Plot: can Anna save Christmas from the maws of the living dead?
Is it possible to re-enact an earlier movie almost verbatim, spice it up just enough with that original touch that only great directors possess, and pass it off as something new? Apparently, the answer to that is: yes, you can. Anna and the Apocalypse is the Scottish answer to Shaun Of the Dead (2004) – but is centered around young adults and has a musical backbone. Perhaps Rachel Bloom’s limited series Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (2015-2019) has left a more of an impact on Hollywood than we’d give it credit for. No matter how much Anna and the Apocalypse steals from the original Edgar Wright classic it somehow staunchly remains its own thing. Anna and the Apocalypse is incredibly vanilla on all fronts, but especially so on the horror aspect. This is not a valentine to George A. Romero nor to all things living, dead, and undead for that matter. At heart this is your average, albeit expertly photographed, teen drama – be it with a zombie apocalypse.
What sets Anna and the Apocalypse apart from more conventional zombie horror is that before anything and everthing else it’s a teen drama first. It does the exact opposite of what Shaun Of the Dead (2004) famously did before. Where Edgar Wright made a zombie horror with a rom-com subplot, Anna and the Apocalypse is a rom-com with a zombie horror subplot. And it plays it completely straight too. Whenever the music swells characters will break into impromptu song-and-dance numbers. These numbers arrive at logical places in the story (especially for anybody who has a passing familiarity with either Bollywood or musicals in general) and enhance characterisations in ways that dialogue can’t. As such Anna and the Apocalypse is more of the The Breakfast Club (1985) and Freaks and Geeks (1999) persuasion with colorful production design and feel-good writing etching towards Enchanted (2007) on a limited budget. If the late John Hughes ever did a zombie horror, it’d probably have looked like this. Except that it’s obviously never as swooning and sophisticated as anything Hughes ever did.
Little Haven, Scotland is the sort of sleepy town where never much of anything happens. Anna Shepherd (Ella Hunt) is about to finish school and supposed to attend the university of her choice. Instead she’d love to travel for a year and see the world, but she doesn’t want to disappoint her widower father Tony (Mark Benton). Her best friend John (Malcolm Cumming) is an art student – and madly in love with her. Anna is too preoccupied with the unpleasant rumors that her ex boyfriend Nick (Ben Wiggins) keeps spreading about her to notice. Her friend Chris (Christopher Leveaux) is an amateur filmmaker and currently struggling with an assigment from Ms. Wright (Kirsty Strain), and his girlfriend Lisa Snow (Marli Siu) will be performing at the Christmas recital. Transfer student and budding investigative journalist Steph North (Sarah Swire) has difficulty selling an article critical about the growing housing - and vagrancy problem in the area to tyrannical principal Arthur Savage (Paul Kaye). Anna and John are working at the local bowling alley and Chris and Steph are volunteering at the homeless shelter when that night a zombie apocalypse occurs. The next morning Anna wakes up completely oblivious to the shambling living dead around her. Anna decides to return to the bowling alley and there she and Steph are forced to kill cleaning lady Mrs. Hinzmann (Janet Lawson). When the army send in to evacuate the school and the town is devoured by the undead the gravity of the situation dawns upon them. The only way to rescue their loved ones is to face and oppose the hordes of walking dead blocking the way.
Anybody who has seen Shaun Of the Dead (2004) will immediately notice how blatant and obvious Anna and the Apocalypse is about its naked
homaging thievery. Yet despite repurposing the Shaun Of the Dead (2004) plot almost entirely and even re-enacting key scenes what makes Anna and the Apocalypse work is the pervading feel-good Christmas spirit and the rom-com undercurrent. John McPhail must have loved Freaks and Geeks (1999) because he dresses Ella Hunt exactly like Linda Cardellini in that series. The interludes alternate between angsty teenybopper songs that are surprisingly emotional and edgy self-aware songs with bitingly ironic lyrics. Lisa’s raunchy Christmas carol is an unrelenting barrage of spicy double-entendres, racy witticisms, and a boatload of unbridled sexual innuendo and is side-splittingly hilarious for exactly those reasons. Since horror was never its primary focus the winks and nods to classic zombie cinema are, understandably, far and few between. Mrs. Hinzmann is the most obvious, directly referencing Bill Hinzman or the first zombie that Barbra encounters in Night Of the Living Dead (1968). Ms. Wright is a direct, and obvious, nod to Edgar Wright. Anna riding John around in a shopping cart kinda-sorta resembles the corresponding scene with Peter and Roger in Dawn of the Dead (1978). Principal Savage’s demise at the hands of the undead at least in part evokes that of Rhodes’ in Day Of the Dead (1985). The scene with Anna and John bonding in the snow is reminiscent of Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine Of the Spotless Mind (2004).
The cast consists mostly of workhorse television actors and while nobody’s acting is particularly awful, only Ella Hunt and Marli Siu transcend the material in the positive sense. Hunt had starred in Robot Overlords (2014) prior and was an extra in Les Misérables (2012). Other than that there isn’t really a whole to say, either positively or negatively, here. The effects work is delightfully old-school with a good amount of in-camera practical effects with digital enhancement and computer imagery for the more ambitious shots. In a time where apparently everything is now done digitally (from exit wounds, blood spatters to muzzle flashes and atmospheric effects) it makes you long for those now distant simpler times when practical effects wizards as Stan Winston, Tom Savini, Greg Nicotero, John Carl Buechler, and Kevin Yagher were in constant demand. The ubiquity and affordability of digital effects has become somewhat of a bane to modern cinema and while we understand it from an economic viewpoint practical effects had a charm all their own. Anna and the Apocalypse is probably not going to usher in a new age of practical effects, it’s a little too vanilla for that, but at least its heart is in the right place. Plus the whole Christmas theme is merely decorative, never serving to either distract or annoy.
While your mileage obviously may, can, and likely will, vary Anna and the Apocalypse works well enough as both a rom-com and as a zombie horror. What it lacks in flavor, bite, and personality as far the horror aspect is concerned it more than compensates by being a colorful Christmas-themed romance that banks heavily on the feel-good. As these things go, you could do far, far worse. Don’t go in expecting any major revelations or grand deviations from a well-established formula. This is not that kind of movie. Anna and the Apocalypse never diverges from the well-trodden path and its adherence to formula and convention is what makes it a very easy viewing. Which isn’t to say that this is some overlooked classic. It obviously is not. It’s just as light as it is vapid. For those of whom who always wanted a Shaun Of the Dead (2004) for the young adult crowd, this is your chance. There’s a time and place for stuff like this. Anna and the Apocalypse is good for what it is, even if it never aspires to be anything more.