By Liam Lacey
The 21st century zombie-movie revival is indebted to two films from the United Kingdom: 2002’s plague drama 28 Weeks Later (technically not zombies but living people infected with the “rage” virus) and Shaun of the Dead, the horror-comedy featuring “shambolic” zombies standing in for modern white collar drones. To this list, we may add the genre-crossing high school-Christmas-musical-with-zombies movie, Anna and the Apocalypse.
The charm and the limitations of this modestly budged, good-hearted trifle, set in a middle-class Scottish village, are its youthful energy and anxiousness to please. Along with the mechanically efficient tunes from the team of Roddy Hart and Tommy Reilly, the entire film feels as if it could have been written and produced by a group of bright theatre students.
Anna (Katie Holmes lookalike Ella Hunt) is a secondary school senior and daughter of widowed school janitor Tony (Mark Benton). Dad is upset because she wants to tour Australia in a gap year rather than heading straight to “uni.” Anna, who is pretty and resourceful, is adored by her gentle male friend, John (Malcolm Cumming) and provoked by sexy bad boy ex Nick (Ben Wiggins). Another antagonist is the deputy headmaster, unsubtly named Mr. Savage (Game of Thrones’ Paul Kaye), all auburn-bearded, bespectacled snob much given to sadistic proclamations.
Among Anna’s group is hip American lesbian social justice warrior, Steph (Canadian Sarah Swire, who also choreographs) plus Chris (Christopher Leveaux), a video nerd who films everything, and sexpot school musical star Lisa (Marli Siu).
On her way to school one morning, earbuds in and singing merrily away, Anna fails to notice that her neighbourhood around her has been infested with zombies, leaving the suburban lawns strewn with corpses. Eventually, she and her friends clue in and fight their way from the bowling alley where she and John both work, and where they demonstrate the mathematical formula that Zombie Heads plus Bowling Balls equals Satisfying Splat. Eventually, Anna and her friends must battle their way to the one safe zone, the school, where the Mr. Savage has gone power-mad.
The sight gags aren’t bad, including drolly gruesome undead attackers in Santa and Snowman costumes, candy cane as a weapon. Characters fall by the wayside, including some you think you’re supposed to care about, amidst many songs about yearning, finding a place in the world and taking a stand. Ultimately, the movie dithers on for far too long and, by the end, leaves only nibble marks… though it might have a future as amusement for junior-high sleepover parties.
Anna and the Apocalypse is dedicated to the memory of Ryan McHenry, who created the short film Zombie Musical on which the film is based. (McHenry was also behind the very funny Vine meme, “Ryan Gosling won’t eat his cereal.”) He died in 2015 at the age of 27 as the feature film was in the works and shares a writing credit with screenwriter Alan McDonald.
Anna and the Apocalypse. Directed by John McPhail. Written by Alan McDonald from a short by Ryan McHenry. Starring Ella Hunt, Malcolm Cumming, Sarah Swire, Christopher Leveaux and Ben Wiggins. Opens December 7 Toronto (at Cineplex Yonge Dundas), Vancouver, Montreal, Ottawa, Winnipeg, Halifax, Calgary, and Edmonton.