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Review: Anna and the Apocalypse

December 8, 2018

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

There have been some great examples over the years of movies that blend Christmas cheer with horror elements. Bob Clark’s iconic slasher Black Christmas certainly springs to mind as one of the darkest examples, as does Joe Dante’s holiday monster movie Gremlins, and Michael Dougherty’s more recent Krampus.

Now we have another film to add to that list with Anna and the Apocalypse, a Christmas zombie movie that also happens to be a full-on musical. Yes, you read that right. It’s a Christmas zombie musical. Think High School Musical meets Zombieland, but set during the holiday season, and you get the idea.

There are song and dance numbers to go along with all of the blood and guts on display, and the resulting film works as a surprisingly delightful and heartfelt crowdpleaser. The story follows Anna (Ella Hunt), a high schooler in the drab Scottish town of Little Haven, who wants to take a gap year and go to Australia after the holidays, something that her charming best friend John (Malcolm Cumming), who harbours a not so secret crush on her, finds himself struggling to accept.

When the zombie apocalypse hits on the day of the school’s Christmas pageant, Anna and John must fight their way across town so she can rescue her father (Mark Benton), a custodian who is trapped at the high school, where half the town is holed up for the pageant and being kept there by the maniacal headmaster Mr. Savage (Paul Kaye). They are joined by Steph (Sarah Swire), an American expat with absentee parents, the wannabe filmmaker Chris (Christophr Leveaux), who wants to get back to his girlfriend Lisa (Marli Siu), who is performing in the pageant, as well as the school bully Nick (Ben Wiggins), a brutish jerk who is having a blast killing zombies.

Director John McPhail, working from a script by Alan McDonald and the late Ryan McHenry, whose short film has been posthumously adapted to feature length, does a fine job of balancing the mix of genres present throughout Anna and the Apocalypse. The film starts off as a high school dramedy that recalls the work of John Hughes, before becoming a zombie slasher with lots of bloody gore that would make George A. Romero proud, without losing sight of its tongue-in-cheek tone and genuine heart.

The success of any musical clearly rests in the strengths of its songs, and the musical numbers in Anna and the Apocalypse are all quite well done, with several highlights throughout that are done in a variety of different musical styles. Early on in the film, we get the song “Break Away”, which is a surprisingly emotional track that would be the equivalent of an “I Want” song if this were a Disney movie. “Turning My Life Around” is a joyful and upbeat number that is hilariously staged with Anna and John dancing through the streets, oblivious to the undead hordes ravaging people behind them.

The ensemble number “Hollywood Ending” is a High School Musical type performance staged in the school cafeteria that spoofs feel good Disney musicals while also paying homage to them. “It’s That Time of Year” is a suggestive Christmas number that rivals the one in Mean Girls, and “The Fish Wrap” is a fun bit of wordplay that will get caught in your head. Nick’s big number “Soldier At War” resembles what might happen if the gang from Grease got together to bash zombies while also singing and strutting their stuff, with its rock & roll riffs and hooky lyrics making it one of the film’s most insanely catchy songs.

So the humour is sharp, the songs are infectious, and there are some delightfully gory zombie kills, but the story also has an unexpected sense of sadness to it that adds a surprising amount of pathos to Anna and the Apocalypse as it goes along. It’s the more melancholy nature of the story that ultimately makes the film work as well as it does, especially as we reach the surprisingly somber finale. There are real stakes here for the characters, and the fact that we care so much about their fates is a real testament to both the strength of the story and the immensely likeable performances of its leads.

As a Christmas zombie musical, Anna and the Apocalypse is a lot of fun to watch, offering a weirdly delightful genre mashup of holiday spirit and zombie gore that works thanks to endearing characters and toe-tapping song numbers, with an emotional core that allows it to really stick with us. All of these elements combined elevate Anna and the Apocalypse to the level of a potential new Christmas classic, and it seems primed and ready for a Broadway adaptation sometime down the road.

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