Zombie Christmas musical. With those words alone, you pretty much know if you’re in or you’re out. But allow me to make a case for the indelibly winning Anna and the Apocalypse, a Scottish movie so toe-tappingly charming and laugh out loud funny that by the end of the first song, even the skeptics will likely have warmed up. If you’re looking to have an absolute blast at the movies this Christmas, look no further than this movie.
Anna (Ella Hunt, a talented delight) is a high school senior headed off to a gap year before college, much to her father’s dismay. Her best friend John (Malcolm Cumming) is trying to get over his unrequited feelings for Anna and how much he’ll miss her when she flies off to Australia while waiting for an art school acceptance. Steph (Sarah Swire), a queer American whose parents low-key abandoned her in Scotland before heading to Mexico, has dreams of burying her feelings in making a difference for those less fortunate. She teams up with Chris (Christopher Leveaux), an aspiring filmmaker who’s long on talent but short on personal investment in his projects. Chris’ girlfriend Lisa (Marli Siu) is Anna’s best friend and the school’s resident chanteuse.
Anna’s mom passed away well before the story started, leaving she and her father on her own. Also in the past is Anna’s hookup with frustratingly charming, “obligatory psychotic jackass,” Nick (Ben Wiggins), though it seems like he and everyone else at school thinks that could be more of a present tense situation. Their impotent Assistant Headmaster Savage (Paul Kaye) rules with a disdainful iron fist, delighting in separating teens who make out in spite of the background noise about a new, highly contagious illness on the rise. Almost everyone is headed to the school for the big Christmas pageant, which is where things kick into high gear.
The first act bursts onto the screen in an exuberant mix of cheeky humor and a complete disregard for the chaos that is to come. In fact, it’s so strong that it’s easy to imagine a completely different, non-zombie movie following these same characters. If there’s a place Anna and the Apocalypse falters, it’s that it isn’t entirely sure what to do once its characters start dropping like flies. While the script found enjoyable or satisfying exits for many characters, it struggled with what to do once most of them were gone, and seemed to run out of gas in the third act.
The homages to Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead are easy to spot but never linger for too long. There’s the early moaning non-zombie fakeout, and Nick briefly considers using a cricket bat as his weapon of choice, and of course Anna’s loose tie and dress shirt (here a school uniform) are a clear tip of the cap to Shaun’s iconic costume. But it doesn’t take long for Anna and the Apocalypse to distinguish itself as its own animal, and that is to its credit.
The writing and sense of humor is sophisticated when it comes to narrative tropes—there’s an entire early number about not getting happy endings that feels like both a send-up and an homage to Glee and High School Musical—but doesn’t take itself too seriously, treating us to an extended debate of whether Robert Downey Jr. is a zombie or not.
Apocalypse is not all that interested in anything other than gleeful entertainment. We don’t really know how the outbreak started, nor do we really care. The teens make basic attempts to contact the outside world, but their phones and the internet are mostly fodder for witty dialogue and vehicles for plot points. Why aren’t more horror characters using cell phone cameras to see around corners and zoom in on far away stuff? It’s also not a movie invested in weird zombie minutia—none of this one drop of blood BS. The more splatter the better.
There’s a buoyancy from the well-timed jokes and the musical numbers, especially the early ones, that keeps the pace zipping along at just north of an hour and a half, though it feels even faster. That also helps balance out some of the darker moments when Apocalypse chooses to plumb some actual emotional depths. Without giving anything away, some of the fates of the characters are surprisingly affecting, given the overall bonkers atmosphere of the picture. Unlike Shaun of the Dead, Apocalypse doesn’t give itself any eleventh hour emotional bailouts, and goes for the jugular far more often.
The music is genuinely good too—I found myself making a mental note to find the soundtrack after only a song or two—and dabbles in a few genres. A raunchy Christmas pageant number from Lisa that barely counts as a single entendre could give Mean Girls a run for their money, and a penguin duo sound like they’re the long-lost Scotch version of the Lonely Island. Nick’s number about finding the joy in decapitating the undead is surprisingly catchy, and all of the voices are promising, though Savage steals every scene he’s in, like some kind of funhouse mirror version of Tim Curry.
If you’re looking to gauge the gore and horror content, Shaun of the Dead is a decent benchmark. The blood spurts cartoonishly, and while there are a couple of gross-out scenes or jump scares, even calling it spooky would be overdoing it. Still, it needs to be said that much of the early zombie fighting happens at a bowling alley, a truly inspired choice, but one that may not be for the faint of heart.
A delightful blend of earnest and snarky, Anna and the Apocalypse is a good flick to see in a crowd. A fun way to forget about the hustle and bustle of the holiday season, you’ll find yourself rooting for the characters, humming the songs, and cheering for every gush of blood. Even if it’s Santa’s.