Nailing the tone for a zombie apocalypse high school Christmas musical was always set to be a tricky task. Anna and the Apocalypse, from Scottish director John McPhail, manages about as well as you would expect, which is to say awkwardly. In some ways that awkwardness – the dialogue, the performances, the songs – feels appropriate; these are teenagers, after all, stumbling toward the person they want to be or whomever they will ultimately become.
And there is an argument to be made for the bleak, if resonant, allegory underpinning McPhail’s tale: What kind of world will these teenagers – their whole lives supposedly ahead of them – inherit? And when not utterly useless, how complicit are the adults around them in the emptiness of that future? Unfortunately, earnest as it may be, the film is a rather predictable rehash of all the genres it’s juggling.
The film opens as Christmas approaches sleepy old Little Haven, the dead-end town from whence our young heroine Anna (Ella Hunt) plots her escape (a gap year in Australia before university), much to the chagrin of her widower father Tony (Mark Benton). Meanwhile, her best friend John (Malcolm Cunning) harbours a secret crush on her and Nick (Ben Wiggins), her obnoxious ex and something of the school bully, persists with his own sexual overtures toward Anna.
The sickeningly affectionate couple Chris (Christopher Leveaux) and Lisa (Marli Siu), with lonely American student Steph (Sarah Swire) – dumped in Little Haven by her absent, neglectful parents while they go travelling – round out the gang of misfits. Typical high school anxieties plague them, and before zombies descend upon their quiet borough, their biggest adversary is spiteful school administrator Arthur Savage (character actor Paul Kaye admirably giving it his all), who never misses an opportunity to assert his tenuous authority.
These aren’t so much characters as cardboard cutouts. Hunt turns in a winsome performance, but the admittedly likeable Anna appears to have no discernible flaws or insecurities. Similarly, the other kids each have their ‘thing’ in place of an arc: Chris is a film nerd, Lisa vibrates ‘theatre kid’, while Steph is the politically conscious student journalist, and a lesbian with a conveniently long distance girlfriend. Notably, Steph never gets the chance to actively express her sexuality or desire like the rest of her classmates.
This choice casts back on a fundamentally conventional film. The pop songs, at times cloyingly on the nose, are perfectly decent if forgettable; so, too, the jokes, with rather obvious pop culture references to Rihanna and Taylor Swift. In part, the zombie rules are so ingrained in cinema they scarcely need explaining. The audience knows full well the zombie bite spells doom for its victim. Occasionally the creatures here become the catalyst for some rather potent emotional moments between the human characters, but mostly they function as an excuse for relentlessly graphic and bloody fight sequences.
Without a doubt, Anna and the Apocalypse could use more polish, but it’s also a labour of fun, if not love. All of the actors – Kaye in particular – seem to be enjoying themselves, making it an immensely engaging if not always rewarding watch.