Have you gotten tired of zombies yet? With so many movies on the undead and even a popular TV show in The Walking Dead, finding new ways to present the same material is paramount. Lately that's meant putting a comedic or romantic spin on the genre, and even that has run its course. What's so novel about The Girl with All the Gifts is that it doesn't change all that much from what we already expect, but instead takes the idea of a zombie outbreak to its furthest most logical extent. And in the process it asks and answers fundamental questions in a way that is compelling and very disturbing: What happens when the zombies evolve and form societies? And if that happens, what right does humanity have to wipe them out?
These are actually questions the great George Romero has tackled to a lesser extent in his earlier zombie movies, but director Colm McCarthy and writer Mike Carey (adapting his own book) take it further than we've ever seen. It's a film that combines scares, creepy visuals, and brains...the type that aren't getting devoured by mindless zombies. There's a real intelligence here, but what makes the film unique is its focus. While this is indeed a human story, something we've grown accustomed to on The Walking Dead every week; the character we are made to feel closest to isn't human. Or at least, the central question is whether she is human or not. It's fascinating to see this battle for two species' survival unfold through this special character's eyes.
That character is Melanie (Sennia Nanua), a seemingly normal 12-year-old girl. But we know something can't be right with her because every time we see her she's strapped into a wheelchair, arms, legs, and head bound tight. She's surrounded by anxious-looking guards with military-grade weapons. Some of them are terrified of her, others are disgusted. The only one who isn't is Miss Justineau (Gemma Arterton), a kind teacher who educates others in a similar position as Melanie. Dozens of them.
While Melanie looks normal, she's actually what they call a "hungry", which is someone infected with a fungus that turns them into rabid zombie-like creatures. When they catch a human scent it sets them on a feeding frenzy. But Melanie is different. She's smarter; more in control than the crazed hordes that wiped out most of the planet. So when a security breach destroys the facility where she's been imprisoned, Melanie is a key asset that must be protected. Melanie escapes along with Miss Justineau, Dr. Caldwell (Glenn Close), who is close to finding a cure for the outbreak, and soldier Sgt. Eddie Parks (Paddy Considine), who holds a special dislike for the "hungries" because of something in his past.
The Girl with All the Gifts spins a smart tale of species survival, with enough horror elements to keep genre fans happy. However it's our emotional investment that it earns right away in the character of Melanie, who is bright, cheerful, and...oh yeah, she occasionally devours soldiers and sometimes even a housecat. We're made to see both sides of who she is because that is ultimately what the film is about. Is she a danger, and thus someone who needs to be exterminated? Or is she just a little girl who has been co-opted by the fungus? The answer to that question plays out in a finale that literally stunned me it was so surprising, but also made more sense than the ending of any zombie I've seen since 28 Days Later.
Working from a minimum of special effects, McCarthy conjures up an aura of decay and despair that more than makes up for the lack of action. When things get killed, they die for a reason, and they usually die horribly. You feel the impact of each loss thanks to great performances by the cast, with Arterton, Considine, and Close working with more nuance than these movies typically demand. In particular Considine's everyman mystique serves him well. We can see him as the dad from In America reluctantly being forced into this unthinkable situation where he must be a strong, fearless war hero. Nanua more than measures up to her more experienced co-stars in a role that requires a very delicate balance.
It's doubtful anything will return zombie movies to their popular heyday, but The Girl with All the Gifts shows us there are still great, high-quality stories to be told within the genre. Because let's face it; zombie movies are forever just like the undead, and we should support the ones that dare to be bold.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5