John McPhail’s Anna and the Apocalypse, which made its world premiere at Fantastic Fest on Friday, is a zombie horror-comedy-musical set during Christmas… and, based on that description, you’ve already decided whether you’re going to see it or not. Horror movies aren’t for everyone, musicals aren’t for everyone, and horror musicals really aren’t for everyone. Anna, to both its credit and its detriment, tries to be a bit of everything. Sadly because it fluctuates between tones and genres, it’s never wholly successful at any one thing.
If the greatest compliment you can pay a musical is, “I want to buy the soundtrack,” then I want to… download some of Anna’s soundtrack? The songs aren’t particularly memorable — I’ve already forgotten most of the titles — but in the moment, they’re catchy enough that you might find yourself humming a melody the next day. The songs are of the High School Musical variety — more poppy than theatrical, with a self-aware wink to the audience, as if to say, “Yeah, we know we’re in a musical.” This grows tiring as the film progresses, particularly one dud about how we’re already zombies because we’re constantly on our phones and lack a human connection (imagine Steve Buscemi’s 30 Rock character in Spring Awakening). But it works in the cheery first half, when Anna (played by a bright-eyed Ella Hunt) is considering her future after she graduates high school. Her dad (Mark Benton) wants her to attend university and doesn’t know she’s already booked a trip to Australia, while her best friend (Malcolm Cumming), who’s in love with Anna, can’t imagine life without her. There’s little remarkable about the characters — they’re typical archetypes, like The Bully (Ben Wiggins) and The Lesbian (Sarah Swire) — but they don’t matter as much as what they’re singing, anyway.
And what they’re singing, with the occasional exception for a double entendre-ridden ballad about Santa coming (and not coming) to town is angst-y pop-rock that masks problems with the script. Unfortunately, when Anna drifts away from its amusing sing-song elements in the second half, it becomes a bad zombie movie filled with lackluster makeup and kills –although Anna’s candy cane of death is an inspired holiday-themed weapon — instead of a pretty good musical. But the shuffling undead are still more interesting than the other’s film villain: Anna’s peeved headmaster (Paul Kaye), who for reasons (?), holds her father hostage in the school. He’s rarely a compelling bad guy and takes up too much screen time when the focus should be on the zombies.
And that’s the problem with Anna (that, and the groan-worthy reference to “zombie Justin Bieber” — a discussion about zombie Taylor Swift is far funnier — and a scene where a zombie grandmother pees on one of the character’s heads). Using another zombie genre mashup as an example, Shaun of the Dead is considered a great horror movie and an even better comedy because it takes both seriously. Anna goes halfway there on everything, like an action-comedy that forgets people aren’t watching Ghostbusters for the ghost busting. It also stands as either an homage to Shaun, or a blatant rip off at times. In one scene, an oblivious Anna walks down the street as the zombie apocalypse is occurring around her, not unlike what happens in Shaun. Elsewhere, there are Edgar Wright quick cuts and a song that might as well might be called “Don’t Stop Me Now” it sounds so similar.
Anna and the Apocalypse has the elements of being a good horror movie (zombies!), or a good musical (songs about zombies!), or a good Christmas movie (zombie Santa!). If only it knew which one it wanted to be.