Re­view: Just in time for Christ­mas, a zom­bie hol­i­day mu­si­cal

Sun.Star Cebu Weekend - - Content - Jo­ce­lyn Noveck AP Na­tional Writer

Con­sider it an early Christ­mas gift: "Anna and the Apoca­lypse" is the zom­bie hor­ror hol­i­day mu­si­cal you didn't know you needed. Just imag­in­ing that first pitch meet­ing is en­ter­tain­ment in it­self. "It's 'High School Mu­si­cal' meets 'World War Z!' No no, it's 'Glee' meets 'Shaun of the Dead!' Hold on ... it's Christ­mas! OK, 'Love Ac­tu­ally' meets 'The Walk­ing Dead!'"

What­ever its cin­e­matic an­tecedents, "Anna," which boasts an ap­peal­ing cast of fresh-faced new­com­ers and a quirky Scot­tish sen­si­bil­ity, is charm­ing, of­ten clever, and un­ex­pect­edly mov­ing, too. And who's to say we're not ready for a zom­bie hor­ror hol­i­day mu­si­cal? Com­pared to your av­er­age TV news­cast these days, it's pos­i­tively re­lax­ing.

The film, di­rected by John McPhail with catchy orig­i­nal songs by Roddy Hart and Tommy Reilly, has a sad back­story. It's based on a BAFTA-win­ning short film, "Zom­bie Mu­si­cal," by Ryan McHenry, who died at age 27 of can­cer in 2015 just as his project was on the way to be­com­ing a fea­ture film. (He shares a writ­ing credit here with Alan McDon­ald.)

The new film has the un­de­ni­able as­set of Ella Hunt in the lead role, charis­matic and touch­ing as teen hero­ine Anna. At 18, Anna is ready to grad­u­ate high school in her small Scot­tish town of Lit­tle Haven, and keen to ex­pe­ri­ence the world. As we be­gin, she's in­form­ing her dad (the per­fectly cast Mark Ben­ton), who's rais­ing her alone, that she plans to post­pone univer­sity and travel to Aus­tralia. He is NOT amused.

Dad's the jan­i­tor at Anna's high school, which is run by a mis­fit head­mas­ter, Sav­age (Paul Kaye, whose sneers be­come nas­tier by the minute.) The first part of the movie — we'll call it the "High School Mu­si­cal" sec­tion — in­tro­duces us to the typ­i­cal slate of teen char­ac­ters and their strug­gles. To name a few, there's Anna's best friend, John (a highly lik­able Mal­com Cum­ming), the nice guy who se­cretly loves her; there's army brat Nick (Ben Wig­gins), the con­ceited bully who's dated and dumped her; there's Steph (Sarah Swire, who also chore­ographed the mu­si­cal num­bers!), a brood­ing as­pir­ing jour­nal­ist ne­glected by her wealthy par­ents. Ev­ery­one's cop­ing with the usual teenage pres­sures as they seek to de­fine them­selves and pre­pare for im­mi­nent adult­hood.

What they don't ex­pect is, um, a zom­bie apoca­lypse. It hap­pens sud­denly one day. Head­ing out of the house, Anna puts her head­phones in and sings cheer­fully of a beau­ti­ful new morn­ing. "What a time to be alive," she sings, and dances, obliv­i­ous to the mur­der­ous zom­bie may­hem hap­pen­ing in the sub­ur­ban streets around her. It's the film's most en­ter­tain­ing num­ber.

Fi­nally Anna and friend John, also danc­ing away the morn­ing, meet up in a play­ground, where they have a head­spin­ning en­counter with a zom­bie dressed as a snow­man. Pan­icked, they head to the bowl­ing al­ley where they both work. There, alas, they find a lot more zom­bies. Direc­tor McPhail finds in­ven­tive ways to stage zom­bie gore, in­clud­ing, yep, zom­bie heads pop­ping up in the bowl­ing ball dis­penser. (We'll let you pic­ture that for a sec­ond.)

The di­a­logue can be quite funny, as when the teens con­tem­plate the fate of their fa­vorite celebri­ties. Justin Bieber's a zom­bie, one of them ex­claims. Ryan Gosling? "Alive, dead, the guy's still cool," an­other rea­sons. But the idea that Tay­lor Swift might be a zom­bie is too much for one: "Tay-Tay's fine!"

The lat­ter part of the film, and it does get to feel a bit long, be­comes a more tra­di­tional zom­bie nar­ra­tive, a fight to the death for our spir­ited band of teenagers seek­ing to es­cape the deadly bite and re­unite with loved ones, if they're alive. For Anna, it's about find­ing her fa­ther. Her face streaked with blood, killing zom­bies with noth­ing but an over­sized candy cane for a weapon, Anna fights with the tenac­ity and fury of a Scot­tish Kat­niss Everdeen.

And yet, this be­ing a mu­si­cal, she still finds time to sing.

Her back up against the wall, she sings that if she's gonna die any­way, "I'll give them one hell of a show." And so she does. By the end, you may find your­self wip­ing away a few tears. Some­how, this amus­ingly chaotic mashup of gen­res finds a way to strike a fi­nal note that's sim­ple and true.

Ella Hunt and Mal­com Cum­ming in a scene from the film "Anna and the Apoca­lypse."

Ella Hunt

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