Most movies struggle to adhere to the constraints of one genre, or sub-genre. Anna and the Apocalypse proudly belongs to three; zombie movie, Christmas movie, and musical. It’s also, technically, a teen dramedy on top of everything else. It’s kind of like Mean Girls with zombies. Or Better Watch Out with singing. Not only does it count as all three, it’s a pretty great example of all three too.
A strained father-daughter relationship forms the emotional core of the movie, as the titular character — a beautiful, relatively normal high school kid with big aspirations beyond her small town existence — fights with her well-meaning father about whether or not she should go to college. Just when their argument reaches an apex, the zombie apocalypse hits.
It turns into a race against time as Anna and her best friends battle through hordes of the undead to make it back to their school, where parents and teachers await, hoping not to be eaten in the meantime. There are plenty of songs, jokes, and teenage angst to contend with along the way, as well as their creep of a Principal (“Withdraw your tongues!” he demands of two kids making out in the hallway), who’s the ostensible villain of the piece.
Anna and the Apocalypse is absolutely delightful. There’s a reason it’s generated so much buzz on the festival circuit, of course, but the flick really is something special. Even its opening credits are super-cute, sweetly-animated, and sound-tracked by an adorable Christmas song. It has sweetness coming out of its pores, from its plinky-plonky, festively jolly score to its brilliant young cast.
The songs in Anna and the Apocalypse are catchy and spot-on, if a bit too frequent (some of them, such as “No Such Thing As A Hollywood Ending” are downright ear-worms, though, so be warned). The SFX are fantastic and gooily practical, with one reanimated zombie head (in a snowman costume) that continues moving around after being severed, making a considerable impact. The kills are gory and funny as hell, but always properly violent.
There are hints of the oncoming apocalypse right from the start, much like Edgar Wright’s celebrated rom-zom-com Shaun of the Dead, with blood on doors, people breathing heavily, etc. Anna proves she’s a tough cookie after beating one to death with her schoolbag. Likewise, when it comes time to throw down, she ties her hair up in a ponytail (a trope we need to see more in horror).
Young Ella Hunt is revelatory in the lead role, while her scenes with onscreen dad Tony (Mark Benton, an established and beloved TV stalwart in the U.K.), are heart-warmingly realistic, their arguments tinged with that caustic teenage wit that is only regretted when the family is torn apart later. Their emotional denouement is genuinely touching and affecting, played perfectly by both actors.
The performances are terrific across the board, from a young, committed cast of mostly unknown actors. One sequence in a graveyard was quite clearly shot during a downpour (in permanently cold Scotland, no less), but there’s never a sense these kids are uncomfortable. The musical sequences fizz with energy, and they take to the gorier sequences with equal aplomb.
The dialogue is whip-smart, from discussions about which celebs are zombies (Justin Bieber, but definitely not Taylor Swift) and searching social media tags for #evacselfie, to the boys in the group getting excited about the fact the undead are roaming the streets at all. The school dick even sings about how great he is at killing zombies, in a moment of pure genius.
The original short, 2011’s Zombie Musical, on which the film was based, was inspired by the idea of High School Musical reimagined with Zac Efron’s character as a zombie. Anna and the Apocalypse has considerably more bite than that glittery Disney affair, but the comparison makes sense, since this is equal parts musical and zombie movie (and festive treat, too).
It’s a bit like the musical episode of Todd and the Book of Pure Evil, only, obviously, considerably less offensive. That’s not to say the film doesn’t have a few tricks up its sleeve, particularly when it comes to the realistically open-ended ending, the fact the army becomes zombified early on rather than coming to the rescue, and how anybody could perish at any time.
These characters aren’t precious, however much we might grow to love them. Anna’s relationship with her clearly besotted best friend is among the sweetest elements of the entire thing, as she firmly tells him they’re just friends and he maturely accepts her decision. It’s nice to see a guy-girl friendship left as is, without any rush to find a romantic partner for Anna elsewhere.
Anna and the Apocalypse is an absolute joy from start to finish. Funny, sweet, gory, and loaded with toe-tapping musical numbers, it’s the most curious combination of sub-genres that, magically, works perfectly. Ignore that baseless comparison to the ghastly La La Land, that you might have seen floating around. It’s an insult to this far superior musical. Forget Ryan Gosling; this is a proper feel-good must-watch.
WICKED RATING: 9/10
Director(s): Nicolas Pesce
Writer(s): Ryû Murakami, Nicolas Pesce
Stars: Christopher Abbott, Mia Wasikowska, Laia Costa
Release date: December 7, 2018
Studio/ Production Co: Borderline Films
Length: 81 minutes