We’re accustomed to horror movies using creativity and artistry to cover up their low budgets; a filmmaker can create plenty of scares with one set and a cast of four. The low-budget musical, on the other hand, is expected to provide splashy razzle-dazzle and grandeur with the same economy of means, and it’s a tougher genre to make succeed on a dime. That said, if you’re willing to overlook a little scruffiness at the edges, it’s a Christmas miracle that the Scottish import “Anna and the Apocalypse” works so well as both a horror movie and a musical.
And “Christmas miracle” should be taken literally, because this is a holiday movie as well. And if you don’t think the undead mix well with musical numbers and gaudy Yuletide decor, “Anna” might be the movie to change your mind.
It’s a film that the protagonist of “Heathers” might call “teen angst with a body count”: High-school senior Anna (Ella Hunt), mourning the death of her mother, has put off telling her father, Tony (Mark Benton, “Eddie the Eagle”), that she wants to go to Australia rather than heading directly to university. Anna’s best pal John (Malcolm Cumming) pines for her despite those feelings not being reciprocal. Newspaper editor Steph (Sarah Swire, who also choreographs) has been dumped by her girlfriend and abandoned by her vacationing parents for the holidays.
All these mini-dramas get shoved to the background, of course, when the zombies emerge. And while “Anna and the Apocalypse” doesn’t rewrite the rules of any of its genres — Anna and John sing the upbeat “Turning My Life Around,” oblivious to the carnage unfolding behind them, in a scene very reminiscent of “Shaun of the Dead” — it’s got a real spark of joy, even when the story turns grim. And while this might be a comic and tuneful zombie saga, it doesn’t mean that every likable character is going to make it to the final fade-out.
As musicals go, “Anna” is closer to “La La Land” or “The Last Five Years” than to “Moulin Rouge!”: There’s only one elaborate moment of group choreography (“Hollywood Ending,” a song about adolescent disappointment), with most of the songs involving just a handful of performers. But plenty of tonal flavors are represented, from upbeat (the aforementioned “Turning My Life Around”) to the yearning (“Break Away,” “Human Voice”).
Anna’s ex Nick (Ben Wiggins) gets to fancy himself a “Soldier at War,” as the zombie outbreak lets him put his bullying to practical use, and there’s even a saucy holiday song, “Christmas Means Nothing Without You,” which ups the innuendo ante from “Santa Baby.” (The music and lyrics are by Roddy Hart and Tommy Reilly.)
The main cast (including Marli Sui and Christopher Leveaux as a pair of high-school sweethearts) nimbly balance the film’s multitude of tones; Hunt, in particular, makes a forceful and empathetic leading lady, while Cumming charmingly steals scenes as the goofy BFF who’s never going to be the BF.
But Paul Kaye (“Game of Thrones”) goes overboard as the school’s power-mad headmaster, shooting for the kind of grand grotesque usually played by “Rocky Horror” creator Richard O’Brien. Compared to the rest of the performers, he appears to have wandered in from the Christmas panto show next door.
There’s a fascinating story-behind-the-story to “Anna and the Apocalypse”: Filmmaker Ryan McHenry, the man behind the viral “Ryan Gosling Won’t Eat His Cereal” clips, made a “High School Musical”-inspired short called “Zombie Musical,” but he tragically died of bone cancer before he could make the feature.
His friends took up the cause, hiring John McPhail to direct the film; for someone working with limited means, and shooting on locations rather than sets, McPhail brings the film a cohesive look, less slick than “High School Musical” but more along the lines of songs breaking out in the midst of a European “Degrassi” knock-off.
Those charitable enough to watch a musical that doesn’t feature overhead cameras sweeping over hundreds of chorines may enjoy “Anna” for its humble charms. And if those assembly-line Hallmark flicks made you think there was nothing new in the world of Christmas movies, get ready for a breath of fresh air — one that smells like both pine needles and blood.