Anna and the Apocalypse (2018)

We missed this one in theaters last year, mainly because it wasn't playing anywhere we could get to without a hassle. At the time, we regretted it quite a bit. Anna and the Apocalypse was getting good reviews and had an intriguing premise: a horror-comedy-zombie-Christmas-musical. That's the sort of thing we love!

Well, it can be the sort of thing we love. In this case, it turned out to be the sort of thing we like, which - given our arguably unreasonable expectations - meant it was kind of a disappointment.

The story, absent the musical gimmick (and unfortunately I do mean gimmick) follows fairly well-trod zombified ground. The main character and her friends are dealing with mundane problems and issues that have strained relationships with loved ones and each other. Then the apocalypse hits, and they spend the movie trying to reconnect with family and friends, growing as people along the way. And, of course, almost everyone dies horribly, usually after or while resolving their arcs.

Most of the twists are cemented in the premise: they're high school seniors, there's music, and it's set at Christmas. Of these, I found the most interesting to be their age, which probably tells you a great deal about the movie's use of music and the holidays.

The lead is Anna, who wants to delay college for a year and go to Australia against her father's wishes. They get in a fight at the beginning, and her desire to repair that divide becomes the central storyline.

Also present is her best friend, John, who clearly wants to be more than that. The best decision the movie makes is not taking this route - Anna isn't interested in him, and this never changes, even after he becomes zombie-chow at the end of act 2. It was refreshing to see the standard "love story" subverted.

They're also joined by Nick (Anna's ex), Chris (an aspiring filmmaker trying to reach his girlfriend, Lisa), and Steph (a lesbian who's mostly just trying to survive and save her friends). They spend the bulk of the movie trying to make their way from a bowling alley to the school, where the self-appointed headmaster, Mr. Savage, unravels under pressure and takes hostages.

All of this is after the obligatory first act, which establishes all the relationships and loads a host of metaphorical Chekhov's guns (only metaphorical, though: this is set in England, and there are no actual firearms used onscreen).

Since we already know where this is heading, the intro stuff drags a bit too long, though to be fair there's some fun foreshadowing. The second act kicks off with a musical number showcasing the zombie apocalypse occurring in the background while our leads are blissfully unaware for a comical amount of time. This is at once one of the better sequences and a good illustration of the movie's flawed structure. It's great as a standalone musical/comedy/horror number, but it doesn't really work in context. Outside of this scene, Anna isn't dense; here, she's hilariously oblivious. Plus, her emotional state in this scene is completely different than the scene before - this feels like it was filmed separately from the rest of the movie then awkwardly spliced in.

Characters get shuffled around, minor characters get taken out of the picture, and so on and so forth. They tease Anna's relationships with both John and Nick, but the movie makes it pretty clear she was already prepared to put this phase of her life behind her and zombies haven't changed that.

There are B and C plots aplenty - Steph's given a background and some personality quirks - but this ultimately feels like filler. Decent filler, to be fair, but nothing special.

After John's devoured, the movie shifts gears to its darkest tone. If you've seen Shaun of the Dead, this will all feel familiar. The survivors make it to the school only to be lured into a trap by now fully villainous Mr. Savage. The losses get more significant as the major characters drop off one by one. Chris and Lisa are given an especially dramatic sendoff.

The movie culminates in a face-off between Anna and Savage, who has Anna's father tied up on stage with a pack of zombies between father and daughter. Cue the fight song, which Anna wins. She frees her dad, but he winds up getting bitten anyway. But of course they get to reconcile their differences, and Savage gets brutally eaten alive.

Anna, Nick, and Steph make it out alive and drive off towards... something.

Let's talk music. Think less Holiday Inn and more High School Musical. I appreciate what they were going for, but I don't think it quite works. First, with a handful of exceptions, the musical numbers don't really add to the story or even accomplish much character development. They feel like gimmicks playing off the absurdity of the premise.

Sadly, the same is true for the setting. There are jokes, set pieces, and callbacks referencing the fact it's Christmas, but there's no thematic or even tonal justification. It honestly would have made more sense to set this at the end of the school year when everyone was getting ready to graduate.

All of that being said - and I know I've been fairly critical - the movie has several saving graces. The first is the comedy. This is absolutely a funny movie, beginning to end. Is it as hilarious as Shaun of the Dead or Zombieland? Not really, but it's still enjoyable.

Likewise, it's got heart. The dramatic moments land, again not as well as in Shaun or Zombieland, but you connect with the characters when they experience loss.

It's also got viscera. Anna and the Apocalypse doesn't shy away from the gore when it's called for. This isn't comedy spoofing horror - it's comedy/horror through and through.

Does it work well enough? That really depends on what you're after. As a teen zombie flick playing off tropes from teen musicals, it's pretty decent. But as a movie in its own right combining elements of musicals, horrors, comedy, and Christmas specials, it never fully coalesces. This definitely feels like something that started with a vague idea and tacked on sales gimmicks as it went, rather than a fully-realized vision encompassing disparate genres.

In short, if you're looking for something groundbreaking or artistic, you're going to be disappointed. If you're happy with a silly holiday-tinted genre blend that's more an experiment than a unified story, you might have a lot of fun with it.