Anna and the Apocalypse is a deliriously fun movie. Set against the end of the world as the title suggests, it turns that setting into a horror comedy centered around a high school, but on top of that, it’s also a musical. Anna is played by the excellent new actress Ella Hunt, and she dances and sings songs while she kills zombies. It’s a wonderfully odd movie that manages to blend a musical reverie of horror with serious topics, and it all happens at Christmas time.
There are so many unusual things happening just in those key ideas to make this an exciting project from the moment it took shape as a screenplay, but the execution of the film is remarkable for maintaining tight control over so many elements that each seem capable of dominating the film. The very first shot of Anna and the Apocalypse demonstrates how well controlled director John McPhail is of his subject matter. We see Anna’s family driving along in a shot that immediately is reminiscent of Danny Boyle’s remarkable zombie classic 28 Days Later. Her father is at the wheel, and the family is clearly dressed for Christmas with the appropriate music playing, but the way the scene is shot looks like horror instead of celebration even though nothing has happened yet.
This is a British film, and like 28 Days Later, it centers around the end of the world happening due to a virus turning people into zombies. Like Boyle’s film, it also deals with serious social topics within its entertaining guise, but the similarities mostly end there. By setting his film within a school, McPhail is able to have mostly innocent people just beginning to make their way in the world offer us a perspective on a society that seems doomed. We all live amidst a rapidly worsening environmental crisis. U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein was recently caught on video telling a group of children that she isn’t very concerned that the way her fellow elite leaders are trashing the environment will leave them with effectively nothing to live from. While powerful people like her are more disgusting than the zombies in John McPhail’s excellent film, Ella Hunt gets to play a heroic part as Anna, a lost innocent girl looking for hope amidst a collapsing world.
She fights zombies with her friends, and they are all saddened by how much their lives are shaped by technology instead of human interaction. McPhail is astute for seeing the way that smartphones and other high tech gadgets are ruining society and the future of young people rather than enhancing them. This art magazine was designed around the idea that the internet is high tech garbage. By having nothing besides in depth and clear content, I’m aiming to give readers something that is not an endless pile of ads, tracking services, and consumption and allow them a chance to think and engage exciting works of art. In that vein, I admire Anna and the Apocalypse for finding so much wrong with our world and for having an artistic vision that turns zombies into its metaphorical depictions and a singing girl into its heroine.
Anna runs around with a giant candy cane smashing and killing the zombies who took over her school, and in a remarkably odd scene she uses a seesaw to behead a zombie. To make that even better, she finds the seesaw on a children’s playground that inexplicably sits next to a graveyard she was dancing and singing in, and the beheaded zombie was dressed up as a furry. Anna and the Apocalypse is so inventive that I worry it might be missed for its high quality simply by virtue of being so fun that viewers might not realize how strange and meaningful the entire work is.
Ella Hunt is cast perfectly here. She has the right blend of ordinariness, innocence, and willfulness to convince us that Anna is an average girl made into a heroine. It reminds me of the best classic horror films from the 1970s and 1980s when directors like Dario Argento and George Romero were churning out masterful and inventive films that took cinema to new places it had never seen before. When films like Deep Red, Suspiria, and Dawn of the Dead came out they were controversial, but they were also aesthetically coherent works with powerful and deep themes and comments on our world within them. Anna and the Apocalypse is using a horror musical to do something similar, and it is a challenging film even though it is incredibly fun.
The students dance in an obviously well choreographed way that makes absolutely no sense for high school kids, and the headmaster has a gigantic and frightening academic beard he wears around the school while he pretends everything is fine as children are being eaten by the zombies. There is a lovely homage to George Romero when the zombies finally surround and eat him, and Anna spends a lot of the film singing about how much she wants to escape her dismal surroundings. For viewers who read between the lines, Anna and the Apocalypse has a very rich story, because we see scenes of Anna doing things like singing and dancing about her own misery and decayed world which is already so bad that she doesn’t even realize there are zombies at first, even though they walk right past her eating people.
As someone living in America, a country with such appalling violence in its schools that I am left thinking the leaders here should be locked up, this film does a beautiful job of showing exactly that much social deterioration. It is very much in the vein of George Romero’s work, because as most serious students of film know, Dawn of the Dead is a profound portrayal of American consumerism run amok in its depictions of people eating each other in a shopping mall. While many people wanted to see Romero’s film banned when it came out, his social commentary was right on the money as we now see selfish consumerism having reached the point of the planet nearing environmental collapse with major food sources threatened by disappearance and politicians living more corrupt lives than The Godfather.
In many respects, our civilization has gotten so bad that it is hard to even depict it in a work of art, and I love Anna and the Apocalypse for being inventive enough to be up to the task. The most memorable and beautiful line of the songs in the film, many of which are extremely funny, is surely, “There’s no such thing as a Hollywood ending.” After the recent success of Damien Chazelle’s excellent La La Land, that is a potent line. Chazelle revived the musical in a serious way by going backwards and revisiting a lot of classic Hollywood. His debut film, Whiplash, established him as a fine lover of jazz, and that certainly gives him classical credibility to have been up to the task, and La La Land is another important work of art. Chazelle is using Hollywood in that film to support dreams and artistic aspiration to be something more and something better than mundane life.
I think Anna and the Apocalypse has a perspective that would agree with that being a worthwhile goal, but it wants to bring us down to earth about how bad our surroundings really are even while giving us space to dream past them. So we get an innocent girl wearing a tie to her school having to pick up a giant candy cane and slay zombies while she dances and sings.
The cinematography in the film is appropriate to the subject matter and is beautiful in a muted sort of way. Fans of black and grey aesthetics will enjoy it a lot, and I love the way the film is able to use those images to combine both hope and decay. Clearly, we live amidst a broken monstrosity, but there is still some hope. We can wish for entirely different people to take things over and fix them by throwing out the past, and that is what Anna and the Apocalypse has its heroine doing.
The director deserves a lot of credit for how he blocks his actors. Musicals introduce the additional element of choreography, and combining that with drama and a story can be a difficult task. Even when the singing is incredibly funny, such as Anna’s ex-boyfriend singing, “When it comes to killing zombies, I’m the top of my class. While you were hiding, I’ve been kicking some ass,” the actors are well blocked. The story unfolds through every line and every shot, and drama continues on a consistent level.
We also care about John McPhail’s characters. Anna is too innocent and her dream of getting away to a normal life too respectable to not like her. When I see a new actress in a really good film that she completely nails like this my hope is always to see her in more good parts, because there aren’t enough good characters and scripts to go around. This one is a true gem, and Anna and the Apocalypse deserves to be taken very seriously even while its musical numbers manage to succeed at decadent horror comedy.