“You’re not like anything that’s ever existed before.”
Perhaps zombie films (and TV shows) would be wise, at this point, to stumble back into the grave for a while and give us a break. If there’s one horror sub-genre that truly feels as if it has run its course, it’s tales of the living dead. What more can be mined from these flesh-eating ghouls that George Romero didn’t already perfect nearly 50 years ago, right?
As it turns out, there’s still a little life left in the walking dead, thanks to Colm McCarthy’s The Girl With All the Gifts. Adapted by M.R. Carey from his own novel, here is a slick zombie film that takes established tropes and dares to do new things with them. How refreshing.
The Girl With All the Gifts opens with viewers partially in the dark. We meet Melanie (Sennia Nanua), a young girl being held prisoner in some dark, underground detention center. She’s one of several children who are pulled from their cells daily, strapped into wheelchairs and wheeled into what passes for a classroom in these dingy conditions. The militarized keepers of these children look upon them with disdain, and fear; these aren’t children — they’re things.
This isn’t overreaction on the part of the military: Melanie and the rest of her imprisoned peers aren’t exactly human; they’re the offspring of the zombie-like horde of creatures known as “hungries”. We learn that a fungal infection has decimated the world’s population, turning those infected into screaming, biting ghouls with a taste for human flesh. One bite from the creatures causes the infection to spread. While the original infected group behaves like creatures out of 28 Days Later and the Dawn of the Dead remake, Melanie and her lot are something different. They’re intelligent, and can reason and communicate. But if human flesh gets too close to them, they revert to their primal state, chomping, snarling jaws at the ready. Melanie’s world is a strange one: though she’s clearly imprisoned, she has a rather sunny outlook on life, and is always very polite to her keepers. Stern military man Sgt Eddie Parks (Paddy Considine) would probably prefer to put Melanie down like a rabid dog, while cold, analytical Dr. Caldwell (Glenn Close) would like to dissect Melanie with hopes of finding a cure for the outbreak. Only the kind Helen Justineau (Gemma Arterton), Melanie’s teacher, looks upon the girl with sympathy.
After a horde of hungries breach the base, Melanie, Parks, Caldwell and Justineau are forced to flee out into the damaged countryside, trekking towards London while dodging more hungries at every turn. At some point, The Girl With All the Gifts falls back on the well-trodden path, and it begins to resemble 28 Days Later and its sequel 28 Weeks Later in more than few ways. But for most of its runtime, the film attempts to turn a standard zombie apocalypse story on its head. It does so by finding the human being lurking within its lead undead heroine. While Romero’s classic zombie films always doubled as social allegory, it wasn’t always easy to see the human beings lurking behind the flesh-eaters. Here, Melanie seems like an average, bright, precocious kid — when she’s not overcome with urges to chow down on stray cats, that is. Sennia Nanua’s performance is subtle and charming, and the film’s smaller moments — like when Melanie playfully learns how to work a walkie-talkie — truly sing thanks to Nanua’s work and the way she handles the humanity of her inhuman character. The supporting cast all shines as well, with Considine’s hard-nosed military man slowly warming up to Melanie, Close’s doctor remaining distant and judgmental, and Arterton radiating warmth even as the blood and gore increases.
As successful as The Girl With All the Gifts is at subverting the zombie genre and bringing new things to the table, it also seems to have come up short in the plotting department. One gets the sense that McCarthy and Carey were so hung up with the film’s fresh ideas that they forgot to focus on the story. As a result, the film drifts listlessly along, and comes to a conclusion that plays more like an apathetic shrug than a definitive statement. McCarthy’s direction is clean and focused, with Simon Dennis’ cinematography bathing the film’s world in an almost sickly shade of green-yellow. It’s all underscored by Cristobal Tapia de Veer’s excellent, understated soundtrack.
The Girl With All the Gifts is the most interesting zombie film made in a while, and that’s worth celebrating. The genre has grown so stagnant that any fresh approach such as this is more than welcomed. An overlong runtime and a distractingly undercooked script end up derailing the film from being completely successful, but there’s enough flesh on the bone here to really sink your teeth into.