With friends hovering within sight of wrapping up secondary school, leaving home, and heading to university, Anna (Ella Hunt) has decided to let uni wait a year while she backpacks Australia. She is working extra hours at the local bowling alley to pay for the ticket; she has a whole itinerary mapped out. As a side benefit, she’ll escape the teasing of popular bully and her ex Nick (Ben Wiggins), who’s helped fan rumors about their shared night together. Her best friend John (Malcolm Cumming), planning to go to art school himself, gamely supports Anna’s dream while secretly nursing romantic feelings for her and hoping she will change her mind. Her good-natured, widowed father Tony (Mark Benton), also the school janitor, is shocked enough at Anna’s choice to fling her dead mother’s memory at her, a first, dreadful split in their closeness. And complicating everyone’s lives is the ascendant school headmaster, a man named Savage, already thriving in expectation of unfettered authority. Savage is a seething, petty bluenose whose character is as thin as his Jarvis Cocker silhouette, played with perhaps too much contempt by Paul Kaye. He really, really, really hates these kids, and he especially hates Anna’s friend Steph (Sarah Swire), a troublesome American journalistic crusader who has been twice abandoned on the holiday, first by her globetrotting parents and second by an unseen girlfriend. Meanwhile, the zombie apocalypse rolls inexorably toward them all.
Of all its influences and references, Anna and the Apocalypse (2017) will probably remind horror audiences the most of Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright’s beloved 2004 rom-zom-com Shaun of the Dead. That movie followed aging Gen Xer Shaun (Simon Pegg) as he sorts his life out with the help of his own zombie apocalypse. Anna, like Shaun, is the natural leader in a group of loved ones that pull her in mutually exclusive directions. Like Shaun, Anna, absorbed in her own problems, doesn’t notice the zombie plague encroaching until she and her best friend are confronted by one of the hungry dead, which the movie plays for chuckles as much as their panicked success in defeating the dead with unconventional means. Shaun wields a cricket bat; Anna, a decorative candy cane with a nice pointy stake end. The cartoonish Savage’s big musical number “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Me Now,” as he unleashes a zombie horde out of pure vileness, echoes Shaun and company’s stand against a zombie incursion at the Winchester bar as Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now” blares from the jukebox. And most poignantly, both Anna and Shaun ultimately lose everything — and that sadly means everyone — holding them back. There’s no choice for either of them but to survive, but the lives they end of up with are unfairly simplified.
Unlike Shaun, this is a musical, and the music of Anna and the Apocalypse is pure, heart-sleeved, singing competition-grade pop. It sounds exactly like we expect emptying teenage souls of the latter days of capitalism to sound, though it doesn’t do much to forebode. This is not Sweeney Todd, and gore aside, it may be stretching it to even call it horror, though several death scenes earn their Day of the Dead bonafides. Depending on your generation, it will probably remind you of Grease, High School Musical, or Glee, because pop and hormones know no time or genre. I am Gen X, so Anna put me most in mind of the classic Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode “Once More With Feeling,” in which Joss Whedon packed major character arc bombshells into what, at the time, seemed the truly weird, left-field gimmick of a musical episode. I think the bombshells part is what Anna has most in common with Buffy, as each heroine fights their way through an ending number that makes explicit what she is really made of. At that point in Buffy, the Slayer had been recently resurrected and was burying a deep, clinical depression in increasingly self-destructive behavior; in “Something To Sing About,” she finally comes clean with her friends, changing the landscape of the series and the idea of what this Slayer is by making clear what she no longer can be. Anna similarly fights her way through a theater of zombies in “Give Them a Show,” facing her bravery and resilience against Savage’s embittered nihilism in an indie rock opera duet that says everything we need to know about Anna’s goodness, bravery, and resilience, with a side of OK Boomer:
There are some things in life
That you just can’t control
But I’m ready to fight
I was born for this role
I will do all I plan
‘Fore I go to my grave
There is good on this Earth
And it’s worth trying to save
You shouldn’t mistake the bitter resolve in Anna’s determination from the beginning though. After depressing themselves into action in the moody opening number “Break Away,” the cast joins in the danceable, but still quite glum, “Hollywood Ending,” an earworm which becomes the refrain of the film: “Stop your pretending/There’s no such thing as a Hollywood ending.” And the rest of the film does its bloody best to prove this out.
Though it’s become synonymous with annihilation, the word apocalypse really means “unveiling” and that’s what is on show here, not the zombies. It is why a movie with as much gore and devourment, more even, than The Walking Dead barely seems like horror. The zombie outbreak is incidental. It’s truly Anna and the Apocalypse in the most literal sense. Anna isn’t like Shaun or Buffy in the most essential particular, and you could read this as a generational comment if you were inclined: she knows what she wants. This particular fight is forced on her, but the fight was always in her. That she suffers moments of self-doubt before the zombie crisis subsumes the city is natural. She’s standing on the edge of an unknowable future and people she loves cling to keep her, if not where she is, then somewhere she doesn’t want to be. But I never doubt that she will see her vision through. There is a moment, after the zombies are loose and John’s feelings for Anna are evident, when he assumes at her that now she will not be going through with her plans.
“You hear about riots and revolutions in other countries. We could die. We could though. At least you won’t be going anywhere anymore, so that’s something.”
“What does that mean?”
“Well, it’s different now. You can’t just leave.”
“John, you’re my best friend, yeah? You know that.”
“John. You’re my best friend.”
Then, John asks, “You really think you can still get away after all this?”
Anna is pushing him in a shopping cart, his back to her, so when she nods, it seems like it’s for herself, not him. “Watch me.”
I expect there are people who might find Anna’s determination selfish or off-putting, especially for a female character. It is probably at least surprising. How are you thinking about leaving? You don’t even know how much of the world is left to leave to. But it’s worth noting, with a caveat that here be the majorest spoilers, the only characters who escape the zombie apocalypse in Anna and the Apocalypse are the characters determined to move on anyway. The young lovers so besotted with each other they can see nothing else in their future; poor, hesitant John; Tony, trying to stand by his daughter by standing in her way; and even Savage, who would rather destroy the school with flesh-eaters than give it up: all eaten. Anna, Steph, and Nick, independent souls by circumstance, but also choice, are the only ones who will get to see Christmas. It’s not a Hollywood ending, as they drive, orphaned, into the uncertain horizon, but at least it feels like a beginning.
Angela finally got a Christmas sweater this year, but it’s the blood-stained sweatshirt McClane put on Karl’s brother design.