Welcome to Scottish zombie musical Anna and the Apocalypse

Fancy seeing a yuletide zombie musical shot in Port Glasgow? Genre mashup Anna and the Apocalypse is reportedly a zesty take on the zombie movie. We find out more from its director ahead of its UK premiere at Edinburgh International Film Festival

Feature by Jamie Dunn | 22 Jun 2018

How’s this for an eye-catching logline? “A zombie apocalypse musical set in a Scottish high school… oh, and it’s also a Christmas movie.” This delicious premise alone should have you queuing up to see Anna and the Apocalypse when it makes its UK premiere at Edinburgh International Film Festival this month. The brilliant word of mouth the film has received from the previous festivals it’s attended and its origins in the late Ryan McHenry’s inventive short film Zombie Musical, which spliced High School Musical with a Romero zombie flick, only makes it more tantalising.

The Dumfries-born McHenry (who was behind the popular Ryan Gosling Won’t Eat His Cereal Vines) died in 2015, aged just 27, after a two-year battle against cancer. The directing baton for Anna and the Apocalypse, his feature-length follow-up to Zombie Musical co-written by Alan McDonald with music from Roddy Hart and Tommy Reilly, has passed to 33-year-old Glaswegian John McPhail, director of 2015’s coming-of-age comedy Where Do We Go From Here?

Speaking down the phone from a parked car somewhere in Glasgow’s West End, McPhail fills us in on what to expect from this curious genre mashup ahead of its screenings at EIFF.

How did you get involved with Anna and the Apocalypse?

I’d known of Ryan [McHenry] and Naysun [Alae-Carew] and Nick [Crum]. I’d never really met them, but we were on the peripheries of each other. We all had mutual friends and were all making short films around the same time, sort of fun comedies. But [Anna and the Apocalypse's producers] Nick and Naysun came along to see my first feature film, Where Do We Go From Here? – it had its UK premiere at Glasgow Film Festival – and they seemed to fall in love with it. They told me they liked the kinds of things I was touching on with the film – big characters and heart and story – and they just asked me to come in and pitch for Anna. I got the job and that was how it started.

What were your first thoughts on reading the script?

I remember the day I got the script because I got two versions of it. After Ryan’s passing, it was quite hard for Alan moving forward with it, and the story became a bit darker in certain areas. But the heart that was in it, and the comedy, just really shot out to me.

What about the musical element?

I have to admit, I wasn’t the biggest musical fan in the world. In fact, South Park, Bigger, Longer & Uncut was probably my favourite musical before taking the job. I’ve watched a whole host of musicals now though. When I got the job I bought so many on DVD and just poured over them. I’d never seen West Side Story before and I absolutely love it, the movement, the cutting. I hadn’t seen Little Shop of Horrors in years and forgot Steve Martin was in it, the same with Rocky Horror Picture Show, but there are influences in Anna that aren’t necessarily musicals.

Gremlins was a big influence. That was one of my ambitions: that this would be this generation’s Gremlins. I hope it’ll be that monster movie you put on a Christmastime, get the whole family round and have a laugh.

Can you talk a bit about the setting? It was filmed in Port Glasgow, right?

It was mostly shot in Port Glasgow, yeah. We found the school down there: it was an old high school that now housed a primary school, and that primary school was moving on somewhere else, so we got the run of the place. Port Glasgow was also perfect because I liked the idea of seeing the water and the hills, and I just thought they helped create this little quaint town atmosphere that we thought would go down quite well with the Americans.

So we filmed mostly around the Port Glasgow area, but also out in a bowling alley in Falkirk. Livingston as well, there are some scenes in an old shopping centre out there. The film’s meant to be set, though, in this little fictional town called Little Haven that’s got a little army barracks. The main character, Anna, she’s just this young girl who wants to get away and explore the world and see new things, but her dad’s a bit protective over her and he wants her to go to university and get an education. So having that little small town feel was really key to the film.

Zombies usually make for a great metaphor in horror films. Do they have a metaphorical quality in Anna?

I always think they make a great metaphor for mass consumerism or people being sheep and all thinking the same way. For our story, the main idea was about kids dealing with death. These are teenagers coming of age and learning that the people they love won’t be around forever. And of course, with Ryan being so young when he died, it was something that was playing on all our minds. So the zombies are part of that darker world that these kids are entering into.

As well as that, these are kids who are about to leave high school and go off into the world, and when you do that you’re on your own. You’re often moving away from your parents, the friends that you had when you were younger aren’t necessarily going to be your friends anymore, and your life becomes about moving on and trying new things. Part of that is in there as well.

Anna seems to have played really well at the two festivals at which it's screened so far (Fantastic Fest in Austin, USA and Sitges Film Festival in Spain), but this will be its first time in front of a home audience. Do you expect a different reaction?

One hundred percent it’ll be different. American audiences are mental. In the UK, we’re quite reserved, but across there they’re not shy. At one point we had screenings in three screens simultaneously and I could hear cheering and whooping from the other cinemas. But when we went to Sitges Film Festival in Spain, I thought it might be a bit different, but no, they were wild too. They loved the blood: any time there was blood on screen they were up out their seat cheering and clapping and stamping their feet. So the audiences we’ve had have been great, but there’s something about a home crowd that’s quite special and I really think Scottish audiences will get into this.

Anna and the Apocalypse screen at Edinburgh International Film Festival on 29&30 Jun – more info and tickets here – and is released in the UK 30 Nov by Vertigo releasing

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