What better way to wrap up the year (and the Christmas season) than with a high school musical comedy depicting the crumbling of society under the influence of a viral zombie outbreak? OK, I’ll admit that my usage of the word “better” might be controversial, but Anna and the Apocalypse (2017) is a fun way to undercut the more saccharine seasonal offerings and wallow in a bit of darkness while still coming out with a smile on your face.
The origins of Anna and the Apocalypse go back to 2009, when Scottish arts student Ryan McHenry began to speculate about how much better High School Musical (2006) would be if a horde of zombies had slaughtered the cast. The resultant 18 minute short film Zombie Musical (2010) is a fairly crude but effective production, showing the signs of a promising creator who has yet to achieve a more professional polish. We follow Anna (Joanne McGuinness) on the morning after a zombie outbreak as she dances along to school with music blasting in her ears, oblivious to the signs of carnage around her – a sequence clearly owing a debt to Shaun of the Dead (2004). Reaching the school as her song concludes, she is immediately attacked by a zombie, only to be rescued by axe-wielding fellow student John (Stephen Arden) – who finds himself captivated by her eyes. Young love threatens to bloom, but they are attacked by a sleazy PE teacher (Calum McCormack) who leaves John tied up with a zombie while he sings a pervy song about how happy he is to have female companionship to accompany his reign over the school. John and Anna both escape and reunite just in time for John to be bitten and succumb to zombiehood, leaving Anna to go on a zombie-killing spree until she’s finally overwhelmed by the hordes.
McHenry leans heavily into the horror aspects of the scenario, which sometimes sit uncomfortably in juxtaposition to the musical numbers – risking tonal whiplash for some viewers. It’s not a complete success as a black comedy, but it is at least a good first draft. Zombie Musical won Best Producer (Short Form) at the British Academy Scotland New Talent Awards, generating enough of a buzz for production company Black Camel to commission McHenry to develop a feature-length version. Sadly, during the development process McHenry was diagnosed with an obscure form of bone cancer – and although he continued to work on the script with collaborator Alan McDonald, McHenry finally succumbed to his cancer in 2015, two months after the release of his second short film Toast (2015). With many of the behind-the-scenes crew having been part of Zombie Musical, the production of Anna and the Apocalypse became a labour of love – a concerted effort to ensure that their friend’s final creative efforts saw the light of day.
Where the constraints of time and budget required Zombie Musical to restrict itself to three core cast members and a plot occupying no more than a few hours of a single day, Anna and the Apocalypse takes full advantage of its additional length and budget – expanding the core cast to eight characters and spreading out the action across three days. The story opens on the second last day of school before Christmas, as everybody prepares for that evening’s musical production before dispersing to their respective homes or holiday destinations. Anna (Ella Hunt), our protagonist, is desperate to escape her small town world and has been saving up to take a gap year to travel the world – a revelation which makes her widowed father, school janitor Tony (Mark Benton), go ballistic, claiming that it will ruin her educational prospects (a screen for his concern over the prospect of losing his last remaining family member). Her best friend John (Malcolm Cumming) is doing his best to be supportive of Anna’s decision, but is hampered somewhat by his unrequited love for her. Steph (Sarah Swire) is an insecure Canadian who has been abandoned for Christmas – her girlfriend has other plans and her parents are enjoying themselves in Mexico. Her attempts to use the school newspaper to shine a light on the town’s homeless problem are ruthlessly squashed by the tyrannical Vice Principal Savage (Paul Kaye), flexing his power as he prepares to take over as Headmaster. Steph recruits budding filmmaker Chris (Christopher Leveaux) – who needs to beef up his demo reel for his final class assignment – to help her out by filming a video blog on the homeless to circumvent the school’s censorship. Chris is in an adorably soppy relationship with Lisa (Marli Siu), who is anxious that Chris’ additional filming may cause him to miss the saucy Santa torch song she’s been working on as the headlining number of that night’s musical. And finally there’s Nick (Ben Wiggins), the obnoxious jock bully who has an inexplicably mututal thing for Anna.
The three days of the action break neatly into three acts. Day 1 introduces the central characters, establishes their motivations, and builds to the evening’s musical performance while a scattering of ominous announcements and occurrences hint at what is to come. As the second day dawns, everybody who attended the musical has barricaded themselves inside the school waiting for the army to come to their assistance. Heading obliviously to school in a larger-scale restaging of the opening from Zombie Musical, Anna and John eventually notice what’s going on and take refuge in the local bowling alley with Steph and Chris. The third day follows their journey from bowling alley to school as they attempt to reunite with their friends and family, accompanied by Nick and his posse. Those who make it as far as the school discover that Savage has gone off his rocker and let the zombies in, setting the stage for a final confrontation with Savage. Although opting for a less bleak ending than Zombie Musical, Anna and the Apocalypse doesn’t shirk on the bodycount and it should come as no surprise that not all of the core cast will escape from the movie alive.
There are three different versions of Anna and the Apocalypse in circulation – the theatrical cut; the extended cut; and the shorter US cut, which made the dubious decision to shorten some of the songs and sanitise some of the character interactions (amongst various other pointless trimmings). Both the theatrical and extended cuts are available on Second Sight’s blu ray release. While the extended cut is roughly 10 minutes longer and includes an additional song, the differences between the two versions go beyond simply inserting extra footage. The extended cut has been re-edited from the ground up, selecting different camera angles or alternative footage in the reconstruction of scenes from the theatrical cut – some of the songs even gain additional lyrics. One notable difference comes in the very first scene, which sees Anna switching off her dad’s car radio in the middle of a crucial news item. In the theatrical cut, the newsreader is about to reveal that a cold-like virus sweeping the nation is actually a lethal pathogen; but in the extended cut, this has been changed to a local new story about the local Santa Claus (appearing later in zombie form played by Calum McCormack from the original short) being in bed with the flu – similarly ominous, but less obviously so. The extended cut also makes more effort to establish what a sad and lonely individual Vince Principal Savage really is, before revealing information about his later actions which casts him in a darker light. The preponderance of minor differences makes it difficult to really say whether one version of the film is better than the other – but, if pressed, I’d probably suggest the longer cut for those who only plan to watch it once.
Toby Mottershead composed three songs for Zombie Musical, one for each cast member – but while serviceable, none of them are particularly memorable. The musical duties for Anna and the Apocalypse have been handed over to Roddy Hart & Tommy Reilly, who successfully encompass a range of styles in their 12-or-13-song soundtrack (14 if you count the deleted song only viewable as part of the special features – a forgettable country-tinged piece which would have been a significant drag on the pace of the first third of the film). “What a Time to Be Alive” starts the film off with a conventional Christmas-song sound, returning at the film’s conclusion in a Harry Connick Jr.-style arrangement. “Break Away” is a pop rock number showcasing Anna and Steph’s concerns, while “Hollywood Ending” is an annoyingly catchy musical anthem which establishes the rest of the character dynamics and would probably count as the break-out single (and has the virtue of rhyming “isnae” with “Disney”). Day 2 opens with “Turning My Life Around”, a piece of motivational pop which soundtracks Anna & John’s journey to school, and ends with synthpop isolation lament “Human Voice” – the song I’d be most likely to listen to outside the film. Nick and his mates get an “Eye of the Tiger”-inspired 80s rock anthem “Soldier at War” to show off their zombie-killing skills, while the mentally disintegrating Savage gets to lose his shit completely with the Rocky Horror-tinged “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Me Now”, leading up to Anna’s action finale “Give Them a Show”, a song which owes more than a little to the musical episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (2001). But apart from “Human Voice”, my favourite songs stem from the musical-within-a-musical – the ridiculous rap “Fish Song” and Lisa’s show-stopping sauce-fest “It’s That Time of Year”. The duo of Hart & Reilly have since gone on to writing songs for the 2020 revival of the Animaniacs cartoon (which I presume has considerably fewer zombies).
For me, the unquestioned star of the production is Sarah Swire. Her acting decisions invest her character with a social awkwardness and rich emotional life extending far beyond the dialogue she’s given and I found myself captivated by her whenever she was on screen. While this would have been sufficient for me to laud her talents, I was blown away to discover that she was also the choreographer. While I might quibble about some of the movie’s musical choices, I have no such qualms about the dancing – each of the musical numbers is impeccably choreographed, whether showcasing individual characters or focusing on the ensemble as a whole. “Hollywood Ending” is an especially good example of her work, a number which I find musically very annoying but which serves a vital role in establishing character dynamics. Swire’s contributions serve to complement the lyrics impeccably while allowing the ensemble the maximum opportunity to show off their dancing skills in a way which serves the story and makes effective use of the camera. Much of the rest of her CV consists of short films or one-off appearances on Canadian TV shows, but she recently completed a longer stint playing twin sisters in Murdoch Mysteries (2020-2021).
Ella Hunt brings a reserved charm to her lead performance as Anna, allowing her quiet competence and dry wit to draw the audience along on her journey. She’s also no slouch as a dancer – “Turning My Life Around” provides the clearest showcase for her terpsichorean talents, using her long limbs to create an illusion of gangly awkwardness which in reality is exceptionally smooth and controlled. Part of the ensemble in Les Misérables (2012), she was a series regular on Cold Feet (2016-2017) and went on to play Emily Dickinson’s sister-in-law in Dickinson (2019-2021). Malcolm Cumming brings a comic glee to his role as the hapless John, while Christopher Leveaux (Aaaaaaaah!, 2015) and Marli Siu (Alex Rider, 2020-2021) are simply adorable as the mutually besotted couple who come to a bittersweet end. Ben Wiggins left less of an impact on me, but may be familiar to viewers of Pennyworth (2019) as Spanish. Mark Harmon was decent as Anna’s father, but as he’s indelibly imprinted in my mind as the doomed dad from the first episode of the Doctor Who (2005) revival series, I have very little else to say about him – especially when compared to Paul Kaye’s relish in the role of Savage, gradually escalating from poisonous malice to scenery-chewing lunacy. In a lengthy and varied career, he’s probably best known for playing Thoros of Myr in Game of Thrones (2013-2017).
If you’re after a high school musical comedy Christmas horror movie with splashes of gore, you’ve come to the right place. It swept the awards at the Toronto After Dark Film Festival, winning Best Feature Film: Gold, Best Ensemble Cast, Best Comedy, Best Music and Best Title Sequence. I’m not going to claim Anna and the Apocalypse as a work of genius, but the love of the people who made it is palpable and there are far worse ways to spend your time. And Sarah Swire is a treasure.