It’s 2018, so of course, it’s the Christmas zombie apocalypse musical that’s the feel-good movie of the moment. Anna and the Apocalypse is a charming, sincere delight that just so happens to look at what it’s like to come of age when the world is literally coming to an end. Suffice to say it may hit a little close to home for some.
Today’s youth must feel anxious and confused. Climate change is a very real phenomenon with very real consequences, and for many, we’ve been at war for as long as they’ve been alive. In many ways, Anna and the Apocalypse might just be the coming of age movie we need right now. It doesn’t hurt that the songs are catchy and the cast is charismatic and likable.
John McPhail has taken a musical, shoved it into a zombie story and made it about high school. The trick is that McPhail and his writers Alan McDonald and Ryan McHenry, make it all seem so effortless. Much like Shaun of the Dead they are aware of the genre’s tropes and instead of trying to subvert them, lean into them. Despite the end of the world being nigh McHpahil and his writers never let the doom and gloom overwhelm the mood. It’s a musical after all.
It’s the last day before Christmas vacation, and Anna (Ella Hunt) is planning on seeing the world. Her holiday plans are news to her father Tony (Mark Benton), who just so happens to also be the school janitor. Her best friend John (Malcolm Cumming) is waiting to hear back from art college. He’s also waiting for Anna to see him as something other than just a friend.
Poor John has a long wait though because Anna, despite knowing better, still has feelings for her ex, the jock Nick (Ben Wiggins). Anna’s other best friend Lisa (Marli Siu) is madly in love with her soulmate Chris (Christopher Leveaux). Throw in the school’s resident lesbian American who’s the editor of the school paper, Steph (Sarah Swire), and you have your cast.
If all this sounds rather, well, rote, you’d be right. Anna and the Apocalypse works because in between all of the “Last time on Glee” high school melodrama we have entrails and heartfelt pop ballads and synchronized dancing. McPhail purposefully makes the story as uncomplicated as can be. Instead, McPhail and his writers focus on setting up the characters and seeing how they react. After all, teenagers historically spent their time behaving as if the world is ending. Who knew the whole thing was just a dress rehearsal for the real thing.
After a particularly stressful night Anna and John collapse on the ground at the local playground. The two pour their heart out and confide into each other about their fears and hang-ups. The next morning as the world begins to crumble they can hardly be bothered as they sing “Turning My Life Around.” Hunt and Cumming gyrate and spaz about in heedless joy as only teenagers can; without a single ounce of irony or care.
Steph, a tightly wound academic obsessed loner, is a perfect foil for Anna. I say foil not in a nemesis way but in as to have someone to bounce off of. Hunt’s Anna is a resilient and clear-eyed heroine. Whereas Swire’s Steph is the type who may need a few minutes to grapple with the enormity of it all. Both, however, will not hesitate to decapitate a flesh-eating zombie. Hunt and Swire’s are the standouts, if only because they seem to be the only two with any real depth to their characters.
The script, thin though it may be, is not lacking. I particularly liked how Anna found herself both repulsed and attracted by the pretty boy. McDonald and McHenry plant the seeds of a tired old trope where the couple from different cliques break up because the boy told everyone they slept together. It’s an old trope and one that should be put out to pasture. Imagine my surprise when Nick tells Anna, after killing a horde of zombies together, that he never told anyone they had sex. “You think I’m pissed at you because of that? Nick, I don’t care about sex, it’s just sex. We told each other our hopes and dreams, and then you dumped me!”
Or the way that Steph slowly and uneasily begins to drop her guard with her new friends. Granted she’s forced to because as far as they know, they are the only ones alive in their small town. Oh, and spoiler, she makes it out alive. If anything having an out lesbian character who makes it out of a zombie movie alive is worth the ticket priced alone; musical or no musical.
The kids must eventually go back to school because that’s where everybody in town has gathered. Frankly, it’s the tail end of the second act where the movie’s charms begin to wain. To pad out the run time and to complicate the story, as if the literal end of the world, a plague of zombies, and the ennui of the end of childhood, wasn’t enough; we have an evil vice principal Savage (Paul Kaye).
Savage is a one-note character that never seems to fit into any scene he’s in. Yes, it’s a musical, and musicals are by their very nature over the top, but somehow Savage sticks out like a sore thumb. His number “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Me Now” feels the most forced. Kaye sells it though, and despite his character being underwritten, he finds little ways to flesh out his character.
Hunt and Swire are the standouts though as they anchor and steal almost every scene, they happen to be in. Sad spoiler, they do not end up together at the end. Hunt is effortless as the lead showing not just great talent, but immense aptitude for stardom. She switches from kick ball chain to stabbing a zombie in the head with a candy cane without so much as breaking a sweat.
Swire’s Steph may well have been the next Rachel Maddow, if not for Armageddon. Her Steph is a mess of ticks and awkward social interactions. Easily the smartest among the surviving group, her face is a wonder of expressive gawks and bulging eyes. Swire gets a little shortchanged as she is the only character with an offscreen love interest. Meanwhile, Anna is the center of a love triangle, and Lisa and Chris are giving each other air kisses and drawing hearts in the air.
Not to mention, there is a character, who survives a horde of zombies, only to reappear at the end so as to give Anna a hetero love interest. To be clear there is no hint or subtext that Anna is anything other than straight. What I’m getting at is that McPhail and his writers somehow couldn’t fathom two women riding off into the sunset together platonic or otherwise.
Aside from that Anna and the Apocalypse is a charming little piece of kooky indie cinema. The music is catchy and will have you swaying along with the lyrics. The actors are likable, and the characters are recognizable, and their decisions make sense. All in all Anna and the Apocalypse is a nice time at the movies.