If you haven’t come to realize it yet, Anna and the Apocalypse is the ultimate “Christmas Horror” package. Musical numbers are anything but interludes, as singsongy Disney riffs score undead fight choreography. Humorous elements allow for seasonal satire but never distract from the title character’s deathly serious maturity blossom. Films have been described to “have it all” before, although John McPhail’s ho-ho-horror comedy sets a new bar by pitching a perfect hybrid of too many subgenres. A Scottish “horror zombie comedy musical” that executes this cleanly. My new favorite holiday rewatch tradition.
You’ve read plenty of reviews of Anna and the Apocalypse. I’ve written mine. Instead, after multiple viewings, I want to explore what makes McPhail’s decked-out crowdpleaser a must watch (on Hulu and Amazon Prime) this winter season through lyrical poetry. Sung from the heart, linked to the actions on screen with effortless connectivity.
The greatest trick McPhail pulls is maintaining High School Musical energies as students dance around lunch tables while lines, quite plainly, maintain how pleasantries aren’t in Anna’s future. Choral deliveries like “No such thing as a Hollywood ending” - before zombified snowmen even appear - confirm everything we need. Yet, between co-star Sarah Swire’s energetic choreography and festive jubilation like blinky-light ugly sweaters, we still - somehow - retain hope that Anna and the Apocalypse won’t embrace doomsday gloom. Hence why the film’s more serious moments are these knife-twist, ever impactful heartbreakers. Primo manipulation of the pop-pleasant-pure variety.
“This is not the story you’ve been dreaming of. The one where you get all you want. So stop your pretending...”
At the film’s onset, “Break Away” minces no words about fleeing a “hopeless” Little Haven suburb as many restless hearts have felt bigger than the lives they found themselves trapped within. If you listen, Anna’s pleading for an existence less ordinary is setting up how characters will be forced to escape however possible. Breaking away is literal as Anna (Ella Hunt) dreams of her Australian vacation instead of immediate schooling, but it’s more than that. Anna’s tethers to her hometown - father Tony (Mark Benton), friend John (Malcolm Cumming) - are sung as admissions of the pain that’ll come when leaving familiarity behind. Acceptance, necessity, and ambition jammed into an opening number that sets a tone of bittersweet wanderlust.
“Trapped in a moment, ready to fly - I've got to find my own way. Sooner or later it ends in goodbye, we all have to break away.”
As Anna navigates her high school hallways, McPhail uses a soon-to-be karaoke favorite in “Hollywood Ending” to represent the perception and expectancy of such a sprightly crowd-pleaser. Delivery mirrors optimistic projections of carefree schoolhouse rockin’, but lyrics - as mentioned above - confirm a hard truth. Anna and the Apocalypse isn’t another sunshiny grapple with adolescent fates where everyone walks out unharmed. Between Anna’s bemoaning of immature dating scenes and John’s takedown of being sold Matthew McConaughey romances, the song’s intention is to subvert expectations by exploiting the very cheerful demeanor musicals use when dulling life’s harsher edges.
Swire’s expressive dance routine is so impossibly hypnotizing, but “Hollywood Ending” tells you everything you need to know about the characters before you. Anna’s not fitting into someone else’s princess fantasy, John’s not the protagonist in another Nicholas Sparks adaptation, Lisa (Marli Siu) and Chris’ (Christopher Leveaux) puppy love is perfect for the time being but we all know how teenage romances typically burn then fizzle out - it’s all spelled out. Yet, as performers bang on tabletops in synchrony, McPhail’s still able to distract us from assured tragedy without telling a single lie. If you listen carefully (a recurring theme), all the answers are provided. Right down to “villain” Arthur Savage (Paul Kaye) watching the whole performance from the shadows, softly repeating lyrics to himself in a sad state of outsider angst.
“Hollywood Ending” is a near-perfect satire of upbeat “brainwashing” as our minds tune into what they’ve been programmed to see, not what’s *actually* sung.
“'Cause no one ever tells you when you're young. Love's not like the books, the films, or the songs.”
Enter a pair of Christmas-themed goofers. Both may seem “throwaway” given the film’s thumbed pulse, but I challenge that notion. Without “The Fish Wrap,” played as two students in penguin costumes “dance” (flail around) on a theater stage, or Lisa’s innuendo-crammed “It’s That Time Of Year,” Anna and the Apocalypse might tip the scales too quickly in terms of subgenre balance. Plus, Marli Sue crushes her after-school performance of an overtly sexual song that raunches up every festive stereotype on the “Naughty” list. McPhail’s task is to unite the worlds of horror, comedy, and performance art in a way that never freezes over. Marli’s number is worth every cutaway shot to audience members squirming uncomfortably during a family-friendly production (or so presumed).
“There's a lack of presents in my stocking, and my chimney needs a good unblocking. Come on Santa dear, I've been waiting for you.”
Thus brings us to Anna’s epiphany “Ah ha!” She shares a duet with John where they swear to themselves - through song - that today is going to be the day everything changes. With earbuds canceling out the noise around them, the duo exits their houses and sing-dances their way to school while grinning with positivity. New lease, new vibes, new outlook in life. There’s nothing the world can do to shake John and Anna’s spirits as they embrace the change they’ve once somberly wished into existing. This is the “turning point” in any musical where characters march forward into becoming their own second act saviors.
Of course, Anna and the Apocalypse takes this recharged opportunity as a good time to unleash the reanimated dead.
When Anna steps outside, this “new morning” that “seems different than before” is because zombies are eating her neighbors as she pirouettes down sidewalk concrete. It’s pure chaos. Bodies fall from second-story windows, SUVs crash - I’m sorry, is that a newborn being munched upon? “Turning My Life Around” makes a statement about blocking out the horrors around us as a means of focusing inward, but also reminds of the dangers that still exist. Again, this should be a monumentally up-swing moment but for gosh flippin’ sakes John and Anna meet up in a *graveyard* during the final chorus. McPhail’s not even being ominous. Don’t get me wrong, “Turning My Life Around” is an achievement in choreographed chaos that’s, for my money, a standout horror comedy sequence this decade - but the damnation “hinted” at is the loudest voice here. Importance for what’s to come sold on high.
“I'm waking, spent too long playing dead. I'm shaking, these blues out of my head. Not letting anybody bring me down, I'm ready for turning my life around.”
Once impending darkness settles in, songs become more somber and aware. What else would you expect as cities burn? In a world without technological hookups, characters are forced to speak face-to-face giving us “Human Voice” as a result. Some write this one off as the film’s skippable mid-track, although this indie-synth plea for communicative resilience holds a deeper meaning in my mind. Beyond the obvious need for digital obsessions to subside.
Anna and the Apocalypse, until technology fails, is about characters who are speaking ever-so-clearly but not being heard (much like the film’s own tricks through lyrics and delivery). Anna’s father refuses to hear his little girl’s desires and pushes her away as a result. John’s too caught up in his white-knighting to process Anna’s desires. So on and so forth. With this acknowledgment, “Human Voice” also works as a reminder that it’s so easy to create scenarios in our heads based on what we so desperately want to be true or what we believe to be right while someone may vocally, clearly be saying otherwise. There’s so much power in this thought, and maybe I’m reading harder into a number that’s simply about techno-fears - but maybe not given the film’s repeated ability to prove fantasy and reality are two worlds that become hard to separate at the worst times.
“Tell me that it's not too late. How much longer must I wait? I want to communicate.”
As threats mount, the true colors of Anna’s supporting cast are coaxed out via musical theatrics. Ex-hookup Nick (Ben Wiggins) and his merry band of thugs belt on about taking charge through machismo in “Soldier At War” while Savage’s instabilities finally crack during “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Me Now.” In their own minds, each is a hero Scotland requires to stop this undead invasion. One’s a grunt who’s smashing zombie heads with a maniac’s smile, the other a tyrant who allows ultimate power to corrupt in a now rancid dystopia. There’s more nuance to Nick’ fist-cocked preaching of gender toxicity than Savage’s loony martyrdom for the “greater good,” but, through over-performative numbers, we’re able to understand their insecurities and follies on a far deeper level than dialogue dissection could have accomplished.
P.S. “Soldier At War” is the film’s #1 hit and there’s not a damn thing that’ll convince me otherwise.
“When it comes to killin' zombies, I'm the top of my class. While you've been hidin', I've been kickin' some ass.”
It’s obvious the end is nigh once reaching “Give Them A Show,” after a musical lull while Anna’s squad traverses tree farms and city blocks in search of safety. Now at her journey’s conclusion, a horde of zombies populate the gymnasium space between Anna, Savage, and her prisoner father. It’s time, as the song goes, for Anna to give ‘em one helluva show as she fights for what’s most important. Using the lessons she’s learned along the way, having seen John turn, Anna realizes that “breaking away” isn’t severing ties. Moving on can be a transition, still retaining those memories we might, through hastier eyes, look to incinerate.
It’s Anna’s courageous survivor girl against Savage’s broken psyche, with death on the line. Jingle bells and dueling verses are laid atop Swire’s action-tango as Anna bashes walkers one-by-one while keeping a tune. One that’s just as whimsical as all the others, but Anna’s not resisting anymore. There’s magic and empowerment in the air, minimizing the musical satire at hand to allow for a genre-aligned climax that completes Anna’s scripted growth. Humanity is not broken, good still can exist, and if Anna can find this whilst the apocalypse unfolds? We can, as viewers, believe there’s still some magic left worth finding.
“Raise the curtain, hit the lights. Strike up the band for the final night. And if it is my time to go, I won't waste a moment, I know. I'll give them one hell of a show.”
After booting Savage into a zombified crowd, Anna’s outro is a shared ballad between daughter and father that manages to find comfort despite death calling their names. Glimpses of our fragile mortality ring throughout “I Will Believe,” as both vocalists stop wishing for something different and embrace a singular moment. Anna and the Apocalypse comes full-circle, with two characters who began in argument now addressing hope in a time of flesh-eaters. It’s the archetypal culmination required to defeat combative thinking, promote living for the day, and remain thoughtful of the gift of life we’re granted. Given the tragic loss of co-writer Ryan McHenry, “I Will Believe” is exactly the somber and admissive closing note this wacky, gory musical requires.
Anna and the Apocalypse is a miraculous blend of Christmas-themed chaos and show-stopping musical numbers, the latter of which becomes director John McPhail’s trump card. Lyrics, instrumental vibes, and harmonization help break a butterfly from her blood-spattered cocoon with the utmost sincerity. Characters are allowed to escape reality and explore their true selves in a way that only self-centering solos can allow, while tonality is weaponized to bolster stakes and necessary gravities. It’s a special December gift, played by an inspiringly talented cast, resulting in pure horror-musical-comedy bliss. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got my gajillionth soundtrack listen-through to start.
Matt Donato spends his post-work hours analyzing cinema for /Film, Collider, Bloody Disgusting, Atom Insider, and other internet reaches. Follow along on Twitter/Instagram/Letterboxd at @DonatoBomb. He seems like a pretty cool guy, but don't feed him after midnight just to be safe (beers are allowed/encouraged).