Rating: R
Stars: Ella Hunt, Malcolm Cumming, Sarah Swire, Christopher Leveaux, Ben Wiggins, Marli Siu, Mark Benton, Paul Kaye, Ella Jarvis
Writers: Alan McDonald & Ryan McHenry
Director: John McPhail
Distributor: Orion Pictures
Release Date: November 30, 2018

ANNA AND THE APOCALYPSE | © 2018 Orion Pictures

ANNA AND THE APOCALYPSE | © 2018 Orion Pictures

ANNA AND THE APOCALYPSE is a full-scale singing, dancing, gut-munching musical set in the small town of Little Haven, Scotland, which – like the rest of the world in the story – is afflicted by a zombie epidemic. Anna (Ella Hunt) is a bright high school student who is planning to forego college in favor of traveling to Australia, though her plans are derailed by the title event. This happens right around Christmas, so there are also holiday decorations and scary Santas mixed in with the rapidly growing ranks of the undead.

Anna and her friends, along with the school’s villainous headmaster, unsubtly named Mr. Savage (Paul Kaye), burst into song in true musical tradition. They also wind up bursting a lot of zombie skulls, and limbs, and so on, and suffer a number of tragic casualties.

Between the U.K. setting, the U.K. horror humor, and the mainly teen cast singing their hearts out, ANNA AND THE APOCALYPSE inevitably brings to mind both SHAUN OF THE DEAD and the HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL franchise, with a side helping of David Cronenberg’s Christmastime zombie film RABID.

This is a fairly inspired combination, which makes it surprising that ANNA AND THE APOCALYPSE doesn’t feel slightly more wonderful than it does. It’s fun, and it’s got good gore gags. We like all the characters (except for the one we’re supposed to hate) and feel bad when we lose many of them. The pop-rock score by Roddy Hart and Tommy Reilly has some very strong numbers with zero clunkers. The choreography by Sarah Swire (who costars as Steph) is sprightly, witty, and well-executed. So what gives?

Part of the issue is that, in putting together all the diverse elements, things feel a little generic. The songs fit well enough, but the lyrics seldom refer to exactly what’s happening. Granted, it might be overkill (in several senses of the word) to address the situation directly too often, but the songs could all be transplanted to non-supernatural story with ease. The contrast between musical convention and splatter is conceptually amusing, but eventually, it feels like a cheat that we don’t get any songs that are more specific about what’s happening, except for an eleventh-hour “Rose’s Turn”-type self-anthem from Kaye’s mad principal. Imagine what LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS might have been like without “Feed Me” or the chorus – still a fine show, but lacking a crucial element.

This lack of detail sometimes extends to the characters as well. For example, Anna and her best friend John (Malcolm Cumming) sing a song (first alternating verses, then joining in a duet) about how happy and optimistic they feel on a given morning, oblivious to the havoc breaking out around them. We get the irony, and it’s actually a charmingly-performed number. However, Anna and John are meant to be intelligent and observant, and we’ve seen them both feeling blue. The song doesn’t suit what we know of them already and what we learn later. That the filmmakers didn’t think to give the song to more suitable characters is one of those little miscues that prevents the movie from living (or un-living) up to its potential.

There are some memorable songs, including the opening “No Such Thing as a Hollywood Ending,” and there’s plenty of talent and vitality on display (and, again, plenty of blood). ANNA AND THE APOCALYPSE is a good holiday treat – it just could have been better with a little more lyrical reflection on the undead.

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