'Anna and the Apocalypse' director John McPhail discusses the best and only high school zombie musical you’ll ever see

Overbearing teachers, adolescent angst and brain-munching snowmen, these are a few of our favorite things.

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click to enlarge Ella Hunt, left, and director John McPhail discuss a scene in the wonderfully gory zombie musical, "Anna and the Apocalypse." - Michael Garcia
Michael Garcia
Ella Hunt, left, and director John McPhail discuss a scene in the wonderfully gory zombie musical, "Anna and the Apocalypse."

What do you get when you mash together "Shaun of the Dead," "The Breakfast Club" and "Little Shop of Horrors"?

If you’re a fan of irreverent, gory, intelligent horror-comedies, you get the gift that is "Anna and the Apocalypse," the first (and possibly last) zom-com musical.

The film, completed in 2017 but shelved until December 2018, opened to solid reviews but a tepid box-office haul, making less than $1 million during its theatrical run in the U.S. Thankfully, it now has the chance to find a wider audience through home media and streaming video online.

“It’s a discovery film, and we always kind of knew that’s how it was going to be,” director John McPhail told this writer's website, Blood Violence and Babes, during a phone interview from his home in the United Kingdom. “People will have to discover it, tell people about it, so the fact that you’re excited about it and want to talk about it means the world.”

Anna and the Apocalypse
3.5 out of 5 stars
Rated: R
Run Time: 93 minutes
Directed by John McPhail
Starring Ella Hunt, Malcom Cumming, Sarah Swire, Christopher Leveaux, Marli Siu, Ben Wiggins, Mark Benton and Paul Kaye
Now available on DVD and most streaming, Video-on-Demand platforms

"Anna and the Apocalypse" is unlike any holiday film you’ve ever seen. Set at Christmas in a small community in Wales, the movie follows Anna Shepherd (Ella Hunt), a high school senior who wants nothing more than to escape and see the world. Anna’s inner-circle includes her father, the school custodian; her best friend, John (Malcolm Cumming), who secretly pines for her; Steph North (Sarah Swire), the snarky loner; her alpha male old flame, Nick (Ben Wiggins); and her theater pals, Lisa (Marli Siu) and Chris (Christopher Leveaux).

Of course, no high school flick would be complete without a nemesis, which is where headmaster Arthur Savage (Paul Kaye) comes in, nicely filling the role of "The Breakfast Club"’s Richard Vernon.

McPhail said he never intended his second feature film to tackle two genres at once, neither of which he had ever explored.

“I’ve never done horror, but I’m a massive horror fan. I love zombies,” he said, “but the musical thing was the most scary for me because it just isn’t in my wheelhouse.”

McPhail said he digested as many classics as possible, from "Little Shop of Horrors" to "West Side Story," to find the right groove.

"Anna and the Apocalypse" also distinguishes itself from most teen-centric films by dealing with death and loss in a way that feels authentic and never treacly. McPhail said that’s in large part due to a tragedy that almost sacked production. The original director, Ryan McHenry, who co-wrote "Anna" with his longtime friend and partner, Alan McDonald, died from a rare form of cancer in 2015.

“It’s one of the heartbreaking things about getting the script,” McPhail said. “You go, 'This is amazing,' then you know the backstory of it.”

McPhail worked with McDonald to complete the songs and polish the script. And he brought his fanboy sensibilities to the project, including the desire to use practical special effects as much as possible.

“I grew up watching those '80s movies, those Sam Raimi movies,” he explained. “For example, when I read the snowman, it had his head getting lopped off, I knew exactly how I wanted to do it, and it was exactly how we did it. We had the head on a fishing wire… a blood cannon in the neck. I always feel it’s just so important, horror fans love it when you go that extra mile for them and they can see it in camera.”

McPhail said he tried to include subtle nods to classic zombie movies and cult favorites early on, just to let hardcore gorehounds know to be patient.

“In the beginning, when it’s a zany teen comedy, and those horror fans are sitting there watching this going, ‘Why am I watching "High School: The Musical?" Why am I watching these teenagers. I want to see some blood! I want to see some gore!’” he said. “That’s me saying, ‘Horror fans, thank you so much for waiting. We’re getting there.’”

When "Anna and the Apocalypse" finally explodes with crazy zombie carnage, McPhail doesn’t hold back, deftly appeasing both genre audiences. Several standout sequences include musical performances with gallons of blood being splattered across the screen.

At its heart, though, "Anna and the Apocalypse" is a testament to staying true to oneself, no matter how peers perceive you. It’s a movie about individuals coming into their own as the world around them crumbles.

To his credit, McPhail said that’s why Anna is never shown as needing a love interest or a male student to defend her. She capably dispatches dozens of zombies with the spiked tip of a large candy cane. That message of self-empowerment was incredibly important, he said.

“You don’t have to end up with anybody. It’s your life and it’s your choice,” McPhail said. “The one thing she wants is to get out of this town, and by the end, she gets that, but it’s a struggle and it was hard. She had to defy people, and she had to go against other people, but it was her choice. It’s what she wanted. By the end of that, it’s not the way she wanted to do it, but she’s done it, and that’s life.”

John W. Allman has spent more than 25 years as a professional journalist and writer, but he’s loved movies his entire life. Good movies, awful movies, movies that are so gloriously bad you can’t help but champion them. Since 2009, he has cultivated a review column and now a website dedicated to the genre films that often get overlooked and interviews with cult cinema favorites like George A. Romero, Bruce Campbell and Dee Wallace. Contact him at Blood Violence and Babes.com, on Facebook @BloodViolenceBabes or on Twitter @BVB_reviews.

About The Author

John W. Allman

John W. Allman has spent more than 25 years as a professional journalist and writer, but he’s loved movies his entire life. Good movies, awful movies, movies that are so gloriously bad you can’t help but champion them. Since 2009, he has cultivated a review column and now a website dedicated to the genre films...
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