Fantastic Fest Review: The All-Singing, All-Dancing, All-Biting ANNA AND THE APOCALYPSE

A Scottish high school Christmas zombie musical that’s as wonderful as that sounds.

How do you solve a problem like zombie movies? The genre’s so overdone now it’s basically a truism: there’s only so much end-of-the-world moping, so many wacky gore gags that can play out on screen before it all gets a bit tiresome. Nearly every title wears its debt to Romero (or more recently, Wright) on its sleeve. Originality is hard to come by in this genre. Everything’s been done.

Everything except a Christmas high school zombie musical, that is. Belting its tunes from the highlands of Scotland, Anna and the Apocalypse blasts its bright, poppy sense of glee loud and far, delivering on every one of its multitude of mashed-up genres. It’s a ray of sunshine in a genre filled with darkness.

Anna (an alternately goofy and wistful Ella Hunt) is nearly finished with school, and looking at options for her future. Her dad (veteran English character actor Mark Benton) wants her to go to university, but she has dreams of traveling the world. With Christmas fast approaching, and Anna’s school one talent show away from adjourning for the school holidays, the point of decision is imminent. But that’s not the only big event on the horizon, as a zombie apocalypse strikes with, like, the worst timing.

The first half of Anna and the Apocalypse is one of the most delightful, wall-to-wall funny viewing experiences of the year to date. Its high school musical shenanigans play out with an unlikely mixture of self-awareness and earnestness, with jokes more subversive than what you’d find in a Disney Channel movie, all serving to set up a loveable group of characters for the filmmakers to put through the wringer later on. 

The songs stray far from musical-theatre tradition, instead taking a more modern pop-anthem approach, both in songwriting and arrangement. While the music might be a little overproduced, with some actors’ vocals in particular coming across as robotically autotuned, the songs are hooky as fuck, with terrific lyrics and the odd bit of slick choreography (by Sarah Swire, also playing the film’s best character, badass lesbian Steph). The film’s one explicitly Christmassy song, in particular, is a double-entendre-laden ode to Santa that should be placed into any dysfunctional family’s holiday jukebox rotation.

Matching the songs are the performances of all the core cast members. Though all the high school archetypes are present and accounted for, they’re played with insane energy, as if they’d never been seen before. The film’s screenplay only grants the characters a modicum of backstory and character, but the actors imbue them with such spirit - and, importantly for a musical, a strong sense of body language - that it’s hard not to fall in love with them. Even the school bully ends up likeable by the end, while Paul Kaye (Game of Thrones’ Thoros of Myr), as the wild-haired, self-important headmaster Savage, delivers the kind of scenery-chewing usually only seen in stage musicals, to hilarious effect. As the film’s human villain, sneering in 3-D at literally every other character, he’s an absolute joy.

So strong is the musical component of this zombie musical that it’s kind of dispiriting when its zombie component starts to take a few too many familiar turns. Every key plot element you remember from the Night, Dawn, Shaun, and the like makes an appearance, and while there are definitely inspired moments, the “incongruous objects as melee weapons” school of zombie action just isn’t that exciting anymore. The grimmer second half of the film just can’t compete with the thundering, pacey pop fun of the first half, especially as it starts to go through the motions of key characters being bitten and so on.

But even though its zombie elements are a little rote, Anna and the Apocalypse powers through to its climax anyway, its music - surely the must-have soundtrack of 2017 - carrying it over the finish line, even if not every character makes it through. Exuberant and gleeful, Anna and the Apocalypse is just the film the zombie genre needed: a bloody, toe-tapping, good-time frolic delivered with such un-zombie-like joie de vivre that it’s impossible not to get infected yourself.