In John McPhail’s gorehound musical “Anna and the Apocalypse,” one of the standout world premieres at this year’s Fantastic Fest, our high school heroine (Ella Hunt) sleeps through the start of a worldwide zombie attack, slips on her headphones, steps out her front door, and begins to sing. “It’s a beautiful day!” belts Anna. Behind her, one neighbor dies, another falls out of a window, and as the camera pulls back, we see her small Scottish town is on fire. Yesterday, her dad (Mark Benton), the school janitor, found out she’s skipping college for a gap year in Australia, the class bully Nick (Ben Wiggins) propositioned her in the cafeteria, and her dorky best friend John (Malcolm Cumming) nearly lost his job when he accidentally thwacked their co-worker with a bowling shoe. Today, she dances down the street, swinging on light poles like Gene Kelly, totally oblivious that most of the people she knows are dead. Hey, teen angst is all-consuming.
Like its star, “Anna and the Apocalypse” merrily charges through danger. It’s a genre mash-up populated with cliches—Anna’s classmates include the fierce activist (Sarah Swire), the attention-seeking bimbo (Marli Siu) and the self-doubting artist (Christopher Leveaux)—but McPhail finds small moments to make his characters unique. (The bully has a Justin Timberlake falsetto.) He spends the film’s first third building up kiddie dramas that feel life or death until their lives are literally life or death. Even after the ghouls start chomping, McPhail keeps caring about their teenage problems. Will John ever win Anna’s heart? Can Steph (Swire) steal back her car keys from authoritarian Principal Savage (Paul Kaye), whose sniveling nasal hiss is perfect for Alice Cooper-style rock anthems? And the biggest question of all: Are these teens mature enough to be heroes?
In many hands, watching these young unknowns, faces smeary with blood, croon a song about their useless cellphone would be a tonal mistake, like tap-dancing on severed tongues. Make one misstep and the whole thing is a mess, a slapstick groaner where people laugh in all the wrong places. The film knows it’s a goof. Early on, we hear a heavy breather creep on up on Anna—and when she turns around, it’s a nerd with an inhaler. Yet, stitching a musical onto a horror flick makes sense in one major way: both are extreme fantasies with extreme emotions. Plus, both ask you to buy in whole-heartedly. You could pick apart the zombies’ survival skills for hours after leaving the theater. Yet, you’ll get more out of “Anna” if you just believe.
“Anna and the Apocalypse” started as a 2010 YouTube short called Zombie Musical, written and directed by Ryan McHenry, who also invented the Vine meme “Ryan Gosling won’t eat his cereal,” which racked up over two million views and forced Gosling to rebut that he’s “nuts about” a well-balanced breakfast. McHenry planned to direct this feature, but died of cancer in 2015 at 27 years old. How lovely and horrible that the film he never got to see has the tragedy of young death in its bones. When characters die, McPhail—who took over the project after McHenry’s passing—wants you to feel the loss. Sure, he gets a giggle when the news reports that Justin Bieber’s been bitten. But when a guy jokes about which celebrities are next, John is aghast. “Alive or dead, Gosling is still cool,” he blurts. McHenry would smile.
As our heroine, Hunt has sad, down-tilted brown eyes and a tragic alto. Her voice is low and clear in McHenry and co-writer Alan McDonald’s layered ballads made of overlapping, full-throat harmonies, the kind of here’s-who-I-am-and-what-I-want songs you only hear on Broadway stages and in minivans carpooling to school. Once Anna takes out the headphones and gets attacked by a costumed snowman, she’s a passionate force—a girl who’s used to being hounded by guys at school now literally fighting them off with a stick. (Technically, a three-foot candy cane.)
At first, some of the kids are excited to battle the world. Social justice valkyrie Sarah, an avenging, bleach-haired angel, has a blast bludgeoning her first zombie goon, and the gang’s thwacks match the musical’s tempo. Quickly, the pride wears off. After the second corpse, Sarah sighs, “This isn’t fun anymore.” From there, McPhail tightens the screws. We’re allowed to laugh at the film’s surreal set-ups, like an incontinent zombie granny, or a slasher movie-inspired nature stroll through a Christmas tree emporium. But to the characters, this is serious business.
“Anna and the Apocalypse” plays on every emotion—to use a musical analogy, it’s a skeleton whacking its ribs like a xylophone. After sniggering at Marli Siu’s sexed-up homage to “Santa Baby,” in which she shows a mic stand exactly how she’d unblock Kris Kringle’s chimney, and two geeks in penguin costumes rapping about mackerel, it’s a serious accomplishment that McPhail manages to make the audience—or, well, at least this viewer—tear up in the film’s last third. “We all deserve to go extinct,” groans John as he pulls up the Instagram hash-tag #evacselfie. Principal Savage might sneer that his students have been zombies for years. Be grateful for daring young filmmakers with a pulse.
“Anna and the Apocalypse” premiered at the 2017 edition of Fantastic Fest. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.