By MICHAEL GINGOLD
Starring Ella Hunt, Malcolm Cumming and Sarah Swire
Directed by John McPhail
Written by Alan McDonald and Ryan McHenry
How times have changed. Not long ago, undead ghouls tearing out the innards of an unfortunate victim was one of the most shocking things you could show an audience. Today, the horror/musical ANNA AND THE APOCALYPSE can include explicit gut-ripping moments without upsetting the overall lighthearted mood.
Making its New York premiere tomorrow night, followed by a zombie Christmas party, as part of Lincoln Center’s Scary Movies series, and opening theatrically later this year, ANNA AND THE APOCALYPSE (which this writer caught at Montreal’s Fantasia last month) takes full advantage of the current familiarity with living-dead tropes to seamlessly incorporate them into a funny and highly appealing high-school tuner. Unlike such stage productions as EVIL DEAD: THE MUSICAL and RE-ANIMATOR: THE MUSICAL, its songs don’t aim to comment on the genre, but are rather expressions of its youthful characters’ desires and doubts, in the modern musical tradition. Heroine Anna (Ella Hunt) longs to escape her small Scottish town of Little Haven—and not necessarily to university, which riles her single dad Tony (Mark Benton). Her friends all have similar frustrations, and the film’s first number, “Break Away,” both robustly conveys those emotions and stops the show in the first 10 minutes.
These kids can really sing and really dance, and the roll call also includes Malcolm Cumming as John, Anna’s platonic best friend who yearns to be more; Nick (Ben Wiggins), the bad boy she once dated who wants her back; movie buff Chris (Christopher Leveaux) and aspiring singer Lisa (Marli Siu), who have sparked to each other; and Steph (Sarah Swire), a politically active lesbian with inattentive parents. (Swire was also the movie’s choreographer, and looks too darn young to have staged the many energetic, complex and creative dance routines.) In the midst of their assorted dramas, some involving an impending Christmas talent show, an undead invasion begins—though in the spirit of fellow UK zom-com SHAUN OF THE DEAD, the leads are oblivious at first, in this case because they’re too busy expressing themselves in song (“Miles Away”) to notice the carnage and destruction being wreaked behind them.
ANNA AND THE APOCALYPSE is a little less “British” in its humor than SHAUN, though it has the same kind of fun with living/dead interactions and the genre’s traditions. At the same time, it’s similarly uncompromising when it comes to playing out the horror side of its scenario. Just as there’s real heart to the relationships among its young people, there’s true heft to the survival stakes as they try to find safety and rescue their loved ones while the dead mass in ever-greater numbers around them. Director John McPhail, working from a script by Alan McDonald and Ryan McHenry (the latter of whom was originally set to helm before his untimely death at just 27), doesn’t skimp on the gore, though as noted above, he’s able to keep spirits high in the midst of the extreme life-or-death situations. The young performers are so likable and charming, you truly care about them, and believe their lives are at stake just as much as you believe it when they burst into song in their high-school halls and during tense situations.
Composer/lyricists Roddy Hart and Tommy Reilly run the full spectrum of feelings, well-timed to highlight the movie’s emotional arc. “No Such Thing As a Hollywood Ending” and “Human Voice” are respectively exuberant and heartfelt expressions of teenage longing, while Nick lets his bad-ass flag fly as he belts out “Soldier of War” while bashing zombies. At the other end of the spectrum is an uproariously inappropriate number performed by Lisa during the holiday pageant, which contains more verbal and visual double entendres than an entire episode of THE BENNY HILL SHOW.
The Yuletide setting proves to be perfect, as the holiday’s cheer and decorations nicely offset the morbid situation while its traditional red and green colors complement the blood and pallor of the undead. As feel-good as zombie movies get, ANNA AND THE APOCALYPSE is a brightly wrapped present for both horror fans and musical aficionados.