It's a gory zom-com - with songs. Lots of songs. More songs than zombies. Too many songs, really.
I love a rom-com-zom musical as much as the next person, but along with the music it helps if there is some rom, some com, and some zom. Unfortunately, those latter three are in short supply throughout most of Anna and the Apocalypse, the latest entry in the unending series of zombie apocalypse movies, which also fits into two sub-genres: the British Comedy Zombie Apocalypse (Shaun of the Dead, Cockneys vs Zombies) and the High School Zombie Apocalypse (High School of the Dead, Automaton Transfusion). Fortunately, the genre elements are enough to lift the latter portion of the film out of the lethargy induced by too many bland songs, resulting in a film that is decently entertaining if nowhere near as amusing as it intends.
Anna and the Apocalypse Review: Typical Day
With Christmas break looming at high school, Anna (Ella Hunt) wants to go to Australia instead of college after graduating. This makes her father angry, which provides the script with a "plot" - because the potential extermination of the human species is not enough to hold our attention but family drama is.
This initial setup is quickly pushed to the background as Anna moves through a typical day at her school, and I know you want me to put "typical" in quotation marks because we all know what's coming is far from typical; unfortunately, the day remains typical far too long. We're introduced to the usual assortment of alphas and losers, who sing a lot to tell us their inner feels. The likable cast is pretty decent singers, but the songs themselves are pretty forgettable, with a few exceptions, which will be noted later.
Also, it becomes obvious rather quickly that no one can really dance, so director John McPhail simply keeps everyone moving so that it looks as if something dance-like is happening, and every once in a while there is a quick cut to replace an actor with a stunt double leaping through the air.
After a while, we get a glimpse of a zombie and think the proverbial excrement is about to hit the fan, but no, it's just a reminder that you have not wandered into the wrong screening room by mistake; there really are zombies in this movie - or, at least, there will be later.
Anna and the Apocalypse Review: Zombies Attack
When the zombies finally arrive en masse, the Anna and the Apocalypse picks up some energy, thanks to the zombie apocalypse formula, which is just about fail-safe. The characters are engaging enough so that we want to find out who lives and who dies. Perhaps even more important is seeing them reveal their true selves under pressure: who will rise to the occasion, and who will crack?
Unfortunately, much of the setup is too poorly thought out for the last half of the film to redeem itself, even though there are some great moments. To cite a couple of examples, one subplot involves Anna reconciling with her boyfriend Nick (Ben Wiggins), but there has been nothing romantic between them at all during the entire film; their ill-defined relationship is merely referenced in passing in a way that makes us not sure we're hearing the dialogue correctly because visually there seems no connection between the two.
In another strange bit, Nick sings one of the movie's few memorable "Soldier at War," which showcases how well he and his thug friends have adjusted to the new reality, actively enjoying themselves as they bash zombie skulls with baseball bats. What's weird is that the recurring refrain he sings to Anna and her allegedly wimpy friends, "while you've been hiding, I've been kicking some ass."
For some reason, no one bothers to shut Nick up by mentioning that each and every one of them has killed zombies by that point, often in incredibly graphic ways (such as crunching a zombie's head by slamming it between a pair of bowling balls). By this point in the film, literally everyone has been kicking ass. The only difference is that Nick seems to enjoy it.
Anna and the Apocalypse Review: Songs
The songs in the first act of Anna and the Apocalypse are mostly disposable filler. Throughout the first act it feels as if we are not watching a musical about high school but rather a high school musical - a rather uneven amateur event, unnecessarily padded to give everyone a chance to sing and dance so that their families in the audience can applaud.
The musical segments get better as the film goes on, but the songs are not always well integrated into the plot; in fact, sometimes they undermine the narrative and even the characterizations.
"Turning My Life Around" takes place on the morning after the zombie invasion, which takes place more or less off-screen. In a sequence obviously modeled on Simon Pegg's morning walk through the neighborhood from Shaun of the Dead (in which the audiences notices prolific evidence of zombie activity that Shaun overlooks), Anna sings her way down the street, oblivious to neighbors being attacked and killed all around her. The sequence is supposed to be funny, but it makes her look like a vacuous airhead, too obsessed with her own first-world concerns to notice the far greater suffering of those around her. Too bad the script didn't seize on this idea and make it the defining aspect of her character. Seeing Anna go from self-absorbed to engaged with the world would have been a far better character arc that reconciling with her father.
Later, while Anna and a few friends are hiding out in a bowling alley, deciding whether to wait for rescue or try to reach the high school on their own, "Human Voice" intrudes awkwardly. The song features a decent melody and an interesting lyric about communicating on a human level in an era of overwhelming electronic media, but it has nothing to do with what's happening, and it stops the movie cold at a point when it should be revving up.
Much better is "Nothing's Gonna Stop Me Now," in which the school's uptight headmaster (Paul Kaye) unleashes not so much his inner Id and his Superego, reveling in the freedom the zombie apocalypse has given him to punish all the students who have disrespected him so long. There is a certain Rocky Horror Show quality to the song, and one could imagine Richard O'Brien delivering the vocal.
Far and away the best song is "It's That Time of Year," which Anna's schoolmate Lisa (Marli Siu) delivers at the school's Christmas pageant. It's a ridiculously suggestive piece that makes innuendo of "Santa Baby" seem quaintly innocent by comparison. The sultry vocalist begs Santa to "unblock my chimney" and "empty your sack" while bare-chested male dancers in red elf pants slide over-sized candy canes between their legs. It's the one moment in the film's first act that truly achieves the outrageous level of comedy intended throughout.
Anna and the Apocalypse Review: Conclusion
It probably sounds as if I am blowing this movie off completely, but I will admit that I ended up enjoying it. The problem is that Anna and the Apocalypse is not as funny as it thinks it is, and the filmmakers are so self-satisfied with the novelty of making a romantic-musical-comedy zombie film that they assume the audience will laugh along with them, regardless of how well or poorly they achieve their ambition. It's a bit like listening to a stand-up comedian who leaves long pauses for laughter that seldom comes.
When the movie finally puts its character in jeopardy and has them fighting for their lives, it's pretty decent. The gore is outrageously over-the-top, and the film's comic tone provides enough buffer to make the splatter amusing rather than disgusting. The action and suspense are nicely handled, and there are some good melodramatic moments regarding the fates of the different characters. The film even manages to work up some pathos.
Then, just when I was almost thinking the filmmakers had pulled it off in the end, Nick and Anna pause to sing a reprise in the high school parking lot while looking at the zombies around them. Only when the song ended and they started talking did it become clear that they considered themselves hopelessly surrounded - even though it sure looked as though they had at least a sporting chance of making it out alive. I won't say whether they survive or not, but I will say to the filmmakers: if you want to work up anticipation for a last-minute rescue, you can't just have the characters say they're trapped; they need to look trapped.
Anna and the Apocalypse Rating
The novelty of a romantic-comedy-musical-zombie film is not nearly enough to make Anna and the Apocalypse the cult classic it aims to be. Fortunately, the zombie genre elements generate some excitement in the film’s latter portions.
1. Not Recommended
4. Highly Recommended
Anna and the Apocalypse. Directed by: John McPhail. Written by: Alan McDonald & Ryan McHenry. Produced by: Naysun Alae-Carew, Nicholas Crum, Tracy Jarvis. 92 minutes. Rated R. Distributor: Orion Pictures. U.S. Release Date: November 30, 2018. Cast: Ella Hunt, Malcom Cumming, Ben Wiggins, Sarah Swire, Christopher Leveaux, Marli Siu, Mark Benton & Paul Kaye. Genre: Comedy, Horror, Musical