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Anna and the Apocalypse

A coming-of-age comedy, and it’s a Christmas movie, and it’s a zombie apocalypse action/horror… and it’s a musical.

Gentle readers, I’m kicking myself so hard that I’ve missed out on Anna and the Apocalypse for this long.

The Anna of the title (played by Ella Hunt) is a teenager on the cusp of graduating high school (or whatever the UK equivalent is). Her father (Tony, played by Mark Benton) wants her to go to college, but Anna feels so constrained by her tiny little hometown that she wants to take a year off to go traveling in Australia. Also, her dad is a custodian at the school, so he’s always within shouting distance and that doesn’t exactly help the feeling like he’s holding her back. Oh, and Anna’s mom has passed on, so that’s another sore point for the both of them.

Elsewhere, we have Steph (Sarah Swire), a gender-ambiguous social crusader on the single-minded mission of helping out the homeless and destitute, especially for the holiday season. But of course the high school administration doesn’t want to ruffle any feathers for fear of endangering grant money, and of course the classmates are more interested in bullying and tormenting the queer kid.

Then there’s John (Malcolm Cumming), the slightly dense would-be love interest for Anna. He’s a gentle giant, which naturally puts him at the bottom of the athletes’ totem pole. He’s a bully target among his peers, yet he’s still attached to his hometown in spite of himself.

And then of course we have the self-absorbed best friend (Lisa, played by Marli Siu), the best friend’s brain-dead boyfriend (Chris, played by Christopher Leveaux), the preening sex-obsessed bully (Nick, played by Ben Wiggins), the dickish incoming headmaster (Mr. Savage, played to the cheap seats by Paul Kaye), and other assorted zombie fodder. Because, yes, all of this is taking place against the backdrop of an unfolding zombie outbreak.

In summary, imagine if Edgar Wright and all his Shaun of the Dead crew walked onto the set of “Glee” and said “Here, hold my beer.”

Which brings me to the music. It’s fucking awesome. As soon as I heard the big “I want” song at the five-minute mark, I was completely and totally hooked. Every single song is solid, heartfelt, and infectious fun like precious few pop-rock songs are nowadays. This sounds like something teenagers would actually like, and it does so much to establish who our heroes are and why we should care about them. I don’t know if this movie necessarily needed to be a musical, but oh my days, it is so much better for being a musical.

Every time a new song came on, I wanted nothing more than to run it back and spin it another three times. I can’t remember the last time that ever happened with a musical — not even with Scott Pilgrim. And the choreography isn’t shabby, either.

And what about the zombie action? Well, we’ve got some genuinely creative kills and gore effects to be seen. I’m especially fond of the ball return gag during the bowling alley sequence.

Then we have the requisite incisive social commentary, a staple of the genre since Romero. For better or worse, the allegory here is much more subtle. Yes, there’s a lot of self-referential parody, as the film takes place in a world where zombies and zombie cinema are very much part of the common parlance. And yes, we see idiots on social media posting selfies of themselves with the undead.

But what’s even better is that even with all the musical numbers and jokes and action sequences, the filmmakers are good enough to stop every once in a while and remind us that — as the title tells us — this is the apocalypse. The survivors are living in constant uncertainty, without knowing when help is going to arrive, whether they’ll still be alive in the immediate future, or whether their loved ones are safe. And that’s not even getting started on those who already know their loved ones are dead.

When the characters huddled together indoors, uncertain of what to do or what else is going on as disaster is falling all around them, I couldn’t help but feel a pain that’s been all too familiar for all of us over the past few years. From 9/11 to COVID-19 and all the mass shootings in between, there’s a whole generation of people who are sadly all too familiar with the feeling of sheltering in place and hoping the horrible events pass by sooner than later.

Moreover, getting back to the social media point, of course commenting on teenagers and their cell phones and everyone’s addiction to the internet is nothing new. But that angle takes on a whole new dimension in a global disaster, when nobody’s able to get in touch with their loved ones or get the latest news. Social media is nothing more or less than an extension of our need for communication and human connection, and that’s never more important than when people are dying by the millions for unknown reasons. Framing it as such was a deeply savvy and timely move on the filmmakers’ part.

At its heart and core, this is a movie about teenagers coming of age into a world very different than what they were promised. They got screwed over by a world that went to shit for reasons they had nothing to do with, and now they’re somehow tasked with putting it back together and maintaining some semblance of hope. That’s a deeply relevant and insightful theme, and exploring it by way of a coming-of-age zombie story was frankly a stroke of genius.

Hell, questions like “Where do I go next?” and “What do I do?” are a crucial and universal part of growing up and setting out into the world. With teenagers in a post-apocalyptic setting, those questions are writ large on a scale I’ve never seen before.

Anna and the Apocalypse takes on a whole bunch of different genres, and succeeds at every one. It’s funny, it’s spooky, it’s poignant, and it’s deeply multilayered, with coming-of-age themes and social commentary themes that dovetail with the zombie genre in new and inspired ways. The gore is satisfying, the action is great fun, and the characters all confront zombies in neatly creative ways. I honestly love how the filmmakers played into established zombie tropes and teen drama cliches, yet took the characters and their development arcs in moving and unexpected directions. Also, the soundtrack kicks so much ass.

Put it all together and you’ve got a film that just became one of my all-time favorites. I don’t say that lightly, and it might just be the highest praise I can give to a film.

If you haven’t seen this one yet, please track it down online ASAP. On this or any other time of the year, I can’t possibly recommend it enough. Don’t let it pass you by.

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