Released almost exactly a year to the day, and now snuggly nestled on Sky Cinema, Anna and the Apocalypse boasts one stellar song. Seriously, it’s a total ear worm. You’ll know the one when you see it. That’s not to dismiss the rest of the pop light soundtrack as entirely lacking – there are zinging lyrics throughout – but rather to highlight quite how successful this bandstand centrepiece really is. Around it, the film is likeable, well cast and impressively produced. The jokes land and story holds up. If every element were as superlatively strong as said song, Anna would be an instant classic. It’s hard not to see it finding long term cult success nonetheless.
Based on Zombie Musical, Ryan McHenry’s BAFTA-nominated short of 2010, the film leans heavily on territory previously nailed by Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead. Here too, relationship dramas evolve smartly within the wider context of a zombie apocalypse. If the highlight sequence of Shaun was Wright’s exquisitely choreographed Queen-scored massacre, Anna and the Apocalypse sees director John McPhail expand the beat across every one of his ninety-eight minutes. McHenry shares writing credits here with Alan McDonald, having tragically passed away from osteosarcoma in 2015, whilst the tunes come penned by Roddy Hart and Tommy Reilly. A Scottish locale is somewhat undermined by a largely English cast but the Christmastime setting works aesthetic and tonal wonders. Bad Santa has nothing on Zombie Santa.
Ella Hunt leads the film as Anna Shepherd, a small town bright spark with wanderlust dreams. On the one side, Anna’s confidant John (Malcolm Cumming) cherishes a secret crush on his bestie; on the other, ex-fling Nick (Ben Wiggins) grips her with bad boy appeal. There’s loved up couple Chris and Lisa (Christopher Leveaux and Marli Siu) in class too, not to mention headstrong wannabe journalist Steph (Canada’s Sarah Swire). Each has troubles – Anna plots to sack off uni for a year of travelling, much to the chagrin of her widowed father Tony (Mark Benton) – and each proves startlingly oblivious to the explosion of a zombie epidemic across the world as it beckons. And yet, it’s hard to remain in the dark for all that long when you’re attacked by a blood soaked undead snowman in the local park. Chaos, naturally, ensues. Gloriously.
Much like Shaun before it, Anna takes great pleasure in mining jet black humour for all its worth. Aside from a sequence of hilariously gruelling deaths – peaking with the head of one zombie rolling down a bowling alley conveyor belt – inspiration strikes as one character dies on stage, singing before a crowd of arm waving festival zombies, while another lies mutilated in a garishly glittering Christmas jumper. Indeed, last year’s Better Watch Out feels like a tonal sibling. All is executed with surprising panache for a film surely working on the most minute of budgets. Rarely is financial lacking evident in the film, with terrific hair and make up meeting superb dance numbers to paper over the – very occasional – clunky twinges.
Not inconsiderable credit must, of course, lie in the hands of a sterling ensemble. Beyond the young leads, Paul Kaye is outstanding as dyspeptic deputy head Mr. Savage, taking venomous pleasure from the collapse of a world that has trodden heavily on his ambition at every turn: ‘a purge on this species is long overdue’. There’s little doubt from the start that the ever endearing Hunt will survive her own tale but it’s a testament to the strength of her co-stars that those who are picked off fall with emotional heft. No spoilers here. They’re also a very funny unit. For every pang, there’s a wicked gag to keep things upbeat, whilst comparison to the twee likes of High School Musical are swiftly debunked. Take Siu’s early Christmas number. It’s filth!