Here’s the holiday musical you’re looking for — if, say, you like a splash of gore and a parade of flesh-eating zombies between musical numbers. Eat your heart out, Mary Poppins! Literally! Set in Scotland during Christmas season, in the perfectly named town of Little Haven, Anna and the Apocalypse knows it’s a horror-comedy-musical throwaway and proceeds to lean heavily into the curve. You’ve never heard of the actors, which also helps. And director John McPhail (Where Do We Go From Here) keeps the movie speeding over the potholes provided in the script by Alan McDonald and the late Ryan McHenry, whose short film, Zombie Musical, is the genesis of the story. In short, this is a genre mash-up has no agenda except providing escapist fun. Mission accomplished.
The film is lucky in its choice of an Anna. Ella Hunt is a live-wire as this high-school senior who’s on the outs with her widowed dad (Mark Benton), the school janitor, because she’s decided to take a gap year before college. Her best friend John (Malcolm Cumming) secretly crushes on her; Anna’s ex Nick (Ben Wiggins) is a being a major pain in her ass. Throw in Lisa (Marli Siu), who’s starring in the school’s improbably racy Christmas show; a movie nut named Chris (Christopher Leveaux) and Steph (Sarah Swire, the film’s expert choreographer), a lesbian visiting Little Haven from the U.S., and you have all the makings of a Scottish High School Musical.
Hey, where are the zombies? Patience, people. At first, Anna and the Apocalypse is as heedlessly self-absorbed as its heroine, who leaves her house, headphones in place, singing about a “beautiful day” while an army of the walking dead litters the neighborhood with corpses. Such obliviousness echoes the opening of Edgar Wright’s cheeky 2004 zombie gen, Shaun of the Dead, in which its pub-drunk title character takes forever to realize what’s going on. No, this cult-movie-in-the-making isn’t anywhere near that horror-comedy’s league. But it’s high spirits are irresistible, and songwriters Roddy Hart and Tommy Reilly provide tunes you can hum and even dance to. After several energetic production numbers, the kids and a few parents finally band together at school to take on the rampaging herd of evil in zombie and human form — including the school’s prick of a headmaster, Mr. Savage (Paul Kaye), is more power mad than any flesh-eater.
It’s far more touching — and tougher — than you might think. Anna proves she can weaponize a candycane like nobody’s business. Sara Deane’s widescreen photography shimmers like tinsel even when repetition threatens to drag down the proceedings. You get the feeling that McHenry, the lad who started it all, would have loved it — sadly, he died of cancer at 27 in 2015, before he could see the joyous tribute that Team Anna made of his work. (Shortly before his death, McHenry tweeted that “yesterday was my 10,000th day alive on this Earth and not one of you got me a card or anything.”) His irreverent humor is all over this bloody blast of fun that really will keep this movie season merry and bright.