As far as narrative archetypes go, the viral zombie is a relatively new one. While tales of vengeful voodoo ghouls date back to the early 20th Century, our modern concept of the flesh-hungry undead didn’t take shape until decades later when George Romero borrowed liberally from Richard Matheson‘s I Am Legend, reframed the creatures as the shambling unstoppable undead, and boom, zombies as we know them were born in the black-and-white bloodshed of 1968’s Night of the Living Dead. And yet, for such a modern narrative construct, the zombie genre has been all but wrung to death in the 21st century through an onslaught of sloppy retreads and remakes. And of course, 7 years of The Walking Dead.
Thanks in no small part to AMC’s unkillable series, zombies are arguably more popular than ever, but take a look at their native home in the cineplex and you’ll find a depressing scarcity of worthwhile lineage. Fortunately, every once in a while, a film comes along that’s willing to take risks, evolve the formula, and give the stagnant genre a jolt in the ass. The Girl with All the Gifts is one of those films
Directed by Colm McCarthy, best known for his British TV work on series like Peaky Blinders, The Girl with All the Gifts is a zombie pic that plays comfortably in its home genre, but never takes comfort in playing by the rote rulebook. It takes the zombie genre back to its sweet spot — the peculiar meeting ground between science and humanity and all the terrors and wonder that unfold there — and then it veers a hard left toward. Working from a script by Mike Carey (adapting from his novel of the same name), McCarthy matches genre conventions with bold and unusual narrative choices in pursuit of a commentary that feels like a sharp prod to bruised soft tissue when taken in context with the sociopolitical discord sweeping the globe right now.
We enter the world of The Girl with All the Gifts through Melanie (Sennia Nanua), a precocious and incredibly quick-witted young girl with an eerie efficiency. Melanie is eager to learn for the love of learning; a young woman passionately embracing all the knowledge life has to offer her with genial enthusiasm. Which is what makes it so strange when she’s strapped into a wheelchair at gunpoint by soldiers who clearly despise her. They call her an “abortion” to her face, when they deem to speak to her at all. Restrained in her chair, Melanie is wheeled to and from class, where the kind but conflicted Miss Helen (Gemma Arterton) leads a class full of children just like Melanie. Well, not quite like Melanie. She’s clearly the teacher’s pet, and while the other children are not half as quick and lacking her composure, they’re all strapped tightly in their wheelchairs, clad in matching orange jumpsuits, hoping Miss Helen will tell them a story instead of drilling them on the periodic table of elements just like any kid would.
In short order, we learn that Melanie and her classmates are not kids at all, at least not as we know them. They’re “Hungries,” the flesh-hungry spawn of a deadly contagion that is wiping out the human race. They’re not like the conventional zombies we know. They can talk and learn and smile and maybe even love, judging by how Melanie looks at Miss Helen, but if they catch a whiff of fresh meat, they’ll jut out their jaws, snap their teeth, and rip out your neck a whole lot faster than you can debate the ethics of killing a child. Likewise, they’re not really in school, but prisoners and test subjects inside a military encampment where Dr. Caroline Caldwell (Glenn Close) is willing to sacrifice each and every one of them in the search for a vaccine against the deadly plague.
To reveal much more would be unfair and undermine the pleasure of such a refreshing spin on the genre, but suffice it to say the military compound doesn’t survive very long thanks to a horde of traditional zombies who overwhelm the fences and ravage everything in their path. There’s no fanfare leading up to the assault and McCarthy keeps the focus on the characters until the action literally comes bursting through the window and pushes them out into the chaos. From there, with the illusion of safe walls behind them, Melanie, Helen, and Dr. Caldwell form an uneasy alliance with Sgt. Eddie Parks (Paddy Considine) and hit the road.