Anna and the Apocalypse's director shares the secrets of the zombie-stuffed holiday musical comedy

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Sep 5, 2018, 4:00 PM EDT

Anna and the Apocalypse is a movie not quite like anything you've seen before. Since its world premiere at Fantastic Fest last fall, it's been described as Glee meets Shaun of the Dead. But even that's just scratching the surface of the Christmas-set teen-comedy about what happens when a small Scottish town is invaded by zombies. This wild genre mash-up has film fest audiences screaming with joy and terror, and it's coming to theaters this holiday season. But first, Anna and the Apocalypse scored a spot at the Fantasia International Film Festival, where we spoke with its daring director, John McPhail. 

With a thick Scottish brogue, McPhail said he wasn't the most obvious choice for helming a zombie-musical. In a phone interview with SYFY FANGRRLS, he told us, "Beforehand, if you'd try to take me [to a musical], there would have been kicking and screaming." Now, that didn't go for all musicals. He's an unabashed fan of South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut, Cannibal: The Musical, Rocky Horror Picture Show and Little Shop of Horrors. But it took getting Anna and the Apocalypse to open him up to less macabre musicals. "When I got the job and went and watched loads and loads of musicals on DVD, I even went to the theater to see a few live. I saw Wicked and Legally Blonde. And I loved the two of them. So I'm a convert! I'm a converted man on the musical side of things."

Though McPhail is a deep-cut horror fan (more on that later), it was his romantic-comedy Where Do We Go From Here? that caught the eye of Anna and the Apocalypse producers Nicholas Crum and Naysun Alae-Carew. "They thought maybe I could bring that heart to the film," he explained, noting at that point, the script by Alan McDonald and Ryan McHenry had the story in place, but only a handful of songs. "When I came on board I think there were six songs written, and we only kept two or three of them," McPhail said. "The rest began to change. And we changed throughout because of how we were pushing through the story."

In moving forward on the mash-up's development, McPhail worried less about the genres and more about focusing on character, which guided him on tone, stylings, and what song a character needed. "I wanted to make sure the audience knew these characters and sort of fell in love with them," He said. "And champion them all the way through, be scared they might get bitten or die."

Anna and the Apocalypse is brimming with catchy and funny songs. Among the most fun is "That Time of Year," a saucy song modeled after Mariah Carrey's "All I Want for Christmas Is You." It's performed by the film's good girl (Marli Siu) to impress her boyfriend during the high school's holiday talent show. As it plays out, she's singing plenty of innuendo with a jarring sugary-sweetness while a batch of boys shake their Santa-styled booty-shorts as her backup dancers. But McPhail told us this was very different from the version in the early drafts.

"That scene in the script — it was like, 'she's dancing around in a way that'd make Miley Cyrus blush.' You know, with the boys?" He offered. "And I was like, no. No no no no. I want this to be cheeky. I want her separate from the boys. They are there to dance for her. They are there to support her. Not to dance against her. She's not there to touch them up. That song is intended for her boyfriend. What boyfriend would want their girlfriend up there dancing with these boys? The boys, I wanted them sexy. But I wanted her to be cheeky, to make it playful, and not over-sexualize a 16- or 17-year-old girl. And Roddy Hart and Tommy Reilly, my composers, wrote a wonderful tune. It's just so much fun to go through."

I'd assumed the backup dancer's sexified Santa look was a gender-bent reference to the classic teen comedy Mean Girls. But McPhail gleefully corrected me, citing an unexpected horror inspiration. "Have you ever seen Sleepaway Camp?" He asked. "Why are those boys wearing those tight, short shorts and knee-high socks? Crop tops and things! I was showing [my costume designer] screengrabs of that, saying, 'I want Santa versions of that.' And Fi Morrison, my costume designer, made them as cheeky and sexy as she possibly could."

The other standout number that had audiences chattering was a Queen-like rock anthem performed by Ben Wiggins, the school's bad-boy turned top zombie-slayer. "We wanted this to shock the audience with it," McPhail confessed. "I think in a lot of Hollywood movies, he and his pals would show up and say, 'Stop dancing.' But we wanted to make sure he had an amazing musical number, and we wanted that rock 'n roll bad-boy feel. But we wanted it to be surprising and funny. So, he has that falsetto in the beginning, you do not expect that to come from him, because thus far, he's just been such a douchebag. We wanted to make it cool and badass. This is his moment. He's found his calling in life. The whole rock n roll thing was right there. And you're right with Freddie Mercury. That was one of the boy's references as well."

What even is this movie that collides high school hijinks, zombie attacks, Christmas festivities, and rousing song numbers? "It's not the original zombie musical," McPhail said, noting a common misconception. "A lot of people think it's the first-ever zombie musical. But the original zombie musical is called The Happiness of the Katakuris by Takashi Miike, which is a remake of a Korean film called The Quiet Family. I love Takashi Miike. I tried to get everyone on the cast and crew to watch it…The only person who watched it is my graphics guy."

As a devoted horror fan, McPhail found a way to work a nod to this influence into his zombie musical. "During 'Breakaway,' which is the first musical number,"  McPhail shared, "In the background is a The Happiness of the Katakuris poster." Keep an eye out for the Easter Egg when Anna and the Apocalypse storms theaters this winter.

Anna and the Apocalypse made its Canadian premiere at the Fantasia International Film Festival. It'll open in limited release in the US on November 30 and expand nationwide on December 7.

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