This holiday season, as with them all, film fans are barraged with Oscar contenders, Hallmark Christmas movies, as well as Disney and superhero blockbusters, all vying for attention and box office dollars. Anna and the Apocalypse, which was created on a tiny budget by a scrappy group of Scottish filmmakers, enters the fray with lots to offer and a strong point of view, leaving every audience sated in a way only a zombie Christmas musical could. Who would imagine there would be a call for such a thing? Probably a fair number of those who have suffered through a year of Brexit, Trump, hate crimes, and school shootings had an inkling. It’s the dark, hopeful, blood-soaked holiday movie you never knew you needed. It’s Glee meets Spring Awakening meets Shaun of the Dead.
A zombie apocalypse lands squarely in the bucolic town of Little Haven, and just in time for Christmas. Anna and her school friends have to fight their way back to their loved ones, finding the only way to survive is by relying on each other. Anna (Ella Hunt) and her best friend John (Malcolm Cumming) are getting ready to graduate, along with their classmates. They include queer would-be journalist Steph (Sarah Swire), who is living far from home, young lovers Lisa (Marli Siu) and Chris (Christopher Leveaux), and bad boy bully Nick (Ben Wiggins). Nick has a history with Anna, much to the chagrin of Anna’s dad and school’s custodian Tony (Mark Benton). Rounding out the cast is bitter school administrator Savage (Paul Kaye), who hates his job nearly as much as he hates the kids that are a part of it.
Singing, slashing, and bloodying themselves through an hour and a half, the cast could be creating a parody and nothing more, but the script and songs prove to have layers enough to raise it to something more. The film is based on a BAFTA-winning short by filmmaker Ryan McHenry, who died before finishing the full length feature. His friends and colleagues took over for him, and Anna and the Apocalypse became a tribute to his life and love of film.
The songs are strong, as is the acting. The musical team of Roddy Hart (of Sunshine on Leith) and Tommy Reilly, mix a variety of genres and styles to create a number of singable tunes, including ear worms ‘Breakaway’, ‘Hollywood Ending’ and ‘Turning my Life Around’. The song ‘Soldier at War’ brings the 80s hit Eye of the Tiger to mind, while ‘Nothing’s Gonna Stop Me Now’ goes full Rocky Horror, with a scenery-chewing Paul Kaye as Savage clearly channelling Riff Raff. We believe the characters onscreen, whether they are singing, sharing their grief or fears of death, or fighting zombies. It never devolves into complete silliness, which it easily could.
It’s also important, or it should be, that film sports a healthy number of women both above and below the line, as the fight coordinator (Emma Claire Brightlyn) the choreographer (Sarah Swire, and yes, she also plays Steph in the film) the director of photography (Sara Deane) and a number of producers on the project brought gender balance to the production. This is the way forward to create a representative future in film for all genres, including horror.
As a palate cleanse for the endless parade of Hallmark movies, Anna and the Apocalypse serves up a wacky diversion with a side of poignancy. For fans of all things undead, t’s just the sort of quirky, fun flick friends can enjoy together at the holidays. Good luck getting ‘Hollywood Ending’ out of your head.
3 1/2 out of 5 stars.
9 KILLER COOL THINGS ELLA HUNT REVEALS ABOUT WORKING ON ANNA AND THE APOCALYPSE
1. THE SUCCESS OF ANNA AND THE APOCALYPSE IS LIKE A ZOMBIE SNOWBALL.
“When I signed on to the project, all I expected was to have a great time shooting a wild and wacky film with some relative newcomers to have fun working with a bunch of creatives in Scotland in the middle of February. Glasgow is my favorite city in the world. It’s a zombie Christmas musical, so who knew how it would do? I believed in it. It’s been the craziest snowball effect with this movie, starting with Fantastic Fest, having this incredible reaction. We were supposed to show the film twice, but because of the reception to it, it played 12 times. We had people giving us amazing reviews and responding to the movie, and it’s led to so many wonderful experiences like San Diego Comic-Con and being bought by Orion as a tiny Scottish movie, it’s been a real whirlwind. We are so ready for the world to see it.”
2. ANNA AND THE APOCALYPSE IS SO MUCH DEEPER THAN PEOPLE MIGHT THINK.
“What drew me to the project, beyond Anna being an awesome character, is how much more to this script and these relationships there is than you’d expect. The producers and writers wanted to make a zombie Christmas musical, but they also examine loss of innocence, the kind of world we are leaving for our kids, what grief and loss can do, and kids’ connectivity and how we function without phones. The darker moments in the film are as powerful as the lighter bits are fun.”
3. THE MOVIE COMES BY THAT DEPTH HONESTLY, THOUGH LOSS AND FRIENDSHIP.
“The grief is particularly prevalent because Ryan McHenry, who had the original idea for the film, passed away, and all of his friends took on the challenge of making it a reality in his stead and in his memory. Alan McDonald who worked on writing the film with Ryan, after losing his friend, created a first draft that was all about loss and sadness, and it was very dark. When director John McPhail got attached, he wanted to bring back some of the heart of it that was more to do with friendship and loyalty and love. The film became this mixture of this peppy version that Ryan started with, the stark story of loss Alan built after Ryan died, and the light, joyful element that was added in the end. All that together creates a layered, nuanced script nobody expects when they go into the film.”
4. EVEN ARTHOUSE FILM FANS ARE DIGGING IT.
“I have friends who are real arthouse film lovers who I tell about the movie, and while it’s very hard to convince them it’s worth a watch, when they see it, they love it, because it has this strong indie sensibility, and a depth they are used to.”
5. WITH ANNA AND THE APOCALYPSE, ELLA FOUND HER TRIBE.
“As an actress, I had been in and out of school as a teenager, from about 15 to 18, because i’d been working. I hadn’t really found my peer group. Coming on to the set, I immediately found a family from this group of young Scottish creatives who I love and adore and watching them be fabulous is a massive source of pride for me. We would come in to work in the mornings to this dilapidated school, half of which had been closed off because of asbestos, and we would come into work and as our warm up we’d go down to the gym and play crazy electronica music and have nerf gun fights.”
6. NOT ONLY DOES ELLA LOVE ZOMBIES, SHE STUDIED ZOMBIE MOVIES FOR HER ROLE.
“I had seen Shaun of the Dead, I had seen some of The Walking Dead. I had watched Pride and Prejudice and Zombies because I love Lilly James and wanted to try to learn from her physicality in the film. I think she’s very cat-like and in control of her body and how she leverages her strengths. I wanted Anna to feel like a non-stereotypical heroine in that she doesn’t start out knowing how to fight or aggressing herself. She has to grow into her role as a badass and learn how to “become one” with the candy cane throughout her survival journey. I am obsessed with The Rocky Horror Picture Show and when people mention the film in tandem with this one, it makes me so grateful and excited! I would love nothing better than to see this movie played years from now with fans yelling at the screen, dressing like Anna carrying an oversized candy cane!”
7. ANNA AND THE APOCALYPSE SPEAKS TO THE YOUNGER GENERATION’S LOSS OF POWER.
“Sara Swire, who plays Steph talks a lot about how she and a whole group of her friends relate to Steph as this millennial who is never going to be paid or acknowledged for their work. If we are not going to be acknowledged then we have to fight for our place in the world.”
8. HER AUDITION COULD BE CALLED ‘ONCE MORE WITH FEELING’.
“I got sent the script and loved it, and connected with Anna. Sophie Holland was casting, who had known me since I was quite young, and she gave me three scenes to perform. One is very emotional. I did my song, and my first two scenes and she was thrilled. When we got to the third scene, she stopped me halfway through. She told me I had to absolutely believe it was life and death, and everything that mattered to me. The whole movie would be riding on that. We couldn’t trivialize these young people’s emotions. It couldn’t be parody. With everything it represents to the writers, and Ryan’s friends, but also about what’s happening in society, it was essential to feel authentic. Zombie films have always, historically meant so much more. She gave me time, I did it once more, and I become the producers’ favorite. Then John McPhail did a chemistry test with all the potential cast members, because it’s such an ensemble piece, and it worked perfectly.”
9. THE FEMININE ENERGY WAS STRONG WITH THIS ONE, WHICH IS AS IT SHOULD BE.
“It was pretty much a 50/50 split working on that set, and I can’t tell you how different that felt. I had a suspicion it would feel that way, but I was so blown away by how great it was, especially playing this hero, to be in a room filled with women who were excited and respected in the same way the men were, was very empowering.”