Anna and the Apocalypse, 2018.
Directed by John McPhail.
Starring Ella Hunt, Malcolm Cumming, Sarah Swire, Christopher Leveaux, Marli Siu, Mark Benton, Ben Wiggins and Paul Kaye.
A misfit group of Scottish schoolkids must fight their way through a zombie apocalypse happening in the days before Christmas in order to get back to their families… or what’s left of them.
Sometimes, as a film fan, something comes along that seems to tick all of your boxes on premise alone. As a big fan of British cinema, horror movies, musicals and Christmas, it’s fair to say that Anna and the Apocalypse was an exciting prospect for me. There aren’t many zombie musicals out there, let alone British ones set during the festive period, but this movie delivers all of its constituent genre portions in exactly the right quantities – like a satisfying, filling Christmas dinner.
There’s something about British cinema, which has an ability to harness just the right degree of parochial naffness in order to amplify its charm. In this case, it’s the grim environs of a small Scottish town. When a DIY parochial feel – you almost expect the scenery to fall over – is doubled with the inherently gaudy sparkle of Christmas, there’s a precise alchemy at play in keeping the mixture from curdling into something too sickly.
The film sets its stall out early, interrupting a chirpy Christmas song with a vintage horror title card. We’re then introduced to Ella Hunt as the titular schoolgirl, who is currently squabbling with her dad (British TV stalwart Mark Benton) over her decision to defer university in favour of a gap year in Australia. Best friend John (Malcolm Cumming) is obviously mooning over her, though she seems more interested in bad boy Nick (Ben Wiggins), with whom she clearly has some sort of history. When zombies attack, Anna and John find themselves stranded at a bowling alley with morally righteous student journalist Steph (Sarah Swire) and naive wannabe filmmaker Chris (Christopher Leveaux).
The misfit crew inevitably decides to make their way back to the school in order to reconnect with family and friends, while the school is under the grip of Paul Kaye’s power-mad, grotesque headteacher-in-waiting Mr Savage. Director John McPhail nimbly cuts between the teens’ predicaments and the increasingly fraught environment at the school. There’s black comedy aplenty, but also genuine pathos in the performances. It’s a movie that’s completely comfortable decapitating a shambling undead fella with the end of a seesaw, but also mines considerable and palpable emotion from the sudden shock and subsequent condemnation of a zombie bite. When characters the audience has grown to love are inevitably bitten, it never feels cheap and always results in a meaningful character beat.
Hunt’s central performance is one of spirit and energy. She’s not an identikit rebellious teen, but nor is she an angelic wonder-child. She is smart, but flawed, and searching for her place in the world. In the inevitable multi-perspective early ballad, she expresses her desire to get away from her small town, but she also skips to school while singing a high-energy pop track, oblivious to the fact the apocalypse appears to have taken place overnight – a callback to Simon Pegg’s corner shop visit in Shaun of the Dead.
It’s just one of the movie’s many enjoyable song and dance sequences. The songs are catchy and everyone knows exactly when to turn on the tackiness, whether in the aforementioned multi-stranded ballad – yes, their parts do end up overlapping as the camera cuts rapidly between them – or in a cafeteria hoedown that positively wallows in its dance-on-the-tables cliché. Scottish singer-songwriters Roddy Hart and Tommy Reilly fly through the genre catalogue with aplomb, giving every major character a chance to shine. They’re also willing to take loving swipes at Christmas music, with Marli Siu’s outwardly innocent character bringing true awkwardness to a school talent show with an innuendo-laden festive composition in the vein of ‘Santa Baby’ – “unload your sack”, “my chimney needs a good unblocking”, etc.
In amongst all of the candy cane swinging splatter of Anna and the Apocalypse, there’s also a kernel of very interesting social commentary. The notion of smartphone obsession arises regularly throughout the story, but the messaging is more complex than the facile perspective that the disconnection provided by a screen is a Bad Thing™. Although the characters do sing about needing to hear a “human voice”, they also discuss the importance of a smartphone as a kind of repository for fond memories of loved ones who could now be either dead or undead, rather than “just plastic and glass”. Social media also provides the characters with information on escape routes, and provides the audience with a neat gag about #EvacSelfies with zombies trending and a newly deceased Justin Bieber swapping fancy food for brains.
It’s consistently surprising and refreshing that McPhail is able to find moments of emotional depth and social smarts, while also indulging in silly singing, a scenery-chewing villain and plenty of over the top violence. Alongside its smartphone examination, it boasts the very timely spectacle of idealistic youngsters watching the world fall apart around them, while the adults are at best apathetic and at worst actively malicious. Read it as an allegory for the onset of environmental disaster, or simply Brexit, but it’s well-constructed and potent, particularly in the closing moments.
Anna and the Apocalypse is a joyous helping of savage festive silliness, like a Christmas pudding coated in gooey gore. When the credits roll, you’ll want to watch it again immediately and it’ll almost certainly join the Christmas rotation, right between Love Actually and Elf. And neither of those films features a zombie’s head being smashed to pieces by a toilet seat. This one does.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Tom Beasley is a freelance film journalist and wrestling fan. Follow him on Twitter via @TomJBeasley for movie opinions, wrestling stuff and puns.