“I’m flying, my feet won’t touch the ground / I’m ready for turning my life around,” sings the pretty, dark-haired schoolgirl as she dances down the street to a bouncy Britpop beat. That’s standard for a musical film. What’s not are the zombies chasing down people and eating them in the background during this number. So it is in Anna and the Apocalypse, a British holiday-themed mash-up of High School Musical and The Walking Dead, and I am reserving my seat in the front row of worshippers.
The aforementioned girl is Anna (Ella Hunt), an ordinary teenager until the December day that a fast-moving global zombie pandemic reaches her small fictitious Scottish border town of Little Haven. In a crisis, her school’s headmaster (Paul Kaye) goes mad with power and locks a group of survivors in the school, including Anna’s custodian dad (Mark Benton). Trapped outside, Anna resolves to rescue her father and find someplace safe along with her classmates: John (Malcolm Cumming), the platonic friend carrying a torch for her; nauseating lovey-dovey couple Chris and Lisa (Christopher Leveaux and Marli Siu); and socially conscious lesbian Steph (Sarah Swire). They have to fight their way through the hordes of zombies, many of whom are clad in festive holiday attire.
So, aside from hiring Edgar Wright, how in the world do you pull off a gimmick like this? One way is with inventive zombie kills, and this movie has our increasingly blood-spattered heroes dispatching the undead with a bowling pin, a seesaw, and a spatula, among others. Another way is with a script that would be funny even without the musical numbers, so we have the kids reconfiguring the pop-culture landscape. (“Kill, marry, shag: Zombie Miley, Zombie Beyoncé, or Zombie Rihanna?” “Kill them all. They’re all zombies.”) There’s also a hip-hop routine with two students dressed as penguins dancing to a rap song filled with fish puns and a superb set piece where the teens try to use a kiddie pool to fend off the revenants, which turns both funny and creepy when something large and dark plops down on Steph’s plastic-covered head. You don’t know these actors, but they’re an appealing lot (especially the springy but mournful-eyed Hunt and the astringent Swire) and a strong group of singers, and they play the zombie sequences absolutely straight. The new faces in the cast also generate a sense that any of these characters could die unexpectedly, which indeed happens.
Then there are the songs by Roddy Hart and Tommy Reilly, who manage to work Matthew McConaughey’s name into the lyrics smoothly. The conceited school bully (Ben Wiggins) sings “Soldier at War,” a testosterone-drunk anthem to his own zombie-killing badassery, and if you’re in the market for a new sexy Christmas song, Lisa’s pageant song “It’s that Time of Year” fills the bill hilariously. (The lyrics are rated PG-13. Less so are the shirtless, oiled-up Santas dancing suggestively with candy canes behind her.) Some of the songs are good enough to work in a more serious musical, like the trio “Break Away,” in which Anna, John, and Steph express their dissatisfactions with Little Haven in dreamy sophisti-pop fashion. Even better is the group number “Human Voice,” with its long-limbed, unexpectedly haunting Tears for Fears-style hook.
More than just a crazy genre exercise, Anna and the Apocalypse is also a labor of love. It is based on a 2011 short film (it’s called Zombie Musical, and it’s on YouTube), and writer-director Ryan McHenry was planning to expand it into a feature film before he died of bone cancer three years ago at age 25. His friends, director John McPhail and co-writer Alan McDonald, followed through on their promise to see his work to his fruition, and the result cheers me up more than a thousand cozy comedies about people in sweaters gathering around the holiday table. This movie has a song in its heart and a sharpened candy cane lawn ornament through a zombie’s heart, and I think I’ll be watching it every Christmas from now on.
Starring Ella Hunt and Malcolm Cumming. Directed by John McPhail. Written by Alan McDonald and Ryan McHenry, based on McHenry’s script. Rated R.