In a year filled to the brim with blockbusters and franchise hopefuls, it’s refreshing to see a low-budget horror comedy that dares to break conventions. The holiday horror genre has been devoid of a proper installment for years (although BETTER WATCH OUT is an underrated gem). The concept of horror invading a normally joyous and positive holiday tends to end in one of two ways: it’s too horror-fueled to be a Christmas movie, or it’s too Christmas-focused to be a horror film. Yet despite all of this, ANNA AND THE APOCALYPSE is a horror/zombie/musical that in its very concept shouldn’t work as well as it does, yet with each gory kill, musical number, and strong character moment, the film defies expectations.
Not your mom’s frost
ANNA AND THE APOCALYPSE takes place in the small town of Little Haven, where literally nothing exciting happens. Ella Hunt plays the titular Anna, who wants to move to Australia, much to the horror of her family and friends. These plans are quickly put on the backburner, however, when a deadly virus infects the town, causing mayhem, death, and hilarity. The film takes its time setting up its characters. Anna is likeable and often funny, but also complex and flawed. Other characters such as Anna’s closest friend John are the antithesis to typical Hollywood cliches. Whenever the film feels like it’s going down a path of familiarity, it quickly subverts those expectations with a fun, fresh take on the concept. This rings the most true with the musical cue “Not A Hollywood Ending,” which echoes throughout the themes of the entire film. This is not by-the-numbers holiday fare, but instead something more fresh and subversive.
Speaking of the musical segments, they are fun, clever, and fresh. Each musical moment is properly inserted into the story and feels natural within the film’s tone. Characters sing about their personal struggles, but also the act of murdering the undead to hilarious effect. A particular show stopper occurs when Anna and John are heading to school, singing about their boring town, while in the background the zombie apocalypse is in full swing unbeknownst to them—a fitting homage to SHAUN OF THE DEAD. Although the film wears its references with pride, it offers its own original spin on holiday-themed horror. Christmas ornaments are used for zombie-bashing fun, the characters have to traverse a Christmas tree factory, and of course attend a holiday showcase (which delivers one of the best songs of the film). Its fresh moments like that that help make ANNA AND THE APOCALYPSE a true gem and definite diamond in the rough for Christmas horror.
When everything is going terrible but you’re trying to stay positive
The pacing is strong, moving briskly through the 90-minute run time. The film is full of laugh-out-loud moments, but takes its time to flesh out its characters and motivations. The final act has plenty of surprises and veers more into horror territory, but never feels like a departure of what came before. This is first and foremost a fun movie, one that isn’t afraid to get serious and dark.
As mentioned before, holiday horror is a tricky balancing act. Hulu’s newest series, INTO THE DARK, has particularly struggled to find a balance between horror and holiday cheer. Sometimes the concepts can run on for too long, or worse yet, never fully realize their potential. ANNA AND THE APOCALYPSE doesn’t have this issue. The film uses the Christmas setup to great effect, allowing the horror to feel natural, while also focusing on a strong theme of family. This focus on characters before horror was one of ANNA AND THE APOCALYPSE’s greatest strengths. Anna has a tough relationship with her father, unsure if he will support her decision to move away. This theme of growing up was cleverly utilized throughout the film, giving each character moment a sense of heart. You grow to care about this ragtag group of friends as they traverse the apocalypse and feel a genuine loss when some of them don’t make it.
When you get socks for Christmas
Although the film is well-paced and regularly hilarious, ANNA AND THE APOCALYPSE drags in its final act with one twist and turn too many. Some of the subplots and side characters meet unsatisfactory ends, with the final scene especially divisive. These criticisms aside, the film is a triumph and testament to the strong direction of John McPhail. The cinematography navigates the low-budget restraints, with all of the music segments shot and edited cohesively. Although the film struggles in its home stretch, the journey to get there is incredibly fun. ANNA AND THE APOCALYPSE is a perfect holiday treat that mixes gory zombie thrills with a great sense of heart and emotion.