AVAILABLE ON BLU-RAY AND DVD: NOW, from SECOND SIGHT
RUNNING TIME: 108 mins/98 mins
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
Anna is half-way through her last year of school, and looking forward to taking a gap year to see the world outside her home in Little Haven, Scotland, even though her widower dad Tony wants her to go straight to university. Her best friend and artist John is secretly in love with her, budding filmmaker Chris is struggling with a class assignment, and American transfer student Steph is trying to get her reporting on the homeless past the tyrannical vice principal Mr. Savage who will be sadly be headmaster soon. But all these problems seem like nothing when a zombie apocalypse breaks out on the night of the school Christmas show and Chris’s girlfriend Lisa and grandmother, Tony and Savage are among the people trapped inside the cafeteria.…
I’m wondering if I’m going insane regarding Anna And The Apocalypse. Though completed in 2017, it wasn’t released until November 30 the following year, though the release must have been extremely limited as I don’t think I’d even heard of the film back then. This was a typically shameful treatment of a British film that wasn’t of the usual kind in Britain, but that’s a rant for another time so I’ll shut up about that for now. It then got a streaming release on March 22 this year followed by a DVD release on April 8 which was so under the radar that, once again, I totally missed it. However – and here’s the funny thing – a few months ago I am 100% convinced that I saw it listed for release in cinemas again because I planned to go and see it – until I found out that it wasn’t showing anywhere at all except a few places in Scotland which may not have constituted an actual cinema release. Ignoring the distinct possibility that Doc may need to visit a doctor himself, he then hoped that the distributors of the Blu-ray that came out just under two weeks ago would offer a screener seeing as HCF does have dealings with them, but no such luck. Oh well. For some unknown reason, like Upgrade, it took some time for a Blu-ray to come out, but it looked to be a pretty good release even if the film didn’t turn out to be too great. While zombies really have been done to death – hell, even comedy zombie films have been done to death – the idea of combining them with a musical [not so common, though there have occasional attempts] sounded very appealing. The film is advertised as being Shaun Of The Dead meets La-La Land. The only Edgar Wright film I’ve genuinely loved from beginning to end crossed with my second favourite [if not necessarily the second best] film of 2016 – what could go wrong?
Well, not much has actually gone wrong at all with the result. It is indeed hugely indebted to Shaun Of The Dead, but as for La-La Land – well, I’d say that High School Musical would be a much more appropriate comparison, but don’t let that put you off. Anna And The Apocalypse’s melding of the undead with teenage angst, singing, Christmas and some obvious but usually worthwhile social commentary [in the good old George Romero tradition] comes close to being one of 2019’s most freshest and most endearing [despite all the blood and gruesome zombie deaths] efforts for certainly its first two thirds. It features what ought to be by rights [though the film’s weak distribution may have put paid to that] a star-making performance from Ella Hunt who has both the required acting and singing chops, while the rest of the mostly youthful cast members aren’t anywhere near such great shakes in either category [with one exception] but do their best to make up for this with sheer enthusiasm. It looks terrific for what was a very low budget production, and even has some good songs, often with some wit in the lyrics. However, it does end up being trapped somewhat by being a zombie movie. Unless the creators want to go really off the wall with things, you just know that it’s all going to get down to the same situations that we’ve replayed in zombie movies time and time again and, while we do get a few slight variations on expected situations and outcomes, the film never really gives us the pulse-pounding climax it feels like it’s building up to. However, director John McPhail and credited [along with Ryan McHenry who wrote and directed the short film Zombie Musical from which this feature film was adapted but who died in 2015] co-screenwriter Alan McDonald wring everything they can from their small budget, so much so that the result is often rather inspiring to watch.
It was only two weeks ago when I reviewed the 1965 film What’s New Pussycat and lamented the fact that fun title sequences are scarce these days. I was rewarded with some cool animated graphics for the opening credits here, with cartoon versions of the main characters pursued by zombies into a large pram[!]. Unfortunately the song that plays over this, a sort of ironic attempt at a new Christmas number called What A Time To Be Alive, isn’t very good at all, but the musical element soon picks up. We meet Anna and her best friend/admirer John in a car being driven by her father Tony. Anna going to work at the local bowling alley in the evening leads John to inadvertently reveal that Anna has bought an open ticket to go traveling, which leads to anger from over-protective dad. At school we are introduced to lovebirds Lisa and wannabe filmmaker Chris whose show reel [we see an Alien-style chest bursting] “must have something to say”, lesbian Steph who’s been basically dumped and rejected by her parents, and most fun the dictatorial bully vice principal Mr. Savage, played with Tim Curry-like relish by Paul Kaye. He’s a goofy character, but having such a hissable person around seems to suit this film – though he’s not the only unpleasant one, there’s also Nick, a guy who Anna had a fling with, though it’s hard to see why the seemingly intelligent Anna would have ever given this bully the time of day let alone her body. Anna, John and Savage soon get a very nice song, Break Away, where all three of them express a desire to get away from their current lives in Disney princess fashion. I was surprised how much I was enjoying this, and I enjoyed even more Hollywood Ending with the great [and partly true] line “love is not like the books, films or songs”. Sparked off by John pondering his feelings for Anna in the school canteen, it’s clever and has everyone present getting up to dance. The choreography is hardly Jerome Robbins – even if you accept that it will be fairly simple, some of the timing is a little off – but any decent choreography in a musical these days is welcome, we are pretty much starved of it.
A third of the film passes before things start to kick off, and this will be too long for some. Eventually Savage goes to investigate a noise outside during the final rehearsal for the school Christmas play – but we then cut away and don’t rejoin the school for some time. On her walk home that night, Anna bumps into a zombie but pays no attention. The following morning – well, maybe having not two but three songs where characters sing their feelings was pushing it a bit – but the resulting sequence, though obviously inspired by one in Shaun Of The Dead, is probably the best in the film as Anna, with headphones on, sings an upbeat number walking down the street totally oblivious to mayhem going on all around her. Just like, might I be so bold as to claim, those ‘zombies’ we see walking around today glued to their phones, not paying attention to what’s happening right before them. In fact there are healthy jabs of a similar nature elsewhere, like zombie selfies on line, or Savage moaning in a song how his students tweet their every empty though. The first time we see any of our main characters encountering one of the undead is in a playground where Anna and John meet a zombie snowman, causing Anna to employ one of the most unusual methods of beheading I’ve seen in some time while John [well, this is 2019] just wimps out and points at the monster with a weird expression on his face in what looks like an imitation of Donald Sutherland at the end of the 1979 version of Invasion Of The Body Snatchers. After this, it’s frequent encounters with the undead for all of our main characters, with a few genuinely tense moments. At one point there’s no phone signal, something that always tells us that things really must be bad, though later on everyone’s looking at screens of differing sorts.
There’s a very well staged encounter in the bowling alley, both amusing and tense with some reasonably original zombie kills [two bowling balls crushing a head!] done with – hurrah! – practical effects. By contrast the dialogue falters in places – one can chuckle at John’s cheesy puns [“She’s in Egypt at the moment, she’s so far in denial”], but a scene where John and Chris talk about which celebrities would have become zombies feels forced. But, despite the energy level not quite being maintained towards the end, the film is brave enough to pull one or two surprises when characters start buying it. And most of the music really is rather good – and this is coming from somebody who generally prefers the Broadway fashion in his musicals rather than current-style pop music. Some songs have a pleasant ‘80s pop feel [listen out for a very Survivor-style intro and backing], others slightly swing. One highlight is It’s That Time of Year, sung by Lisa with wonderfully suggestive lyrics [“there’s only gift I wanna unwrap”] as six shirtless men in red shorts and suspenders flank her. Soldier At War is one of three or four songs which lack much of a tune, but the words are wonderful, Nick and his buddies bragging about their zombie killing in a great mockery of machismo. Another fine number is Which Side Are You On?, where Savage and Tony argue about what to do in what is a clear reference to a similar argument that’s enacted in Night Of The Living Dead. Neither Kaye nor Mark Benton as Tony can really sing, but it doesn’t seem to matter too much. For some reason this was one of several scenes cut from the theatrical cut – while that version is also on the Blu-ray set, I watched the extended cut. But one thing’s for sure – composer Roddy Hart and Tommy Reilly have done well overall by their work in this film.
Also worth commending is cinematography Sara Deane, who turns what would normally be the drab and dull rooms and corridors of a school into a gorgeous series of compositions of green, yellow and red. Quite often a character will be bathed in one colour or outlined by one while the room they’re in is another hue. There seem to be sly references here and there to other films, including even The Happiness Of The Katakuris [unless I’m barking up the wrong tree], but they aren’t thrown at you as is often the case. There’s so much that’s praiseworthy in Anna And The Apocalypse, a film that’s probably the best zombie movie since Train To Busan [okay, I haven’t seen them all, but who has?], that I almost feel churlish when criticising certain aspects which don’t quite get there. It even works very well as a Christmas film – well, for me anyway. In my opinion, the best Christmas films [and this is coming from a Scrooge who ‘s not really a fan of “the season to be jolly”] are usually those that don’t ram the season down your throat every minute, just give you gentle reminders every now and again, and dare to play with things a bit. And Hunt, who looks a bit like a young Anne Hathaway but has thrice the charisma, is a revelation. Anna And The Apocalypse seems to be basically an attempt at a modern cult movie that didn’t quite catch on. But there’s still loads of time, and I have the strange feeling that it will garner a considerable fan base one day.