Anna And The Apocalypse interview: horror comedy musical is “The Breakfast Club meets Gremlins”

The director and star of Anna And The Apocalypse tell us about their brilliant zombie comedy high school musical

By all accounts, Anna And The Apocalypse would appear to be the world’s first feature-length zombie comedy musical set in high school… and at Christmas… in Scotland. Shot around the likes of Port Glasgow, Greenock and Falkirk, the film premiered to considerable buzz at last year’s Fantastic Fest in the US and is now making its way into cinemas nationwide to unleash some festive fear.

The basic plot is that teenage Anna (Ella Hunt) is keen to escape her sleepy hometown of Little Haven, but on the night of her school’s Christmas concert, a zombie apocalypse kicks off. With no understanding of the whys and hows of what’s going on, Anna and pals venture across town to save loved ones trapped in the school, killing zombies, breaking into song, and sometimes doing both.

Upon hearing that someone’s made a Christmas-set zombie musical comedy about (mostly) teenage protagonists, one of your initial reactions might be to assume that the film is rife with cynicism in depicting its young players’ probably immature concerns in the face of Armageddon. But while there are plenty of jokes concerning teenagers’ misplaced priorities and mobile phone worship, part of what makes the film work so well is that Alan McDonald and Ryan McHenry’s script is so abundant with affection for its main motley crew. The ones we get to spend the most time with transcend their initial stereotypes because the filmmakers treat their emotions and personal struggles with a sincere degree of seriousness, which only helps the catharsis of the plot’s developments and also doesn’t diminish the film’s humour.

“I guess we always wanted to make The Breakfast Club meets Gremlins,” director John McPhail says of the film. “You’d go in and you’d think it’s gonna be two-dimensional characters, but at the heart of this, the characters are brilliant. They’re really good fun and we wanted to have that because I wanted the audience to root for them and to be scared for them; be worried for them. If you have a cynical approach to the characters, you’re not really going to get the audience into that. By the time you get to the third act, you’re gonna be like, hurry up and die, you!”

Star Ella Hunt is particularly effusive about the film’s characterisations. “That’s one of the things that attracted me to the project,” she says, “even more so when I actually started meeting the producers and John, is that they really wanted to root it in real emotion. The film is weighted in these honest stories about young people and that’s always been something I’ve really wanted to do. I think that often onscreen, young people are misrepresented and I think we worked really hard in this to work against that. Everybody is a cliché on the surface, but to look deeper into that and let them be more than that and not underestimate their emotions… we’re all humans at the end of the day. Just because they’re teenagers doesn’t make their feelings any less valid. And what the film does is it glorifies teenage friendships and not romance, which I think is lovely.”

Stabbing and singing
“We never wanted to just burst into song randomly because it’s been fifteen minutes and we need to put a tune in,” McPhail tells us. “Every song is always there to help the story.”

As the stars of Buffy The Vampire Slayer’s ‘Once More With Feeling’ episode would likely attest, it’s hard enough to act while singing, let alone act while singing as you also vanquish the undead through elaborate choreography. On the difficulties of that, Hunt describes the experience as “a strange thing I didn’t ever expect to do. I’m very clumsy, so I found fighting along with singing and dancing very difficult. It took me quite a while to tap into that balance. I was 18 when we shot this film, and Anna goes through this arc where she discovers her strength –not to sound cheesy – and I really felt like I had that when I was shooting as well. I went into the shoot and every time when our fight coordinator first asked me to throw a punch, whack someone with a candy cane, I just laughed at myself. I kept laughing at myself. And throughout the shoot, I was around so many awesome women who were building me up and empowering me to be stronger.”

One of those awesome women is Sarah Swire. Onscreen, she plays Steph, an American student among the internationally diverse school populace, and one of the film’s best characters. Offscreen, she was also the film’s choreographer.

“She was cast because that was who I wanted for the role,” McPhail says of Swire. “Steph was never supposed to be North American. I just fell in love with Sarah Swire. We’d seen her dance reel and in that you see her choreography and she’s just brilliant. She’s a total firecracker, just full of energy. We were worried about putting more pressure on her as she’s an actor first and foremost, but she just wanted it; she loved it. But you also worry about the other cast members and how they’re going to take another cast member telling them how to move.  But they all came together. Those kids are phenomenal. They were all just best pals. They became such a tight group that Sarah could go in and just have the easiest time with them.”

Tragic backstory
While Anna And The Apocalypse predominantly operates in a horror comedy mode, much like Shaun Of The Dead, which comes to mind a few times when watching it, there’s genuine pathos and sad turns as the film progresses and not everyone makes it out in one piece. Of the film’s aesthetic shifts, McPhail says, “I always wanted it to be so bright and colourful. I’m a massive fan of colour, like those John Carpenter blues. I always wanted to make sure that it felt quite light in the beginning and then as we progressed into the story, the blacks get inkier and we dulled down some of the colours. The colours are still there, but the reds get darker as we lean into that darker side of the world.”

There’s also a bittersweet quality to the film’s production. Co-writer Ryan McHenry, best known for his viral video series ‘Ryan Gosling Won’t Eat His Cereal’ sadly passed away in 2015, long before any filming took place. In 2011, he directed a short called Zombie Musical, of which Anna And The Apocalypse is essentially a feature-length expansion.

McPhail never got to meet McHenry, but knows the full story behind the project’s creation. “Ryan saw High School Musical,” he says, “and thought it would be brilliant if Zac Efron would get eaten by zombies. So he phoned up his long-time pal Naysun Alae-Carew, who’s the lead producer, and asked if he’d be up for producing a zombie musical with him. They pushed forward with that and the short won a New Talent Award from BAFTA Scotland. And, unfortunately, Ryan got sick and passed away. It’s a real shame. I’ve gotten to know his mum and dad and his family over the last wee while. His humour was just brilliant and he was a total inspiration. We’re such a family now, all of us, but it’s just strange to know somebody so well but to have never met them.”

Anna and the Post-Apocalypse
Like with any zombie movie, there’s always the opportunity for sequelisation. Regarding the prospect of a follow-up feature, which we helpfully suggest could be called Anna And The Post-Apocalypse, McPhail and Hunt have two very different visions. “We always joke about doing a prequel,” McPhail says. “We haven’t lined up a sequel, but we do want to do an Anna sequel in the sense of reuniting the same crew and the cast, if we can get them back, for something else. I dunno, it could be a musical in space or something.”

Hunt, meanwhile, has her sights set on a direct continuation with some of the same characters: “I want a Thelma And Louise with Steph and Anna as the sequel, that’s what I want. A Thelma And Louise with zombies.” She pauses. “I’ve thought about this quite a lot.”

Anna And The Apocalypse is in UK cinemas today. Read our review here.