The Girl with All the Gifts is a smart, scary and sophisticated evolution of the zombie movie
The founding father of the zombie film, writer/director George A. Romero, famously explored the idea of sentient, domesticated zombies in his 1985 cannibal corpse classic Day of the Dead and later, with the concept of the ghouls as an evolving species in its 2005 sequel Land of the Dead. The angles were fascinating ones, adding intellect and social parable to what were in essence survival stories set in an apocalyptic hell and it’s why Romero is so revered; the man refused to tell a conventional horror story.
Director Colm McCarthy and writer Mike Carey’s The Girl with All the Gifts (based on Carey’s book) is built upon Romero’s themes, but takes them even further. In The Girl, the thoughtful zombie is not a character on the peripheral of the narrative, rather it’s the hero and our entry point into the movie. And while the story orbiting our putrescent protagonist is generally familiar ghoul movie fare, the “girl” at its core is anything but familiar. And because we watch the horror unfold through her troubled eyes, The Girl with All the Gifts itself evolves the genre and breaks (and bites) much new allegorical and narrative ground.
The film opens with a rhythmic countdown over the pre-credit company logos, a soft, small voice that locks us in to the movie well before the first image fades into sight. We are introduced to the girl of the title – Melanie (Sennia Nanua) – a 12-year-old child engaged in a ritual of anticipation, getting dressed, making her bed and then, strapping herself into a wheelchair, preparing for the coming of something. That something is a group of armed soldiers who unlock her steely prison cell and roughly cart the gentle, soft spoken and cordial girl into a classroom, where her equally bound peers receive lessons from the benevolent teacher Helen (Gemma Arterton). It soon becomes clear that Melanie is not like the rest. She’s smarter. More aware. And, when a hard-ass soldier (Paddy Considine) makes an example of the class to prove to Helen that these seemingly sweet children are not to be trusted, wiping a scent-masking goo off his arm and sending the kids into a feral frenzy, it’s also clear that unlike her youthful colleagues, Melanie can somewhat control her condition.
About that condition…
Melanie and her friends are the living dead. A mysterious fungus has all but wiped out the planet, killing its hosts and reviving them as cannibalistic monsters who are infected with a kind of rabies. The children are “hybrids,” babies born from chewing themselves out their infected mother’s wombs and now they and others are held in army bunkers across England, where they are educated and studied, as their minds — unlike their ravenous ilk — are totally intact. When a security breach causes Melanie’s prison home to collapse, she, select soldiers, the potentially sinister Dr. Caldwell (Glenn Close) and Melanie’s beloved teacher flee to the countryside where they try to evade the dead and find sanctuary. Meanwhile Melanie both struggles with her “otherness” from the uninfected humans and against her own growing desire to eat them alive.
The Girl with All the Gifts is an elegant, cerebral and emotionally affecting piece of horror cinema, proof positive that the genre itself is alive (undead) and very well indeed. The fact that such a smart, shimmering and disturbing piece of entertainment is getting such a proper mainstream release, while perfunctory reboots of the Friday the 13th franchise — which, let’s face it, was sh*t to begin with — keep collapsing means that there might just be a new wave of studio suits out there (thanks Saban!) who want to curate quality horror and not just batter us with cash grabbing trash, cynically creating a cycle of cinema consumption that effectively cannibalizes itself. It’s an exciting time for lovers of all things gory, scary and phantasmagorical.
And The Girl is all of these things. It’s scary from its first frames. Not in a cheap jump-scare, quick-fix way, but there is an unbearable aura of dread and despair here that is hard to shake and its amplified by Cristobal Tapia de Veer’s score, a soundscape that blends human voice and discordant notes that get under your skin and stay there. The performances are top notch across the board, with the relationship between Arterton and Nanua serving as the human anchor for the picture, a mother and child story where the child has a strong urge to uncontrollably eat her mother. Fascinating stuff.
Indeed, The Girl with All the Gifts is SO bold and innovative and thoughtful that you do feel a minor dip in the last third, when the film becomes more action oriented and veers into the standard The Walking Dead territory of battered survivors trying to evade being zombie brunch. But then the film snaps back with an ending that is both moving and horrifying and, like a bulk of what comes before, unlike anything you’ve seen in any other film of this sort.
The Girl with All the Gifts opens on February 24th. Do yourself a favor and see it. Then come back here and share your thoughts in the comments section below…