How 'Anna and the Apocalypse' Became a Christmas Musical With "Bloodlust"

A low-budget indie favorite is outliving the dying zombie genre to become the new "anti-Christmas" Christmas movie. 

Until recently, Scottish filmmaker John McPhail didn’t like musicals, making him an unlikely candidate to direct the zombie-Christmas-musical, Anna and the Apocalypse. In fact, before McPhail forced himself to binge-watch West Side Story and Cabaret, the only musical he liked was the crudely-animated 1998 satire South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut, which may explain why he was actually a perfect fit for the feel-gross holiday hit of 2018.

“Before I made this film, if you suggested we’re going to see a musical you’d be dragging me kicking and screaming,” McPhail tells Inverse. “When I pitched for this film, I stated, ‘I want this to be this generation’s Gremlins. I want this to be that anti-Christmas movie that still makes you feel good and joyous but get that bloodlust at the same time.”

Out in wide release on December 7 from Orion Pictures, Anna and the Apocalypse is the story of Anna Shepherd (Ella Hunt), a Scottish teenager living in a sleepy suburb who awakens to a Christmastime apocalypse.

“Anna is an aspirational 17-year-old who is bored of her small town,” says Hunt. “She’s as vulnerable and unsure as she is sassy and badass. Very often in films we see teenaged characters who are bored with their lives, but I was excited about Anna because yes she’s bored, but she’s also so many other things. That was so exciting for me to see in a teenaged girl.”

Featuring an original soundtrack by Roddy Hart and Tommy Reilly, and based on the BAFTA-winning 2010 short Zombie Musical by the late Ryan McHenry (who achieved viral fame for his Vine series Ryan Gosling Won’t Eat His Cereal), McPhail says he envisioned a new holiday classic that would counter family-friendly staples like It’s a Wonderful Life.

“It’s Gremlins, it’s Die Hard, it’s Scrooged,” he says. “That’s what I want this to be.”

Watch the behind the scenes of 'Anna and the Apocalypse.'

It wasn’t easy, though. Production mostly went off without a hitch, but there were plenty of hurdles for this comedy-horror with a musical heart of gold to overcome. The filmmakers had to build a giant Christmas tree emporium from scratch in February, when most trees have all but fallen apart. Shooting outdoors in the middle of a “horrific” Scotland winter wasn’t easy either.

“The tree emporium was hard,” McPhail recalls. “We created this epic warehouse of trees. It’s after Christmas, and we’re trying to keep these trees alive.”

Halfway through the film, Anna and her friends take a risky shortcut through an abandoned Christmas tree warehouse, unaware of the dangers inside. But with the show’s shoestring budget, it was “a mammoth task” to design a big, maze-like set for the characters to get lost in.

Anna and the Apocalypse
Ella Hunt, Malcolm Cumming, Christopher Leveaux and Ben Wiggins in 'Anna and the Apocalypse.'

“It was a corridor of trees, a square in the middle, and then another corridor again,” says McPhail. “We’re really proud of it, but figuring out the geography of it all, make it feel like they’re lost in a desolate place was really difficult. For my cast and crew, it’s dark and slippery and everything.”

And it was cold. Shooting the show-stealing number “Soldier at War,” performed by Ben Wiggins, was generally unpleasant. “‘Soldier at War’ was one of our hardest days because it was outside in Scotland in February. The wind and rain is just horrific.”

It was an important number to get done right, too. “It comes after the midpoint. The film starts to take a darker tone. To have that big hurrah, that fun, was really important, and then we start to descend into horror.”

McPhail also faced an abstract problem in zombies. Once the darling of horror thanks to shows like The Walking Dead, the genre has arguably fallen out of popularity. In 2014, McPhail thought the same thing.

“I remember when I was shooting my first feature, my mate and I were standing outside and there was a fog coming,” the director remembers, which inspired him to think of a zombie movie. “But I was like, I’m never going to make a zombie movie. The market’s way too oversaturated.”

Anna and the Apocalypse
Director John McPhail, on the set of 'Anna and the Apocalypse.'

Four years later, McPhail won the gig for Anna and the Apocalypse, but his doubts still lingered even as production began. It wasn’t until after shooting the film’s de facto theme, “Hollywood Ending,” on the second and third days of filming that the director — and everyone else — warmed up to a musical about killing Christmas corpses.

“It was very early in the shoot,” McPhail says, “and just to get that first musical piece under our belt was really important. We knew ‘Hollywood Ending’ was our High School Musical spectacular. We were really looking forward to it, to make sure it was awesome.”

Sarah Swire, who plays dogged student journalist “Steph,” choreographed the routine.

“I remember we sat down as a crew and watched everybody in it,” she says. “Because of that, the rush we got, everybody came out going, Okay, this is what this is. This is good. There was a lot of confidence from that.”

Watch another clip from 'Anna and the Apocalypse'

But what makes this Christmas zombie musical actually work, Hunt explains, is that the characters feel alive, unlike the zombies surrounding them.

“The more I talk about it, the more I think it’s because it’s got a heart,” she says. “Although it is all these crazy things, it’s about a loss of innocence. It’s about survival. It’s about things that are relatable to a lot of people.”

“The film deals with death. That’s what zombies represent,” says McPhail. “Death after adolescence. When you’re 16, 17, grandparents and friends pass away. You find out Santa Claus isn’t real. You can’t close that door.”

Anna and the Apocalypse opens wide in theaters on December 7.

Media via Orion Pictures