performed at the Christmas show at Anna’s school; one is a penguin rap dance, the other a lewd Santa song, both of which would be better suited to a different kind of teen film. Sometimes you can simply glue a few genres together and call that a movie, but Anna and the Apocalypse never manages to cohere—instead, each half hour feels like a different story entirely, from Mean Girls-esque secondary school growing pains, to Shawn of the Dead zombie camp, to 28 Days Later-but-with-music.
The biggest problem the film suffers from is that it’s a musical… with terrible music. With the exception of one or two numbers, the songs are completely forgettable, piled high with lyrics that could come out of any teenager’s rote diary and beset by melodies that never manage to stick in the head. A couple of the songs evoke a parodying tone that would have served the film well if that idea had carried through the whole movie, but on their own, those songs stick out like misshapen knobs on a lumpy potato. The music either needed to go full out with earnestness (like High School Musical) or lean on camp and tropes (like the musical television series Galavant), but by doing both, the whole conceit of a “zombie musical” falls apart before it ever gets its feet beneath it. Add to that some truly terrible sound-mixing and auto-tuning, the likes of which haven’t been seen since Glee was on the air, and you’ve got an unfortunate mess.
The movie might have actually benefited from a longer run time, which is a rare problem these days. Too few of the character arcs are ever usefully laid out to make sense of anyone’s behavior. Paul Kaye plays the school’s soon-to-be-new headmaster, Mr. Savage (bit on the nose there), who eventually loses his cool in front of all the parents and students waiting inside the school for a military escort to take them to safety. He really hates Anna’s dad for some reason that’s never explained to us—because her dad is a janitor? Because Savage thinks that he’s intellectually superior? He’s just an elitist? All of these things are likely, but we’re never really sure of it. He just exists to have a complete mental breakdown at a key point in the story. Then he gets to sing a song about it. (It’s fascinating to note that his song is the only one that was partly lifted from the original short film, but the character who originally sang it was the school’s gym teacher, who is basically communicating his intention to rape Anna in exchange for her survival. The short film is… well, it’s far from a feel-good comedy just for starters.)
The rest of the cast is similarly burdened with overly simplified character arcs: Steph (Sarah Swire) has distant parents and a girlfriend who just broke up with her; Chris (Christopher Leveaux) has a grandmother he cares for and his girlfriend Lisa (Marli Siu) still stuck inside the school; Anna’s mom is dead and her dad feels like he’s not enough in the parent department; Nick (Ben Wiggins) has a military father who is perpetually disappointed in him, explaining away his aggression and anger; Anna’s best friend John (Malcolm Cumming) doesn’t seem to have anything to care about, aside from his crush on Anna—he vaguely mentions being worried about his mother, and that’s it. Just a tiny bit more work in the character department would have rendered the film more emotionally interesting, which is something it desperately needs; you’re not going to worry overmuch about a zombie apocalypse if you don’t care about who gets bitten.
Even so, the core cast all do a great job with what they’re given. Ella Hunt plays Anna as a convincing young everywoman trying to find her strength as she learns who she is. Her best friend John is a dear heart and wonderfully funny. Sarah Swire is the strongest vocally of the group, and in her hands, Steph is every bit the queer teen would-be journalist of many young women’s dreams. Despite the fact that Nick is given a fairly predictable reasons to be such a nasty customer, Ben Wiggins sells the heck out of the role, and does his best to imbue Nick with some empathetic traits. Lisa and Chris are a lovable snapshot of first romance. But with an international cast, it reads strangely that the group skews incredibly white overall. Many British teen dramas have managed to avoid such uniform casting, so it ends up reading like laziness on part of the production.
At the end of it all, there are simply too many cliches and missed opportunities to make Anna and the Apocalypse enjoyable. It fails to be unique enough for memorability, it doesn’t hit the marks to make it a good musical, it’s only occasionally funny, it apes too many (better) movies, and it doesn’t scream “Christmas!” loudly enough to make it a solid holiday film. Which is too bad, because if even one or two of these elements had clicked, it would have struck gold.