In an early scene in Anna and the Apocalypse, the eponymous character (Ella Hunt) throws on some clothes, pops her earbuds in, and bolts out the door. Anna, a high school senior who’s late for school, doesn’t notice that her father isn’t around or that the dawning of a zombie apocalypse is transpiring around her. As she gleefully sings and spins and skips her way down the street, Anna’s neighbors are being torn limb from limb. This pivotal scene introduces a satirical idea that’s ultimately underserved in the film: that the innate self-absorption of teenagers would likely cause their petty concerns and idealistic dreams to subsist even as the world spins into oblivion.
Marketed as something of a cross between High School Musical and Shaun of the Dead, Anna and the Apocalypse is a high-concept genre mashup that all too frequently betrays its roots as a short film (2011’s Zombie Musical). Director John McPhail’s feature, whose cheeky self-awareness regarding its characters’ navel-gazing is only apparent in a handful of sequences, often plays like an extended gag where boisterous Christmastime musical numbers, teen drama, and a gorehound’s helping of blood and guts are juxtaposed yet never fused together in thematically or dramatically satisfying ways.
The film leans hard on the saccharine emotions of its teen characters’ trite interpersonal struggles, inflating the importance of everyone’s inner conflicts through the ever-present threat of death. Anna, whose sole desire is to escape the doldrums of her small town, is at least somewhat fleshed out. The depiction of her relationship to her father, Tony (Mark Benton), who she’s grown closer to in the wake of her mother’s death, is moving for the way it grapples with the potential emotional repercussions of Anna taking a year off to travel through Australia. Her friends, on the other hand, are a virtual who’s who of stock characters lifted from any number of teen films.
But Anna and the Apocalypse‘s biggest problem isn’t so much the hollowness of its characters or the triviality of their problems as much as its inability to lend its clichés and tropes any dramatic thrust or satirical bite. The film curiously privileges earnestness over irony, expecting the audience to care about Anna’s will-they-won’t-they games with both her sensitive BFF, John (Malcolm Cumming), and her brutish, cocky ex, Nick (Ben Wiggins), or the awkward activist Steph’s (Sarah Swire) attempts to get her car keys back from the maniacally controlling headmaster, Mr. Savage (Paul Kaye), simply because the characters do. Throughout, the solipsism of these characters bafflingly goes from being the target of humor to the sole catalyst of the film’s pathos.
This banal emotional drama is at times elevated by the film’s musical numbers, particularly “Break Away” and “Hollywood Ending” (the latter of which is cleverly recalled in the film’s ambiguous ending), as well as by the cast’s chemistry and generally amiable performances. But at other times, as in a sequence where four students simply line up next to one another and stare out a window as they sing about their need for connection, the music and choreography is so uninspired or the staging and blocking is so elementary that the musical numbers lose their zing before the first verse is even over. These forgettable scenes, along with the film’s mostly routine zombie kills, leaves Anna and the Apocalypse feeling original only in its offbeat combination of genres but stale in the ways it employs each one of them.