Film | Anna and the Apocalypse - a zombie movie with heart and rhythm
At a soup kitchen in Little Haven, Scotland, Santa’s spreading more than just festive cheer. Across town, school leaver Anna (Ella Hunt) is forced to put her gap year plans on hold when zombies tie her and best friend John (Malcolm Cumming) down to the bowling alley where they work after class. Together with activist Steph (Sarah Swire), filmmaker Chris (Christopher Leveaux) and ex-boyfriend Nick (Ben Wiggins), Anna must make their way back to school so that Anna can reunite and reconcile with her father, Tony (Mark Benton), with whom she argued the night before as he prepared to chaperone the Christmas dance.
The words Scottish cinema are likely to conjure one of two images: the classic scenes of Peter Riegert stargazing from fictional Ferness in Bill Forsyth's Local Hero or the rather more iconoclastic introduction to Ewan McGregor as he crashes down Princes Street in Danny Boyle's Trainspotting. A few recent films such as Sunshine on Leith and Under the Skin have helped to redefine Scotland for modern audiences but few are likely to have a more resounding influence on how the country is perceived overseas than Anna and the Apocalypse -- John McPhail's Yuletide zombie musical. You can now add a third: Hunt wielding a bloodied candy cane against a throng of Christmas-jumpered undead.
To focus on the apocalypse, however, would be to do Anna a disservice, for as effectively as the zombie interlopers are handled they are but one small element in a remarkably multifaceted movie -- the dead don't even rise until the film's second act. Prior to this, director John McPhail, working from a script by Alan McDonald and the late Ryan McHenry, who inspired the feature film with his BAFTA-winning short Zombie Musical, establishes an appealing and genuinely affecting cast of characters who seem surprisingly relatable, even as they're bursting into song -- or later -- leaping into action. It's also pleasingly Scottish, even if Hunt herself is actually English, with Paul Kaye playing the school's villainous headmaster, Mr. Savage, like some sort of deranged Beano character.
As for the songs themselves, Roddy Hart and Tommy Reilly have gone above and beyond to deliver one of the best original soundtracks of the year. Catchy and accomplished in their own right, each song also propels the plot forward while providing an opportunity for the cast to develop their characters and the choreographer (Swire again) to stage a dynamic showstopper. There are a number of standouts, most of them in the near faultless first act, with Hollywood Ending and Beautiful Day springing immediately to mind. Of the extremely talented young cast, Marli Sui is perhaps the most underserved, separated from her cohorts for the majority of the second act and almost lost in the third, but her character’s performance of It's That Time of Year -- the unassuming title belies a spectacularly salacious solo in the vein of Santa Baby -- steals the show regardless.
As promising as Anna and the Apocalypse is in these early stages, evoking and occasionally equaling everything from Shawn of the Dead to Buffy the Vampire Slayer's Once More With Feeling, the premise struggles to sustain itself across its relatively light ninety minutes. Cinematographer Sara Deane does a tremendous job of making Little Haven (actually Port Glasgow and Greenock) cinematic, whether lensing a bowling alley or a cemetery, she struggles -- as do McPhail, McDonald and their cast -- to keep things interesting upon the characters' return to school. That said, for a film that succeeds on so many other levels, it's hardly the end of the world.