“What if High School Musical had zombies?” When Anna and the Apocalypse was first conceived, this was the pitch. 8 years later, this zom-com Christmas musical is taking the film festival world by storm – and met with uproarious laughter and applause as the Grimmfest closing film. Set in the peaceful British town of Little Haven, a global pandemic threatens to derail Christmas. Anna (Ella Hunt), and her friends, John (Malcolm Cumming), Steph (Sarah Swire), Chris (Christopher Leveaux), Lisa (Marli Siu), plus ex-boyfriend Nick (Ben Wiggins), must fight and sing their way to survival.
The film opens (after a wonderfully animated opening credits has run) with Anna, and best friend John, getting a lift to school from her dad, Tony (Mark Benton). Some minimal exposition occurs during this journey; as the trio discuss Anna and John’s plans for post-school – Anna wants to travel the world, John wants to go to art school – the radio plays a news bulletin detailing the flu-like disease doing the deadly rounds.
Even those uninitiated in zombie lore know the story from here. The infected die, and their still-animated corpses single-mindedly seek out living humans for sustenance. Meanwhile, our hapless heroes have to traverse their sleepy town, now teeming with the living dead, to reunite with each other. In this respect, Anna and the Apocalypse has little new to add to the undead canon. The same rules apply – don’t get bit, avoid the hordes, aim for the brain. There is a quaint social-commentary attempted as the zombies are easily distracted by flashing lights, glittering tinsel and vlog-style videos made on a phone. For the most part though, the evolution of living to undead is familiar.
What does stand out is the way the kids navigate the end of the world. We all remember being 17, and thinking we’re all grown up and know everything we need to know. The titular Anna is no exception. She’s tough, and practical. And stubborn. She believes she can still go globetrotting, even in the face of Armageddon. Ella Hunt is the perfect choice for Anna, as she exudes effortless cool in every frame. It’s easy to root for her. She also manages to look bad-ass while wielding a novelty candy cane as a weapon. John is Anna’s polar opposite. He’s a little geeky, unashamedly wears a light-up festive jumper, and definitely doesn’t keep his cool. Malcolm Cumming has impeccable comedy timing, playing bumbling yet adorable fool with aplomb. If he doesn’t go on to become a top talent in British comedy, I will be very surprised.
If you thought the only antagonist in Anna and the Apocalypse was the zombies, you’d be dead wrong. John’s nemesis Nick is the school bad boy, played with delicious delight by Ben Wiggins. Wiggins walks with an unrivalled swagger, clearly relishing his big moment crooning about his zombie-killing skills. The real big bad though is acting head-teacher Savage (Paul Kaye), who so clearly hates children, you have to wonder why he ever became a teacher at all! He is utterly demented, void of any compassion, finding the zombie apocalypse a massive inconvenience to his plans for school domination. Kaye is a scene-stealer, delivering each line with a harsh wit. His descent into nihilism is hammed up to 11, with one particular song standing out for hilariously painting Savage as a cartoon villain.
The soundtrack is chocked full of absolute bangers. It has been 3 days since I saw the film, and I am still humming “Hollywood Endings”. To categorise Anna and the Apocalypse is an impossible task. It has been called “La La Land meets Shaun of the Dead.” I say think Glee, but set in Grange Hill, with more blood. Every song is delightful, many laugh out loud. An entirely inappropriate Christmas serenade, sung like a wicked version of the “Jingle Bells Rock” performance in Mean Girls, had me weeping. Everyone commits so fully to the musical trope of bursting into explanative ditties, or emotion-laden refrains, singing and dancing their hearts out for us on screen, they earn your buy-in.
Anna and the Apocalypse is an absurdly good time, dripping in laconic Scottish humour, with a cast of misfits you can’t help but care about. I recommend everybody make this their festive film treat when it’s released in cinemas on November 30.
Directed by: John McPhail
Cast: Ella Hunt, Malcolm Cumming, Sarah Swire, Marli Siu, Christopher Leveaux, Ben Wiggins