J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Friday, November 30, 2018

Anna and the Apocalypse: Your New Christmas Tradition


We have the cure for Hallmark Christmas TV movies right here for you. It started life as a short film zombie spoof of the High School Musical franchise and its ilk, but adding Yuletide jolliness just makes it even richer. The songs are actually pretty good and the survival rate is on par with The Walking Dead (if not lower) in John McPhail’s instant classic Anna and the Apocalypse (trailer here), which opens today in New York.

Anna Shepherd is a smart Scots teen who wants to travel for a year after high school, rather than go straight into uni. That plan does not sit well with her protective widower father or John, her torch-carrying best pal helplessly mired in the friend-zone. Then on the night of her school’s Christmas talent show, the zombie apocalypse strikes. Anna and John are stuck at the bowling alley where they work, along with Steph, the school paper’s aspiring muckraker, and wannabe filmmaker Chris.

Meanwhile, Chris’s girlfriend Lisa, his grandma with a heart condition, and Anna’s school custodian dad are stuck at the school, where the authoritarian headmaster has instituted martial law. To save their loved ones, Anna and Chris will need some help from Nick, the cocky one-time hook-up she now regrets. Periodically, they will also break out into song.

Those musical numbers are really something too. Roddy Hart & Tommy Reilly’s tunes dramatically over-achieve. “Break Away” and “Hollywood Ending” are rousing openers, but they still drip with teen angst. “Turning My Life Around” would be a catchy anthem of self-empowerment, but it is performed as an extended site-gag by the ear-bud-wearing Anna and John, who are oblivious of the zombie attacks erupting around them, until the final bars. However, Lisa, Chris’s prima donna girlfriend gets the hands-down funniest number with the spectacularly suggestive “It’s that Time of Year.” Honestly, Marli Siu deserves serious awards consideration just for being able to perform it straight.

This is a very funny film, but its also weirdly poignant at times. Despite all the gore and goofiness, the young ensemble is so earnest, viewers cannot stop themselves from investing in them emotionally. Ella Hunt deserves to be the breakout star of the year for the charm and forcefulness of her star turn as Shepherd. Again, Siu is simply unforgettable as Lisa. Malcolm Cumming’s John is such an achingly nice sad sack, we just want to give him a chuck on the shoulder and a pep talk about more-fish-in-the-sea. Mark Benton keeps it real and grounded as her protective pa, while Ben Wiggins adds electric energy and bad boy charisma as Nick.

Technically, Apocalypse is a feature work-up of the late Ryan McHenry’s short film, Zombie Musical, but the jokes are more outrageous and the songs are more tuneful in McPhail’s film. It is a lot more than just another zombie spoof or just another goofy genre musical. Honestly, your new holiday tradition is here—and it is fun for the whole family. Very highly recommended, Anna and the Apocalypse opens today (11/30) in New York at the AMC Loews Lincolns Square uptown and the Regal Union Square downtown.

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