After the cult classic “Shaun Of the Dead” came out, someone asked the star and co-writer, Simon Pegg, why the zombies in his film walk so slowly, instead of running like the ones in “28 Days Later.” “Because,” he famously replied, “death is not an energy drink.” I thought about that during “Anna and the Apocalypse,” a zombie musical with a high-school setting. These new zombies have a perfect right to mope around in slowish-motion. The problem is youthful exuberance running riot. Unchanneled energy isn’t an energy drink either.
This overeager-to-please curiosity from Scotland has you rooting for its success from the start—the very notion of a zombie musical is enough to make you laugh. And the heroine shows early signs of being endearing. Anna (Ella Hunt), a rebellious senior, wants to spend a gap year in Australia before plunging into university studies. Then zombies threaten to take over her peaceful little town, Little Haven, and the rest of the world. How come? Oh, the usual reason, some sort of pathogen that sets things in slavering motion. The difference here is that the undead provoke the still- alive to sing and dance, à la “La La Land,” though not, alas, all that well. (With “Oliver!” the spectacular exception, Britain has never had the knack of making good movie musicals.)
In one production number the leitmotif is “there’s no such thing as a Hollywood ending.” That seems oddly out of place, coming, as it does, near the beginning. Another number, “Turning My Life Around,” has a buoyant Anna singing her way down a suburban street but noticing nothing of the zombies around her, or the ghastly chaos they’ve caused. The sequence is meant as a tribute to a similar one in “Shaun of the Dead,” where Simon Pegg’s Shaun, hung over and all but oblivious, sees nothing amiss in his zombie-infested neighborhood as he stumbles down the street to a corner store.
The difference is that Shaun’s movements are elegantly and precisely choreographed, silent-comedy style, so he’s never in quite the right position to see what we see. Anna, on the other hand, sees everything we see, but she doesn’t react to it because the comic premise is her rigid obliviousness, never mind if the result seems arbitrary.
All of this is by way of saying that “Anna and the Apocalypse” has more heart than expertise. A Christmas pageant scheduled to open at Anna’s high school gives the film its key graphic—the heroine wielding an enormous candy cane (which becomes her weapon of choice for lopping off zombie limbs and heads). Yet the show, at the supposedly safe school, doesn’t give the movie the dramatic center it lacks. “Anna and the Apocalypse” does have its charming moments. On the whole, though, I’d say don’t bite.
I’m Joe Morgenstern. I’ll be back on KCRW next week with more reviews.