Film critic Scott Wilson reviews what he hopes will be the first in a long line of musical-zombie-comedy-Christmas films.
Anna and the Apocalypse – ★★★★☆
Cinema has seen all kinds of reactions in response to zombie takeovers, from holing up in a mall to heading to the Winchester and waiting for it all to blow over. Here is a story where – finally – the reaction is to sing about it, the first entry in the hopefully burgeoning musical-zombie-comedy-Christmas genre.
Anna and the Apocalypse (or, The Gravest Showman, thank you very much) follows Anna as she prepares to graduate, a gap year in Australia in her sights. After adolescent woes – romance, arguing with dad – and a bit of a singsong, a new day dawns on a changed little town. What should be a quaint estate is now alight, neighbours chased from their homes, family cars splattered with blood. In the foreground Anna sings and dances unawares to ‘Turn My Life Around’ with her earphones in, narrowly avoiding a number of grizzly ends until she and her best mate John are confronted with a zombie in a mascot suit.
Anna and her friends hide out at the local bowling alley before heading to their school across town, where family and loved ones are thought to be taking shelter. Lorded over by Mr Savage (Paul Kaye gone full panto-villain), the school has become a last bastion of health and sanity despite the headmaster’s increasingly manic state.
Like John Carney’s Sing Street, these songs by Tommy Reilly and Roddy Hart deserve more than they will get.
With its Christmas setting and its singing-in-the-shower-ready soundtrack, Anna and the Apocalypse could have been an overbearing romp. But this story of growing up and of coming to terms with loss has meat on its bones, almost invisibly becoming a tear-jerker not long after a rousing chorus of “when it comes to killing zombies I’m the top of my class!”
It’s the film’s strong point. The songs are fun, the premise is cool, but once it’s made clear the stakes are very real it transcends what could be a gimmick. Anna (a star-making turn from Ella Hunt) never loses sight of the important things in an emergency: family, safety, how do we recover from this? While there are jokes happening in her vicinity, she forms unseen bonds with characters who become as familiar to you as they are to her. The relative safety of its first act lulls in a false sense of security in such a big way that when things turn nasty it is genuinely shocking.
There is space in the market for this sort of thing. La La Land may have been the darling of the awards circuit, but Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again and The Greatest Showman burst through audiences’ awkwardness and forced us to admit we all enjoy a song and dance. ‘Hollywood Ending’ has a chorus worthy of Carly Rae Jepsen – the highest praise – made all the better by Hunt’s distinguishable accent. ‘It’s That Time of Year’ arrives like the Santa dance from Mean Girls, initially innocent before drowning in classy smut. As for ‘Soldier At War’, a cocksure zombie-killing swagger of a song, it is a damn shame it will never get a chance against A Star is Born’s ‘Shallow’ at the Oscars. Like John Carney’s Sing Street, these songs by Tommy Reilly and Roddy Hart deserve more than they will get.
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The quality of singing varies. Paul Kaye’s Stewie Griffin-esque tones works fine for his ‘Nothing’s Gonna Stop Me Now’ solo, but a duet with Hunt in ‘Give Them a Show’ is lop-sided in her favour. ‘Human Voice’ is a hopeful ensemble piece, but there is something uneven in its delivery, either in singing ability disparities or how it never quite hits the emotional climax it ought to.
For the most part its low budget adds to the charm. Port Glasgow and Greenock as filming locations are no Hollywood, but this is happening to a normal girl in a normal town. The lack of familiar faces gives all the actors a clean slate to work with, aware that to many this is their first exposure. They’re a likable bunch and an effective ensemble cast, believably angst-ridden and love-blind teenagers.
Originality counts for a lot in cinema, especially at a time of peak franchise and sequel oversaturation. The brainchild of Ryan McHenry, the guy behind the ‘Ryan Gosling won’t eat his cereal’ Vines, has come to fruition after his death at just 27 years old. In the hands of John McPhail, Anna and the Apocalypse does McHenry’s idea proud. While there are elements of Shaun of the Dead, of countless zombie films, of musical theatre tropes, they are blended together for something quite wonderful, a lot of fun, and with a surprising rumination on coming to terms with loss.
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