[THS Review] Anna and the Apocalypse

Who would have thought that one of my favorite movies this year was a zombie Christmas movie? The zombie genre has been played out, over the last few years. The number of titles that actually do something interesting has been dwindling; I think the last great zombie movie I’ve seen was Train to Busan. Likewise, I really dislike Christmas movies. They tend to be treacly sugar confections of fake happiness. Sure, once in awhile, we get something like Gremlins or Krampus that proves there’s nothing funnier than taking something so ridiculously cheerful like Christmas and mixing it with horror. The dichotomy between the two tends to work brilliantly. But those are few in number as well. So the thought of a Christmas zombie movie just…doesn’t seem like it’d be a winner.

But sometimes a movie will come along that somehow transcends genre or narrative device. A movie that does it all and makes it look so clever and effortlessly cool. Sometimes you get a movie that you know shouldn’t work and yet somehow does.  Sometimes you get Anna and the Apocalypse. Oh, and did I mention it’s also a musical?

A zombie Christmas High School Musical. And it is glorious.

Anna (Ella Hunt) is your typical high schooler, who’s facing typical high school problems. She’s the kind of effortlessly cool character, who wears a loose tie in her school outfit and is just not impressed with her peers. To her dad’s dismay, she wants to take a year off after high school to explore Australia. Her dad wants her to go immediately to uni. Meanwhile, her best friend John (Malcolm Cumming) is a complete goober who rocks a “killer” Christmas sweater (that lights up, natch) and not-so-secretly pines for her. But Anna’s just gotten out of a relationship (of sorts?) with an ex named Nick (Ben Wiggins), who is the typical schoolyard jackass and bully.

Her other friends are Chris (Christopher Leveaux) and Lisa (Marli Siu), who are that high school couple who are so in love that they are oblivious to how eye-rolling it is. No one in the history of romance has ever felt love as much as they do.  Rounding out the main cast is Steph (Sarah Swire), a queer activist who feels disillusioned that no one else sees the world’s problem and is dealing with a family that doesn’t seem to care about her.

While everyone has their own hopes, dreams and plans for the future, what they don’t realize is that they aren’t in a typical high school musical; they’re in a zombie apocalypse. In a blissfully ignorant sequence that hilariously apes Shaun of the Dead, Anna wakes up one morning, pops her headphones on and belts out a song about how wonderful things are, as the world goes to hell in the background. Bodies fall from windows, zombies feast on her neighbors, blood is smeared everywhere and people are screaming, as they run for their lives. But Anna swings from a light pole, cheerfully singing.

Ella Hunt delivers a knockout performance, full of charm and talent. Her talent shouldn’t be ignored and I wouldn’t be surprised if we start to see more, bigger projects from her. But the rest of the cast is equally fantastic. In particular, Sarah Swire (who also does the choreography) stuns with her quick wit and delivery. The way she attacks her character reminds me of a less slapsticky Kate McKinnon. The best, though, is Paul Kaye (Thoros from Game of Thrones), who plays the soon-to-be-Headmaster antagonist. His name is Savage. And he steals every scene he’s in, as he inflicts pain and torment to the kids and adults at his school. His descent from a power-hungry Headmaster wannabe to a devilish villain is hilarious as it is apropos in a movie about high school students rebelling against The Man.

A musical isn't a musical without great songs and luckily these songs are catchy as hell. I left the theatre singing, "Hollywood Ending," for days. A standout that brought the house down was a “Santa Baby”-esqe Christmas ditty that’s full of double entendres and sexy (and shirtless), dancing Santas called “It’s That Time of Year.” But each character gets their moment to shine, both in song and in story. Even Headmaster Savage gets a gleefully insane number where Paul Kaye is able to let loose and really go full camp. The music is just a perfect amalgamation of high school musical numbers and witty songs. Honestly, it reminded me a bit of the Christmas episode of Community, and the zaniness therein. Sure, the voices might be a bit too auto-tuned, but it feels perfect for a high school musical.

There’s a wit to Anna and the Apocalypse that eclipses a simple zom-com. It has things to say about society and dresses them up as a high school musical. It lightly pokes fun at the way we are so focused on entertainment that we miss the horror that’s happening around us. It’s evidenced in Steph, whose work on societal problems is vastly ignored by everyone. Meanwhile, the zombie apocalypse gives us zombie hashtags, evacuation selfies and zombie Justin Bieber. Sure, a lot of it has been said before, but by centering the story on a high school and making it a musical, it is able to tease us and poke fun without ever feeling patronizing. At the end of the day, these are a bunch of kids, looking forward to a future that, in reality, isn’t exactly bright.

It blithely charges into danger and horror with wild abandon. The pace and tone of the movie work to its advantage. For all the laughs the first two acts give us, and believe me the audience was cackling like mad, it makes the deaths and horror of the third act more memorable and devastating. As the story madly careens to the end, the song “Hollywood Ending” takes on a new, more melancholic meaning. For some of the characters, there truly is no such thing as a Hollywood ending. And I applaud the writers Alan McDonald and Ryan McHenry for really putting the characters through their paces and giving us plenty of horror and sadness to go with songs about fish (w)raps.

What is the most devastating, though, is the realization that this was once the creation of Ryan McHenry, who wrote/directed a short that eventually turned into the movie. McHenry passed away in 2015 and John McPhail took over directing duties. McHenry was credited as the co-writer and the film is dedicated to him. The fact the movie was created with such love and respect is the best way to honor his memory. 

Sure, Anna and the Apocalypse owes a lot to movies like Shaun of the Dead. Individual pieces of the story have been seen before. As I said above, some of the comedic moments feel directly inspired by movies that came before. But this is a movie that shouldn’t work. It should have collapsed under the weight of very different and competing themes and genres. And yet, it becomes more than the sum of the parts. More than the individual scenes that might seem familiar. It has heart. And guts. And blood…

I loved this movie. Absolutely loved it. And I can’t wait for the horror community to see it.