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The story: In the British town of Little Haven, student Anna (Ella Hunt) is coping with the usual teen worries, as are her friends. As Christmas approaches, she finds herself caught in the middle of a zombie outbreak, one that leaves her separated from her father, who is at a school performance along with other parents. With a band of friends, Anna must fight her way to school and rescue the parents.
Horror set to a beat seems to be the theme of the week. Opening elsewhere is the French arthouse work Climax, but this British work, featuring characters who break into song while the world is a smoking ruin, could not be more different.
This movie also proves that the more hyphens a movie has in its concept – in this case, zombie-high school musical- comedy – the higher the bar for success, because if one element fails, the rest comes down with it.
This reviewer went in with high hopes. British and Irish musicals can be moving, exhilarating experiences – think Sing Street (2016) and Mamma Mia! (2008).
The first sign of trouble with this mash-up, helmed by Scottish director John McPhail, arrives early, with an establishing first act that feels like an amalgam of high school tropes.
Anna’s friends (and eventually survivors) are such a mixed bunch of misfits that they do not feel as if they should be friends at all.
That lack of focus bleeds into the film’s pop originals, which feel characterless in the sense that they are all mid-tempo and over-processed, with under-written lyrics that have the punch of a ball of cotton. Worse, the musical portions require everyone to bring the story to a halt, a technique that is risky unless the tune advances story or character.
Sadly, much like the gait of the undead, the anodyne quality of the music gives the film a lurching, lifeless quality.
It does not help that the comedy element also fails because the jokes spring from try-hard characters and contrived situations. Anna’s gang, for example, attempt to sneak past a zombie horde by flipping an inflatable dinghy over their heads like a turtle shell, an act that is not so much hilarious as proving that they are not worth worrying about if they get eaten.
Now is the time to call a moratorium on mixed-genre zombie pictures. No more zombie historical dramas, no army camp zombie comedies. Like the creature that is their villain, mash-ups are dead, but do not know it yet.
Ah, Christmas. There’s no better time to release a zombie-musical-comedy. That’s right, a zombie musical-comedy. Christmas themed, no less.
But before you scratch your head in confusion, remember that seasonal zombies are a timely metaphor for consumerism. Their mindless march and voracious appetite for braaaaains provide the perfect allegory for the Christmas shopping period.
Director John McPhail (Where Do We Go From Here?) celebrates this “feastive” season by gift-wrapping for us a splatter flick that is delicately tied together with musical curly ribbon and a comedic bow on top. Think High School Musical blended with Shaun of the Dead and you’ll get the idea, although this medley of harmony, humour and horror doesn’t have anywhere near the same polish or comic wit.
Anna and the Apocalypse doesn’t muck around though and it’s not long before the undead spill into the streets. Or should I say stagger into the streets … these are the slow brand of zombies; the twitchy, Michael Jackson Thriller kind and as with most movies of their ilk, the story focuses on a small group of high-school students who are inexplicably unable to outrun them.
Enter Anna (Ella Hunt), a zombie-bashing songstress in her final year of high school. Her plans for a gap year OE to Australia are thwarted by these walking dead. Finding themselves separated from the safety of their school grounds, the group proceed to bash, wallop and sing their way back in order to save friends and family holed up there. It’s all fairly tropey stuff, but where this film stands out is the odd but rewarding decision to lace the action with musical interludes.
Unfortunately, this is where the fun ends as poor writing combined with questionable acting cedes the remainder of the film to be stilted and awkward. The poppy musical numbers are catchy enough but ultimately more should’ve been made from its promising mixture of music, mirth and mayhem
I’d written a pilot for my father and me to star in together, based on Tatum O’Neal and Ryan O’Neal’s relationship. I was obsessed with their weird, short-lived reality show on Oxygen about them mending ties, and I wanted to do a show like that. This sparked the idea of an estranged family in show business, and I’ve worked with every member of my family creatively, but we’ve never been in something together, and I knew I wanted to use their house. Their house is very cool and haunted in Connecticut. Once it was set in the house, it was clear it was a Long Day’s Journey Into Night. But with the Elliotts.
Abby: Yeah, Bridey came to us with the idea. And we said, “Okay, okay, we’ll believe it when we see the script in our hands.”
Bridey: Nobody believed it was gonna happen. I didn’t even believe it was, until the Kickstarter worked out.
Abby: We did a table read in our house with Bloody Marys. It was, Oh, shit, I guess it’s gonna happen.
There’s an element in the film about how Bridey’s character Riley isn’t going to get things done as well.
Bridey: That’s the whole fun of this movie is that it’s just us playing our shadows, the worst versions of ourselves. We know each other’s darkness because we’re a family.
Abby: That was a little insensitive at first. She calls out, like, my getting lip injections, which I’ve experimented with in the past. But for the most part, our family is self-aware, and we don’t take ourselves that seriously.
Bridey: Part of what we like about performing is putting that out there because it’s vulnerable and risky and that excites all of us. That’s what my dad has been doing his whole career, making fun of himself.
Was making the film like family therapy for you guys?
Abby: Oh, yes. It was very therapeutic. It was intense. These indie movies, it’s a three-week shoot, and we shot for 17 days, and the schedule was insane.
Bridey: We didn’t have time to think about it logistically, like, Oh, are people gonna think this is just who we are? Well, it’s part of who we are. The questions we get now are, “So are you guys really like this?” I never even considered people would think this. I just wanted to work with everybody and from an independent filmmaker’s standpoint, we were shooting in the house because it’s cheaper than finding a location, and my family just happens to be actors.