It’s Christmas time and that can mean only one thing: horror. Both existential and of the film variety, but for now let’s focus on the film kind. The holiday season brings fresh opportunities for fear. It’s a time for being cozy at home with your family, opening presents, and eating as much food as possible.
In the case of Anna Shepherd (Ella Hunt), it’s time to have a big fight with her dad on one of the last days of term before Christmas. Set in Scotland with hours to go before the school Christmas talent show, we begin our Christmas tale with Anna’s dad Tony (Mark Benton) driving her and her best friend John (Malcolm Cumming) to school. John, being the helpful lad that he is, accidentally lets slip that Anna has bought a plane ticket which leads to the reveal that Anna isn’t planning on going to university right away but is instead going travelling for a Gap Year first.
Unfortunately for Anna, there won’t be much escape from her dad because he’s the school maintenance man. There’s also the perennial menace of Deputy Headmaster Savage, played brilliantly by Paul Kaye. He is an absolute sociopath, obsessed with order, and intent on controlling every aspect of the school and its students. Ruling the corridors with an iron fist and frankly creepy demeanor, he’s a constant scene stealer. Savage also introduces the fact that many members of staff and students are out with the flu. Of course, the film is called Anna and The Apocalypse so let’s be honest – it’s a zombie outbreak waiting to happen.
It’s also time to meet Anna’s group of friends. American school journalist Steph (Sarah Swire) is trying to spotlight the homeless epidemic facing the town and being shut down at every turn by Savage. On top of that, she also seems to be facing a Christmas alone with an absent girlfriend and parents. Film-obsessed Chris (Christopher Leveaux) and his girlfriend Lisa (Marli Siu) are the epitome of young love, and Anna’s on/off boyfriend Nick (Ben Wiggins) is your typical popular lad, good-looking, full of swagger, and quite unpleasant.
While we’ve already had the first song proper in the pining “Break Away”, it’s time for the first big song and dance number! It’s also time for my favorite game in any musical “Who Can’t Lip Sync?” While this may seem mean-spirited, it is actually because I am hyper-aware of things thanks to having autism and ADHD. Just like I can tell when someone is a jerk after about five seconds, I can sense a lip sync issue in the most crowded of backgrounds. Lip-syncing is hard, and I blame no one for being out of step, especially in a number with choreography like this.
The whole lunch room erupts into a choreographed routine song and dance lamenting the lack of Hollywood endings in real life, apart from Chris and Lisa who are very much under the impression that they will be together forever and aren’t ashamed to sing about it. I have two favorite parts of this number other than how incredibly catchy it is, the first is that John cannot dance and throws himself around like a whirligig of limbs, and the second is Savage watching from afar and joining in both with disapproval and a sadness that he isn’t part of it.
With the eve of the Christmas talent show comes the eve of the end as the zombie outbreak becomes fully realized. Those at the talent show, and Anna and John who are at work at the local bowling alley are blissfully unaware of what is unfolding. Anna and John remain blissfully unaware until the next morning. They even both bop along happily towards each other, performing what is to me the catchiest song of the lot “Turning My Life Around.” The two sing and dance about the possibilities of new beginnings and change before meeting up in the local cemetery doing finger guns at each other and air guitaring.
Then the zombie apocalypse comes crashing into the scene in the form of an undead snowman. At least they were right about everything changing. Back at the school Savage has locked himself and the survivors in and tempers are already frayed between him and Anna’s dad Tony. Tony wants to go out and find Anna, but Savage isn’t having any of it. On the plus side, Savage has graciously lowered the price of bottled water by half.
Going too in-depth here about the remaining hour of the film is prime spoiler territory so I won’t because don’t do that. So, let’s get vague about the plot and clearer on themes. The film is about change, fear, and transition to adulthood. It is also about banging tunes and smashing zombie heads with bowling balls, but mostly about change.
Anna and her friends are at the cusp of what society perceives as adulthood. They are in their last year of secondary school (high school for my American readers) with only months to go before they are expected to magically become adults. School’s out, time for taxes! Yes, the zombie apocalypse is a metaphor for growing up. The musical numbers? They are about hope, optimism, and looking to the future. The film is a blood-filled allegory for entering the brow-beating world of adulthood and the often misguided optimism of youth. Let’s not forget that Anna’s surname is Shepherd and throughout the film, people turn to her for their next move. She leads her friends through the horror with Buffy Summers-style levels of confidence, pathos, and loss.
Then there’s the subplot of self-appointed Headmaster Savage, a petty, sad little man who uses the ever-increasing nightmare of the zombie outbreak to go absolutely insane and as an excuse to indulge in a whole new level of cruelty. Paul Kaye is fantastically unhinged. I’m a long-time fan of his and old enough to remember when he played the character of Dennis Pennis, a brash American punk journalist who would infiltrate celeb-packed events as press and ask people truly awful things. Along with Mark Benton, Kaye is to me British acting royalty. They have been ever-present for years and years of my life and never disappoint.
Anna and the Apocalypse is a wonderfully funny and warm Christmas-themed musical. It’s also an incredibly poignant and devastating picture of youth coming to an end.