There’s a subtle art to genre mash-up that Anna and the Apocalypse, the Scottish import that was a fan favorite at the 2018 Fantastic Fest, can’t figure out. The film is part Christmas movie, part zombie movie, part musical and part teen romance, a curious and ambitious combination that might have been a lot of fun if there had been a different approach. Director John McPhail gives the film over to each component individually, so rather than being a zombie-musical-Christmas-teen-romance, it’s a zombie movie, and then it’s a musical, and then it’s a Christmas movie, and then it’s a teen romance, and then it’s a musical again. The best mash-up movies are mosaics – each genre element is synthesized until one becomes indistinguishable from the next, creating a cohesive, overarching whole. Anna and the Apocalypse is just a bunch of different genres competing for screen time, and while there’s a certain postmodern pleasure in seeing film styles positioned as these almost adversarial entities, the experience is ultimately scatterbrained, convoluted and exhausting.

At least the premise is simple enough: It’s almost Christmas, and Anna (Ella Hunt) is in her last year of high school. Rather than heading off to college after graduation, she’s decided to take a year off and head for Australia, much to the chagrin of her blue-collar father, Tony (Mark Benton), who raised Anna alone after the untimely death of her mother. Making matters worse is the love triangle brewing between Anna, her longtime platonic BFF, John (Malcolm Cumming), and local bad boy, Nick (Ben Wiggins). If that all isn’t stressful enough, there’s a zombie apocalypse brewing, which thrusts them and some other local teens into a fight for survival. When you lay the film out like this, it’s easy to see why McPhail and his screenwriters Alan McDonald and Ryan McHenry pushed so vigorously into genre territory. Amplifying the trite anxieties of high school dramatics via the constant threat of violent death is a tongue-in-cheek way of addressing teenage life, but they’re never filtered through a unified lens. Virtually everything in Anna and the Apocalypse is given short shrift: it’s never quite scary enough, romantic enough or dramatic enough, even as it makes strained attempts at each.

By far the most fleshed-out attribute is the singing. The soundtrack is full of bouncy pop-rock and uplifting songs about embracing your individual self and taking risks and dealing with sadness and enjoying a new outlook on life and all the other topics covered in your favorite High School Musical movie. A delicious contradiction emerges when you consider the teen musical and zombie movie together, but McPhail favors earnestness over irony, expecting the audience will not only care about the characters’ trivial interpersonal dramas but will also find the music legitimately entertaining. But the songs are mostly bland, and the catchier stuff – like most catchy pop – becomes increasingly annoying the more it rattles around your skull. The biggest problem in Anna and the Apocalypse isn’t merely the hollow characters or the banal narrative or even the corny music as much as its refusal to imbue its various tropes and clichés with originality or satire.

Without a doubt, the film could do with some more panache, but it also appears to have been a labor of love, and the cast is clearly having a ball, particularly the delightful Paul Kaye (Game of Thrones), who plays the nefarious school principal and gets some of the best lines and action set-pieces. McPhail had to work with a miniscule budget, and yet he manages a few zombie-attack sequences that punch far above their weight class, including one in an abandoned shopping mall – oh hi, George Romero – filled with Christmas trees, which give his walking dead ample coverage as they amble about, searching for brains. The film’s brilliant centerpiece, in which an oblivious Anna sings an uplifting tune while her neighbors are eaten alive by zombies in the background, is perhaps worth the price of admission alone, even though it skirts past the only interesting idea in the film, which says even a world descended into horrifically unspeakable chaos is no match for the self-absorption of your average teen. Anna doesn’t understand what kind of world she’s in, but McPhail doesn’t seem to know what kind of film he wants.

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