Zombie. Christmas. Musical. Those three elements don’t seem like they’d fit together, but five years ago a group of scrappy Scottish independent filmmakers proved that they could make for a perfect combination. There have been zombie musicals, Christmas zombie movies, and Christmas musicals, but 2018’s Anna and the Apocalypse is the best zombie Christmas musical — and not just because it’s the only one.
The key to the movie’s success is that it fully commits to all three components of its premise, succeeding as horror, as a musical, and as a celebration of the holiday spirit. While it starts out as a goofy comedy, once the undead start to overrun the small Scottish town of Little Haven, the tone shifts, and the songs shift along with it. Songwriters Roddy Hart and Tommy Reilly are just as adept at creating haunting ballads about the need for human connection in the face of impending doom as they are at crafting an upbeat earworm about pursuing your dreams.
Anna and the Apocalypse isn’t timid about presenting itself as a full-on musical, either. Starting with the familiar opening “I want” song “Break Away,” director John McPhail stages fully choreographed musical numbers, with singing and dancing that live up to any major Hollywood musical. Anna and the Apocalypse began as a student short by writer-director Ryan McHenry, who passed away before the feature film went into production, and his collaborators successfully bring McHenry’s vision to life on a large scale, even with limited resources.
It also helps that they have a fantastic cast of young actors, led by Ella Hunt as the title character. High school senior Anna has typical teenage problems, including a conflict with her father Tony (Mark Benton) about her plan to take a year off to travel before attending university, and a complicated situationship with macho jock Nick (Ben Wiggins). That rouses the jealousy of her longtime best friend John (Malcolm Cumming), a shy artist who’s hopelessly in love with her but worries she doesn’t feel the same way.
The screenplay by McHenry and Alan McDonald lays out all of these relationships neatly, along with the necessary character development for a few of Anna’s other classmates, including her friend Lisa (Marli Siu), Lisa’s aspiring filmmaker boyfriend Chris (Christopher Leveaux), and school activist Steph (Sarah Swire). All of them are caught up in the yuletide zombie uprising, but that doesn’t mean that their personal issues just disappear. At least at first, their teenage angst is so all-consuming that they don’t even notice the world ending around them.
As early as during Anna’s dash through the school hallways singing “Break Away,” there are students acting oddly in the background. The morning that everything fully falls apart, both Anna and John wake up feeling renewed purpose, and Anna dances down Little Haven’s streets with blissful abandon, singing the cheerily optimistic “Turning My Life Around” as her neighbors are devoured by zombies. It’s a musical variation on a similar scene from Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead, but it’s also a spot-on metaphor for teenage solipsism.
Once Anna and her friends fully comprehend the scope of the disaster, though, they reveal greater emotional layers, and the movie follows suit. There are plenty of jokes in the first half, as John and Chris speculate about which celebrities might have become zombies, or the teenagers use the various available implements at the bowling alley where Anna works to take out zombies in creative ways. But not long after a zombie’s head pops up in the bowling-ball return, Chris observes, “This isn’t fun anymore,” and the characters start taking their situation more seriously.
That doesn’t mean that Anna and the Apocalypse loses its playfulness. When the group meets back up with Nick, who’s relishing the chance to let out his violent aggression, he sings a hard-driving song about his zombie-killing prowess. The most effective weapon Anna picks up is a giant plastic candy cane, and one character’s light-up Christmas sweater continues flashing brightly even after he’s turned into a zombie. McPhail balances those campy touches with genuine sadness, including multiple major character deaths that come across as devastating losses.
Paul Kaye is delightfully detestable as the school’s villainous, power-hungry vice principal Mr. Savage, who revels in the authority he’s able to seize during the chaos. He’s a combination of typical antagonists from both teen comedies and zombie thrillers. His obsession with controlling every aspect of the school’s Christmas pageant segues smoothly into an obsession with controlling the other town residents hiding out at the school, even if that means sacrificing some of them so that he can survive.
The conflict between altruism and self-interest is a common concern of both zombie and Christmas stories, and Anna and the Apocalypse effortlessly brings those themes together. It’s funny and heartbreaking, with copious gore and huge pop hooks. It’s everything anyone could want from a zombie Christmas musical.