Teen battles angst -- and zombies! -- in horror musical 'Anna and the Apocalypse'
"Anna and the Apocalypse" -- ★ ★ ★
If Chicago's cinematic poet of teenager angst, John Hughes, had created a melodious mash-up of "High School Musical" and "Shaun of the Dead," it would probably be tighter, funnier and even more emo than John McPhail's cartoony horror-musical-zom-com "Anna and the Apocalypse."
Charismatic actress Ella Hunt plays the titular heroine, confidently commanding our attention without succumbing to the usual "please like me" shtick practiced by many young performers, especially in leading roles.
Anna can't wait to graduate high school in the small Scottish town of Little Haven. She and her classmates sing in split-screen splendor about their joyous anticipation of academic emancipation.
Her affable working-class single dad Tony (Mark Benton) fully expects Anna to attend the "uni." She plans to skip higher ed and see the world, or least Australia.
With so much domestic conflict and lyrical exposition on the screen, we almost forget that zombies will be showing up at any moment.
They do in the movie's best-executed sequence. Anna and her best bud John (Malcolm Cumming) -- a Hughesian nice guy who quietly loves her -- stick in their ear buds and march off to school. While listening to lyrics "What a time to be alive," both remain oblivious to the shuffling corpses and graphic cannibalism around them.
Does technology cause humans to ignore life-changing events before their very eyes? Maybe.
Later in the story, zombies become so mesmerized by a home video that they stop chewing the student bodies.
Just when you think "Anna and the Apocalypse" might harbor some George Romero-esque social commentary, it drops the thematic ball in favor of bowling balls made out of decapitated heads.
After a largo tempo beginning, this musical takes off at presto tempo speed for a short period as the zombie crisis spreads. And Anna's fellow students not only must dodge hordes of hungry dead people, they must watch out for their own evil headmaster, a certified sociopathic nutjob appropriately named Savage (Paul Kayue).
Then the tempo slacks off, suggesting that screenwriter Alan McDonald lacked enough ideas to sufficiently "flesh-out" Ryan McHenry's 16-minute, 2011 film short "Zombie Musical" into a full-blown feature gushing with Grand Guignol goo and gore.
(McHenry shares co-writer credits, although he died of cancer in 2015. He was 27.)
"Anna and the Apocalypse" offers amusing, but unmemorable, songs (by Roddy Hart and Tommy Reilly) sung by an energetic cast, including choreographer Sarah Swire as Steph, an aspiring teen journalist with neglectful parent issues, and Ben Wiggins as bad boy Nick, a class bully who dated and dumped Anna before this story begins.
"Anna" takes place during the Christmas holidays, enabling Anna to wield a large candy cane as her weapon of choice.
But even she can't prepare for the ultimate horror reported on the evening newscast: Justin Bieber is a zombie.
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Starring: Ella Hunt, Malcolm Cumming, Sarah Swire, Christopher Leveaux, Ben Wiggins
Directed by: John McPhail
Other: An Orion Pictures release. In limited release. Rated R for language, sexual situations, violence. 92 minutes