Film review: Anna and the Apocalypse

Sarah Ward

A Christmas set zombie-musical-comedy with joy and bite.
Film review: Anna and the Apocalypse

If every high school-set musical met every cinematic outbreak of zombies, it would look like Anna and the Apocalypse. Throw in every heartfelt Christmas-set tale as well, and that’s this upbeat Scottish comedy’s premise. Based on Ryan McHenry’s short film Zombie Musical, and adapted into a feature by director John McPhail (Where Do We Go From Here?) with a script credited to the late McHenry and fellow feature first-timer Alan McDonald, it’s a movie that leans into its mash-up basis. More than that, it makes feasting on the meat of other genres feel like far more than artistically grazing — like a full filmic meal, in fact.

With festive celebrations in full swing, the titular Anna (Ella Hunt, TV’s Cold Feet) can’t wait to finish her secondary studies. Her widower dad (Mark Benton, The Halcyon) disapproves, but a gap-year trip to Australia and life beyond the small Scottish town of Little Haven await. While there’s little keeping her home, savouring her last stint before setting off appears increasingly impossible. There’s the school Christmas concert to sit through, a domineering teacher (Paul Kaye, Wanderlust) to avoid, the affections of her pining best friend (Malcolm Cumming, short British by the Grace of God) to ward off, and the constant propositions by resident jock Nick (Ben Wiggins, Mary Queen of Scots) to consider. Soon, and unexpectedly, there’s also a horde of attacking undead to vanquish with the pointy end of a giant decorative candy cane. 

Introducing Anna to the apocalypse, one scene demonstrates the film’s approach. Teenage life is an ordeal as it is; discovering that masses of shuffling corpses have infested your hometown is just another battle to fight. Awaking happy one morning despite her everyday problems, Anna walks to school listening to music and singing merrily in throaty tones, blissfully ignorant to the fact that her street lays in ruins, her neighbours are dying and Little Haven is descending into chaos. But what’s the end of the world when it always seems like your world is ending? And what teen, immersed deeply in their own issues, stops to take stock of what’s happening around them? 

Boarding the project after the passing of McHenry, who was also known for the video series Ryan Gosling Won't Eat His Cereal, McPhail also stages and shoots this early scene with the flair that serves Anna and the Apocalypse well. It’s crisp, peppy and energetic; fluidly choreographs its musical and zombie elements; keeps its frames busy, but not overloaded; showcases Hunt’s talents, as well as the rest of the largely unknown cast; and doesn’t shy away from the horror of the heaving undead, or the scares that come with them. All filter through the rest of the movie, although it’s the film’s command of tone that sings as convincingly as its pop-leaning, perceptively amusing songs. With a knowing attitude and clear awareness that, yes, dancing through disaster is a little silly, it embraces the heightened nature of both gory genre fare and perky musicals, finding the fun, terror and emotion in its unlikely blend. 

The end result? High School Musical with lashings of blood, Shaun of the Dead if it leaned even further into its soundtrack, and Australia’s Emo the Musical getting even more savage about teenage troubles. That said, Anna and the Apocalypse belongs beside its various predecessors as a peer, not as an assemblage of their various parts. Indeed, while the movie clearly enjoys splicing together its assorted components, and relishes its concept as a whole, it isn’t just stringing together a joke. Immersed in the fabric of the film is the reality that, when life gives you zombies — and upset parents, overbearing authority figures, romantic quandaries, existential dramas and more — sometimes you just need to express your feelings to move forward.

3 ½ stars ★★★☆

Anna and the Apocalypse
Director: John McPhail
UK, 2017, 93 mins

Release date: 29 November 2018
Distributor: Icon
Rated: MA 

What the stars mean?
  • Five stars: Exceptional, unforgettable, a must see
  • Four and a half stars: Excellent, definitely worth seeing
  • Four stars: Accomplished and engrossing but not the best of its kind
  • Three and a half stars: Good, clever, well made, but not brilliant
  • Three stars: Solid, enjoyable, but unremarkable or flawed
  • Two and half stars: Neither good nor bad, just adequate
  • Two stars: Not without its moments, but ultimately unsuccessful
  • One star: Awful, to be avoided
  • Zero stars: Genuinely dreadful, bad on every level

About the author

Sarah Ward is a freelance film critic, arts and culture writer, and film festival organiser. She is the Australia-based critic for Screen International, a film reviewer and writer for ArtsHub, the weekend editor and a senior writer for Concrete Playground, a writer for the Goethe-Institut Australien’s Kino in Oz, and a contributor to SBS, SBS Movies and Flicks Australia. Her work has been published by the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Junkee, FilmInk, Birth.Movies.Death, Lumina, Senses of Cinema, Broadsheet, Televised Revolution, Metro Magazine, Screen Education and the World Film Locations book series. She is also the editor of Trespass Magazine, a film and TV critic for ABC radio Brisbane, Gold Coast and Sunshine Coast, and has worked with the Brisbane International Film Festival, Queensland Film Festival, Sydney Underground Film Festival and Melbourne International Film Festival. Follow her on Twitter: @swardplay