For many unsuspecting viewers, the first shock in Anna and the Apocalypse will come before a single zombie has turned up: five minutes in, the characters start singing. Despite horror arguably having a stronger relationship with original music than any other genre – go ahead, imagine Halloween or Suspiria without their themes – actual horror musicals have always been a tough sell. Even Tim Burton couldn’t get a wide audience to see Sweeney Todd (the last great Burton film? Discuss), while The Rocky Horror Picture Show handles its tonal shifts by playing the horror elements as camp parody.
That’s not a path taken by John McPhail’s Christmas zombie musical comedy, released on DVD, Blu-Ray and streaming by Vertigo Entertainment. There are plenty of larks and outrageous zombie kills, but as the film got into its final act I was pleasantly surprised at how tough it was prepared to be. McPhail’s zombies are slow but formidable; they best a battalion of soldiers in a throwaway gag, and Ryan McHenry and Alan McDonald’s script isn’t afraid of letting likeable characters die at their hands.
McHenry adapted the script from his award-winning 2011 short Zombie Musical before his tragically early death from cancer at the age of 27. Anna and the Apocalypse, which ends with a dedication to McHenry, is therefore both adaptation and tribute, a burden it carries with panache. McPhail keeps some of the best gags and set-pieces from Zombie Musical, such as Anna’s oblivious skip down her street, singing a happy song as zombies devour her neighbours. The Zombie Musical version gives her some back-up dancers, but Anna and the Apocalypse doesn’t really engage with many visual or structural tropes of the movie musical beyond having its characters sing. (As noted at the start of this review, there isn’t even an opening scene-setting song) There is, perhaps, an in-universe explanation for this; as an early comic set-piece involving a terrible school talent show proves, most of Little Haven’s student population aren’t up to Busby Berkeley standards.
So once again a horror-comedy-musical prospers by toning down one point of its triangle. Sweeney Todd has a few dark laughs but isn’t really a comedy, Rocky Horror isn’t at all scary, and Anna and the Apocalypse pays more attention to the conventions of zombie movies than musicals. It is, however, interested in music, with a strong suite of original songs by Roddy Hart and Tommy Reilly. The unwholesome glee at the heart of the zombie apocalypse genre – wouldn’t it be great to just kill with no guilt or repercussions? – is encapsulated pithily by ‘Soldier at War’, while the plaintive-yet-danceable ‘Human Voice’ is reminiscent of ‘Enjoy the Silence’-era Depeche Mode.
Best of all is ‘Nothing’s Gonna Stop Me Now’, a wonderfully sour, well-written song from Paul Kaye’s Headmaster Savage, who sees the end of civilisation as a chance to finally establish some sort of authority over his hated students (“Did I fail to mention/Your attention/Is now obligatory?“). Kaye brings all his considerable skill at mean comic caricature to the role, but he – like the always-great Mark Benton as the title character’s dad – is very much the support to the young cast. Fortunately, they’re up to the job, with Ella Hunt’s Anna making a strong emotional connection straight away. Stand-out is probably Sarah Swire’s Steph, who plays the transition from spiky, defensive misfit to hardened undead hunter beautifully. Her happy little shimmy after ramming a spatula through a zombie’s head is a gif waiting to happen.
Quite a lot of Anna and the Apocalypse feels designed for cult adulation, though never in a cynical way. It’s clearly made by people who love zombie movies, but it mercifully lacks the fanboy referencing that make a lot of post-Edgar Wright zombie comedies so tiresome. It has its rough edges, and they fit perfectly with the movie’s spirited, adolescent, can-do spirit. Its release in April might seem strange, but look at it this way: if you buy it now, you can learn all the words to the songs before you and your friends put on a Christmas sing-along screening.
ANNA AND THE APOCALYPSE IS OUT NOW ON DVD