Update: During Fantastic Fest 2017, we saw a movie so good we couldn't wait for others to see it (and simply ran the review). Anna and the Apocalypse is an extremely clever mash-up of several beloved genres that seems too odd on paper to work: zombie movie, Christmas story, and high school musical. Luckily, the film quickly attracted a distributor in early 2018. Now with Anna and the Apocalypse hitting select theaters this weekend and expanding elsewhere on December 7, 2018, we're resurfacing our review. The piece originally ran on October 7, 2017, and it appears unchanged below.
AUSTIN, Texas—Even if it looks straight out of the DCOM (Disney Channel original movie) playbook, do not be fooled by the familiar bubblegum-ness of Anna and the Apocalypse's first 15 minutes.
Yes, likable young people fill in various archetypes, from the artistic outcast to the popular jerk to the nice-guy best friend who'll forever be "just friends" with our heroine. And yes, Top 40-pop styled musical numbers focus on familiar adolescent themes of defying the expectations of others or how life doesn't follow movie scripts in practice. At one point, a stick-in-the-mud principal devoted to rules and regulations literally proclaims, "hand sanitizer is your friend; kissing on the mouth is not your friend."
But if the title itself or its debut at the genre-melting pot that is Fantastic Fest don't give it away, Anna and the Apocalypse has no interest in being the next obsession of the pre-teen in your life. Instead, the film only sets up High School Musical expectations so it can swiftly and cleverly dismantle them throughout the rest of this funny, impressive, and genuinely moving ride.
Frankly, no zombie-Christmas-high school musical comedy has a right to be this good. ButAnna and the Apocalypse seems destined—and definitely deserves—to earn the same cult status as the Zac Efron-fueled fodder it skewers.
Twas the night before Christmas (pageants)
Anna heads into her final high school year before university wanting something different. Her classmates seem to already have plans set in place for future studies, but she'd prefer to take a gap year in Australia and determine what's next after the fact. No big deal, she thinks—she'll figure something out like always. Her best friend John accidentally lets the news slip to Mr. Shepherd on the ride to school, however, which certainly complicates things.
On top of all the future-thinking stress, Anna and her classmates have to prep for the school's annual Christmas show that night. Her friend Lisa has a starring role, but cast members keep coming down with illnesses—four cast members called in sick just this morning. Anna's dead-end job at the bowling alley serves as a nice excuse to still abstain, but Principal Savage (who is, of course, a delightfully petty tyrant) expresses some displeasure with the choice anyway.
It may not have been an ideal day, but everything more or less seems ho-hum as Anna cleans bowling shoes and gets ready to call it a night after work. When she wakes up in the morning, however… well, The Apocalypse portion has begun.
No plot spoilers, but any illusions of this film being for the young go out the window in two glorious sequences introducing the mayhem. Lisa's big solo at the Christmas pageant? This shows the comedic boundaries in play. She sings a "Santa, Baby" style original filled with amusing adult innuendo ("C'mon Santa, I made your favorite snack | Come on over, why don't you unload your sack?") while backed by shirtless high-school jocks in velvet shorty-shorts. The winking and applauding grandma in the crowd feels like a pseudo fourth-wall break to tell audiences, "OK, strap in." The film goes on to have many comedic highlights, including some perfect encapsulations of the kind of humor high schoolers would probably utilize in a zombie disaster:
"I bet Bieber is a zombie," says Chris (the artistic one), as he and John shelter in the bowling alley and scroll social media for #evacselfies. "What about Gosling?"
"Alive or dead, he's still cool," John replies.
"Jesus, Chris—why would you even say that?!" John exclaims. "Tay Tay is fine; she's fine."
As for Anna, she initially wakes up like normal to walk to school. Earbuds in with this film's "Wake Me Up" or "Walking On Sunshine"-style musical number beginning, she can't help but blissfully dance a bit along her normal route. In the background, however, cars crash to avoid zombified crossing guards, and flesh-lusting neighbors fall from second-story bedroom windows. When she meets John at a playground adjacent to a graveyard, reality crashes into the two in the form of a zombie wearing a snowman costume. An over-the-top battle ensues, but Anna insists everything is fine afterward; maybe the guy got really sick. "Anna, that's a zombie," John insists. "That's not normal."
This blending of high school life, casual zombie understanding (with extreme battle sequences), and various song styles happens seamlessly throughout the rest of the film. There's a chillwave/electronica song about tech dependence, as Internet connectivity finally gives out following a zombie horde battle; an '80s rock ballad centers on the jocks embracing apocalypse aggression as they clear out a Christmas tree farm for Anna and co.
If this all sounds absurd when spelled out in print, remember that's only further testament to how well this film executes its high-wire premise. There's a reason you've probably never heard of Zombie Prom, while Anna and the Apocalypse will inevitably make a pop-culture splash. It may have started out as an amusing YouTube video, but it has become something multi-dimensional. (IndieWire points out the origin story: videographer Ryan McHenry, of the "Ryan Gosling won't eat his cereal" meme, made the short and would have made the feature if cancer hadn't tragically taken his life. Director John McPhail gives this version an appropriate amount of heart in light of that.)
Ultimately, the most impressive thing about Anna and the Apocalypse isn't humor about Rihanna or golden showers, nor is it poignant musical number commentary on millennials or cruelty in the world today. Anna and the Apocalypse deftly shifts between tones as often as it does genre conventions, somehow managing to pack in moments of genuine emotion involving characters you quickly become invested in.
I can't remember the last time, if ever, I teared up, snorted, got an earworm, and whoa'd at a zombie death all in the same viewing. So after another year at the film festival that explicitly hopes to deliver the unexpected, I find myself singing Anna and the Apocalypse's praises above all others.
Listing image by Blazing Griffin / Fons PR