The idea for “Anna and the Apocalypse” was sparked when Scottish film student Ryan McHenry watched Disney’s “High School Musical” and felt the only thing that could make it better would be if Zac Efron had been eaten by zombies.
It took several years, but that cheeky observation eventually developed into an equally cheeky movie. Unfortunately, McHenry didn’t live long enough to see it come to fruition; he died in 2015 from bone cancer, at only 27 years old.
At the time of his passing, the young McHenry had already joined forces with friend Naysun Alae-Carew to turn the idea into a short film (“Zombie Musical”), which had won them a BAFTA in 2011 and secured them the backing for a feature-length version. He had mostly completed the screenplay, and the film’s development was well underway when, faced with his grim prognosis, he gave the blessing to Alae-Carew, and the rest of the team they had assembled, to see the project through without him.
The result of their subsequent labor of love was completed last year and enjoyed a well-received round of festival screenings. Now, it’s finally getting a wide theatrical release – just in time for the holidays.
The timing is appropriate, because not only does “Anna and the Apocalypse” pit singing-and-dancing teenagers against a ravenous zombie horde, it sets the whole unlikely mashup at Christmastime. At the center of the scenario is the title character (Ella Young), a high school senior who yearns to escape the limitations of her small-town life. As her school convenes for its Holiday Talent Show, a mysterious plague turns most of the town into ravenous zombies, and she is forced to band together with a small group of friends in order to fight for survival as they attempt to find their loved ones and escape the carnage.
McHenry’s script, which was completed by Alan MacDonald, gleefully embraces the tropes and clichés of both the genres it sends up; its first third is mostly exposition (peppered with musical numbers, of course, set to catchy original songs by composers Roddy Hart and Tommy Reilly), introducing us to the characters and their relationships before derailing the standard coming-of-age comedy they inhabit with an invasion of undead monsters that turn it into a gruesome horror movie. From there, the usual obstacles these teens might encounter while trying to navigate high school life – peer pressure, mean girls, pimples – are replaced by the more pressing problems presented by trying to escape a swarm of flesh-eating zombies. The stakes are considerably higher, but the story arcs are, amusingly enough, pretty much the same.
Added into the mix, and refreshingly so, are strong currents of female and LGBTQ empowerment. Anna is a fiercely independent, strong-minded girl; she proves more than a match for those – human or zombie – who would bend her to their will. Another teen, Steph (Sarah Swire, who also choreographed the film’s dance numbers), is a lesbian with a passion for social justice who channels the strength she’s gained from a lifetime of bullying – and being ghosted by her own parents – into doing battle with the zombie horde. The movie scores major points by allowing these two characters to be the most heroic of the bunch.
Given the bittersweet history behind “Anna and the Apocalypse,” it would be nice to report that it’s a quirky delight – and in some respects, it is. There’s an absurd, tongue-in cheek tone to the entire piece that is hard not to appreciate, and its slyly subversive social commentary keeps it from ever seeming like a gimmicky exploitation film.
It’s also burdened with an earnestness that runs a little deeper than mere emulation of the fresh-faced high school musicals it ostensibly parodies; while it’s not a bad thing for a movie to take its characters seriously, in this case it undermines the edginess that “Anna” works hard to achieve. At the same time, the “horror” half of this oddball mashup – while suitably gory – is treated with a much heavier comedic hand than the “teen musical” element; the result is that, for all its arch attitude, the film ultimately leans more toward the sentimental than it does to the satirical. Indeed, it’s almost sweet – unironically so – and its characters, while engaging enough, are a bit too broadly drawn to earn the emotional connection it seems to ask of us.
All of this may be by design, of course. Director John McPhail, who stepped in to take the helm after McHenry’s untimely passing, puts the whole thing together with enough of a sure hand that it seems certain the finished film is exactly as it was intended to be. Even so, what “Anna and the Apocalypse” seems to be missing is “camp.” Its very premise cries out for the kind of intentionally ludicrous, over-the-top treatment that made classics out of so many horror comedies of the past. It may not be that kind of movie – but it feels like it wants to be, and doesn’t quite know how.
There are other quibbles; the “musical” conceit is largely dropped once the zombies show up, save for a couple of numbers and a climactic musical confrontation in the high school auditorium, and important details of one of the film’s key relationships are withheld until revealing them feels like a cheat.
Nevertheless, it’s an entertaining enough romp, uneven or not, with an endearing sense of humor and a talented cast – and it certainly deserves credit for presenting the kind of strong, capable female and queer characters we need more of from our movies.
It may not be the movie it could have been – but it’s worth enjoying for the movie it is.