'Anna and the Apocalypse' Review: Holiday Cheer for the Dying Zombie Genre

Your new favorite Christmas movie has singing teenagers and flesh-eating zombies. 

The worst thing you can say about Anna and the Apocalypse is that it only sounds terrible. At first glance, a teen comedy musical about Christmas zombies screams someone played genre roulette until they landed on something filmable. Zombies! Kids like those, right? you imagine a producer saying. But just as unexpected as its premise, it turns out that Anna and the Apocalypse has what so many Christmas movies, even those on the Hallmark Channel, desperately want: An actual beating heart.

Sporting a banger-loaded soundtrack and an ensemble of charming characters you never want to leave, Anna and the Apocalypse — out in select theaters November 30 and everywhere else on December 7 — is the feel-kinda bad winter surprise of 2018 that will warm us all through the cold months ahead.

Directed by Scottish filmmaker John McPhail and inspired by the BAFTA-winning short by the late Ryan McHenry (creator of the Ryan Gosling Won’t Eat His Cereal vines), Anna and the Apocalypse is the story of Anna (Ella Hunt), a suburban teen who isn’t sure where she’s headed in life. When a zombie outbreak strikes before Christmas, Anna must bash and behead her way through the undead to rescue her father, the janitor of her high school after it’s locked down by a power-hungry headmaster (Paul Kaye).

Ella Hunt and Malcolm Cumming, in 'Anna and the Apocalypse.'

Orion Pictures
"This is the warmest sound ever to accompany restless adolescence and decaying corpses.

There are a lot of disparate, busy elements that make up Anna and the Apocalypse, but let’s get priority item number one out of the way: The music rules. Composed by Tommy Reilly and Roddy Hart, the film’s pop-rock soundtrack is more R-rated High School Musical than Rogers & Hammerstein, with ear-worm after ear-worm like “Break Away” and “Hollywood Ending” — the film’s de facto theme and the most upbeat song ever to foreshadow death — that will have you flipping on Spotify’s repeat button.

There’s also “Turning My Life Around,” a cheery tune cleverly juxtaposed with a zombie awakening; “Soldier At War,” performed by Ben Wiggins, is a personal favorite and the new anthem of alpha male arrogance; and the finale, “I Will Believe,” is a father-daughter ballad that’s pure magic if you surrender yourself to the film’s tricks and charms (and it’s hard not to).

To top it off, McPhail masterfully directs each number with either theatricality or realism, depending on the song. When it’s a big number (“Hollywood Ending”), a cafeteria becomes a Broadway stage. But when it’s a character piece like “Soldier At War,” McPhail makes the frame his playground, letting the actors roam free in an empty field while pulling off visual gags (all as they murder zombies) that wouldn’t be possible on a stage.

Anna is the musical every high school theater kid should want to perform. While it lacks a distinct, unifying theme (“Hollywood Ending” seems to be it), it’s still funny, catchy, and just a little potty-mouthed. This is the warmest sound ever to accompany restless adolescence and decaying corpses.

"It’s been awhile since a zombie comedy was this witty, this smart, this charming, and this masterfully made.

Scrub Anna of its music and you still have an arresting teen comedy about growing up that just so happens to have zombies. No, it’s not important how the zombies happened. What’s important is, how will Anna prevail? Armed with imaginative staging that never overwhelms the frame, Anna and the Apocalypse has the same winning visual and emotional elements that keeps us coming back to Shaun of the Dead and not, say, Sharknado, or any horror movie with a killer Santa Claus. There’s an actual story here, with defined characters and stakes that you’ll want to see all the way through.

'Anna and the Apocalypse' is more comedy than horror, but it's still a vicious, violent delight.

Orion Pictures

At the center is Ella Hunt, a powerhouse protagonist who’s character Anna is equal parts Ellen Ripley and Shaun of Shaun of the Dead. Then there’s her friends, an array of exciting young actors (Sarah Swire, Christopher Leveaux, Marli Siu), all of whom are unrelenting goofs and charmers. You want to be best friends with almost all of them,. The one possible exception is Malcolm Cumming’s John who feels just a few years out of date, playing the “nice guy” card on Anna in a not great way.

It’s been awhile since a zombie comedy was this witty, this smart, this charming, and this masterfully made. Edgar Wright pulled it off fifteen years ago and no one has come close since. Meanwhile zombies have become boring, with the exhausting and self-serious The Walking Dead being the worst killjoy ever produced on television. But while zombies might get you in the theater, or the thing that keeps you away, you should know that the zombies aren’t the most coolest thing about this movie. It’s Anna and her friends, who charm you to death and make you believe there’s a Hollywood ending in store.

Anna and the Apocalypse is in theaters on November 30. It opens nationwide on December 7.

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