Moviegoers and critics are always clamoring for something fresh on the menu, something they haven’t seen before. Well, a Christmas zombie horror high-school musical from Scotland is certainly fresh and new — and, in “Anna and the Apocalypse,” rather brilliant.
Yes, it’s a musical, so the main characters are pouring their hearts out in song. Yes, it’s in a high school, so teenage hormones are raging. Yes, it’s set around Christmas, so the Santa imagery is ever-present. Yes, there are zombies in the streets and, yes, much movie gore is expended in dispatching zombies and their victims. And it’s filmed near Glasgow, so they all have adorable accents like Merida in “Brave.” What’s not to love?
Anna, winningly played by Ella Hunt, is looking for a way out of her drab Scottish town, but her single father (Mark Benton) is not thrilled with her plans to skip college for a year and travel the world. John (Malcolm Cumming), Anna’s best friend since childhood, also wants Anna to stay — but his motive is a hope that Anna will finally see him as more than a friend. Anna has recently broken up with Nick (Ben Wiggins), a self-involved Army brat.
All around in Little Haven, people are preparing for the holiday. Anna’s gal pal Lisa (Marli Siu) is rehearsing for the school’s pre-Christmas talent show, and to spend quality snagging time with boyfriend Chris (Christopher Leveaux), a budding filmmaker. Misfit lesbian Steph (played by Sarah Swire, who also choreographed the dance numbers) has been abandoned by her vacationing parents. And the school’s priggish headmaster, Mr. Savage (Paul Kaye), is doing his bureaucratic best to make sure no one has any holiday fun on his watch.
These characters and their moods are introduced in musical numbers. The sharpest of the lot is “Hollywood Ending,” in which John and Anna separately lament how their romantic lives aren’t what pop culture set them up to believe. “Nobody tells you when you’re young / Love’s not like the books, the films or the songs / We’ve been living in a lie for far too long / and we’re tired of pretending / There’s no such thing as a Hollywood ending,” the chorus goes — which ends up being the movie’s mantra.
One morning, Anna and John each wake up cheerily singing about the morning, little noticing that ravenous zombies are devouring the neighbors. When they do finally notice, after decapitating a zombie in a Frosty the Snowman costume, they rush to find refuge in the bowling alley where they work. Meanwhile, Anna’s dad, a janitor at the high school, is trying to keep the non-zombie students inside safe, a task made more difficult by the officious Mr. Savage.
Director John McPhail and screenwriters Alan Macdonald and Ryan McHenry set up a series of horror set pieces that are both incredibly bloody and scathingly funny. Every viewer will have a favorite zombie kill in the film, but mine is when the zombie is decapitated by the pin guard in the bowling alley — causing his head to pop up in the ball return. (McHenry, by the way, devised the entire movie, but died in 2015 at the age of 27 from cancer before seeing his idea become a reality.)
But the filmmakers are no less attentive to the emotional moments that play out in songs by Roddy Hart and Tommy Reilly. “Human Voice” captures the main characters’ growing fear of being disconnected from their loved ones. “Give Them a Show” is Anna’s call-to-arms when she has to fight off zombies in the school auditorium. And we mustn’t forget Lisa’s entendre-filled talent-show number, “It’s That Time of Year,” which will give the sexy holiday favorite “Santa Baby” a run for its money.
The whole thing works, precisely because it shouldn’t. The songs have enough edge to fit in with the horror setting, and the gore is done with such comic timing that it never feels disturbing. With a talented young cast, headed by a strong yet vulnerable performance by the stardom-bound Hunt, “Anna and the Apocalypse” takes both the horror and the music seriously, creating a perfect chocolate-in-my-peanut-butter genre mix.
‘Anna and the Apocalypse’
Opened in select cities on November 30; opens Friday, December 14 at the Broadway Centre Cinemas (Salt Lake City), Megaplex Jordan Commons (Sandy) and the Megaplex at the District (South Jordan). Rated R for zombie violence and gore, language and some sexual material. Running time: 93 minutes.