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Anna and the Apocalypse is a zombie musical with designs on your heart

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Zombies, musicals, Christmas, high school: four flavors that taste great together!

Anna (Ella Hunt) with her zombie-slaying weapon of choice.
Gerardo Jaconelli / Orion Pictures

The zombie movie has become ubiquitous enough that any newcomers to the field must bring something distinctive and fresh to the table in order to stand even the slightest chance of making an impression. Train to Busan played with the limitations of space; last year’s The Girl with All the Gifts explored an epidemic’s origins, and mankind’s subsequent, combative care.

Anna and the Apocalypse’s secret ingredient? Musical numbers.

Filing Anna and the Apocalypse under a single “zombie movie” designation may be a futile effort. It fits the genre, yes, but it’s also a musical, a high school movie, and a Christmas movie rolled into one, and while combining just two of those might seem like a bit much (let alone all four), director John McPhail manages the balancing act.

The script, written by Alan McDonald and Ryan McHenry, gracefully introduces each puzzle piece, beginning with the least supernatural. Anna (Ella Hunt) and her friends are about to graduate from high school, and are dealing with all of the attendant anxieties. In Anna’s case, it’s figuring out how to tell her father (Mark Benton) that she wants to take a gap year instead of going straight back to school. Meanwhile, her best friend, John (Malcolm Cumming), is still coming to terms with the fact that they’re about to be separated, which may or may not have to do with certain unrequited romantic feelings. In other words, it’s typical teenage stuff.

We’re all in this together.
Gerardo Jaconelli / Orion Pictures

Naturally, the uncertainty of the future is enough to get the students to burst into song, leading a soundtrack (composed by Roddy Hart and Tommy Reilly) that’s the highlight of the film. Ranging from the requisite Christmas songs to pop ballads and boy-band anthems, the musical numbers are more substantial than the oft-disposable tunes they’re riffing off of, and similarly help to build on the clear tropes that the characters are based on (the jock, the nerd, the activist, etc.).

The keystone holding it all together — and the thing that really gives the movie its charm instead of simply feeling thin — is that each genre facet is treated with the same degree of seriousness.

Crushes are just as life-threatening as flesh-hungry zombies are (which, let’s face it, is how crushes generally feel in real life). There are the occasional potshots at modern technology, but nothing so egregious as the way millennials are generally blamed for rotting their own brains (get it). Sure, these kids are worried about things that are fairly unimportant in the grand scheme of things, but they’re allowed to be, and the film’s turn from comedy to drama in its last stretch wouldn’t work without that sense of investment.

The songs and laughs don’t come at the expense of those key zombie movie ingredients, death and gore. Anyone worried that Anna and the Apocalypse might skimp on bloody fun: there’s more Shaun of the Dead in its DNA than High School Musical. The zombies go hand in hand with the high school drama rather than being an accessory to it, and the two are inextricably tied together by the film’s end.

The balance is beautifully managed by the young cast (particularly Marli Siu and Christopher Leveaux as teenage lovebirds, with Siu carrying off one of the movie’s funniest musical numbers), who commit to slapstick and severing heads with the same degree of earnestness. They’re well-matched by not just the zombies that roam the school halls, but by the faculty administrator (Paul Kaye, the walking definition of chaotic neutral) who serves as the film’s primary villain, lending the proceedings a little more thrust given that this world’s undead are relatively brainless.

Anna and company, as Christmas goes to hell.
Gerardo Jaconelli / Orion Pictures

There’s a degree of silliness that persists in the kills, zombie and human alike, that will likely prompt the same kinds of yells that people let out when it looks like horror movie protagonists should clearly just move out of their haunted house. But each death is still keenly felt, which has everything to do with just how much the film asks us to invest in our protagonists’ individual woes, as well as an inherent tenderness that belies all the blood and guts.

The beating heart of Anna and the Apocalypse is less surprising considering its origins. The film began as a short, written and directed by Ryan McHenry of “Ryan Gosling won’t eat his cereal” fame. McHenry had intended to direct the feature version of the film as well, but passed away in 2015 after a fight with cancer. The deaths in the film have an according weight to them, as well as, in more than a few instances, a sort of cruelty to them that stress how unpredictable life can be. (There’s even a Ryan Gosling joke that, all things considered, doesn’t feel so coincidental as the other pop culture references sprinkled throughout the film.)

If there’s a compelling reason for Anna and the Apocalypse to be coming out now, at the end of November, rather than closer to Halloween, it has less to do with the fact that the film is set at Christmas, and more to do with its palpable, holiday-spirit-appropriate heart. The balance it manages is a precarious one given that it’s charting four different genres, and it pulls it off by treating each aspect with complete candor. The zombies may crave brains and human flesh, but this a movie set on winning its audience’s hearts.

Anna and the Apocalypse arrives to theaters on Nov. 30.