Though often wilfully jovial affairs, zombie films can, when done right, leave a remarkably candid impression. Vehicles for splatter and gore on the surface, the most respected adventures of the living dead usually have a much deeper meaning behind all the makeup and headshots. Movies like 28 Days Later and Dawn of the Dead hold as much cynical social commentary as they do decomposing, rotting flesh, and their reputation as genuinely great pieces of cinema attests to that. Based on the novel by M. R. Carey, the Colm McCarthy directed The Girl With All The Gifts is a new addition to that small, elite group as a post-apocalyptic zombie horror with plenty of brains behind its bite.
The film opens introducing us to Melanie (Sennia Nanua), a young girl being held like a prisoner in a military compound. Melanie is part of a group of two dozen children who are being educated and monitored under strict containment due to their appearing as normal humans, but who harbour a severe appetite for human flesh akin to the infected that surround the facility’s fences. After a containment breach, Melanie is taken on the run by Dr. Caldwell (Glenn Close) and her teacher Helen (Gemma Arterton), who hope to find another lab in order to completing Dr. Caldwell’s research in finding a vaccine for the zombie infection.
Rather than trying to subvert or otherwise outdo its roots, Girl With All The Gifts is a movie that openly acknowledges and finds strength in what’s come before. The bleak desperation of Romero‘s Day of the Dead is laden through-out the echoy corridors and cavernous abandoned streets, while the base being overrun in the first act is like an elaborate tribute to Robert Carlyle‘s legendary sprint that begins 28 Weeks Later. McCarthy, who’s making his feature debut here, revels in the blackened mood favoured in British horror. The film is filled with high-tension, narrow shots of characters wandering empty halls or tip-toeing through a sleeping horde, the mood kept afloat with cheeky one-liners and British charm.
But despite being beholden to many standards of its genre, Girl isn’t just a play-by-play of the established rulebook. Like Melanie and her classmates, the film is one thing on the surface and another in its anatomy. Except, rather than being cute as a button on top and every school teacher’s worst nightmare underneath, the movie is the inverse: loud and barbarous up-front, surprisingly sensitive and melancholy beneath.
The story is told from Melanie’s perspective, who, occasional appetite for flesh aside, is still a regular human child who has never seen the outside world previous to the movie’s events. Thus this London, whose store-fronts and estates lay abandoned and overgrown with plant-life, is the only London she knows. Melanie is sent to retrieve help as the “hungries” won’t attack one of their own, and the 13 year-old playfully explores homes with photos on the fridge door and the breakfast dishes still laid out. She marvels at a doggy door and giggles at the sight of the house-pets that have managed to make it this far alive.
The same innocence is granted to when she feeds. To stave off her hunger for living tissue, she medicates herself on small animals as the journey goes on. Her feeding is treated very candidly, showing only morsels of her munching down, before switching to a close-up as she stares into the distance, blood dripping from her face. A droning ambience washes over the scene as she seems almost inebriated from the intake, quelling her inner monster once more – a polarity made stronger by Nanua‘s powerhouse performance.
Melanie’s need to feed on something living versus her being a regular human being is where the film ultimately rests its philosophical laurels. As the group explore, they find the infected have begun growing into huge tree-like structures that will, at some point, release the toxin and make it airborne, permanently erasing the human race as we know it. In Melanie and her former classmates from the base, there’s proof that perhaps this infection isn’t the ending of the human race, but a further evolution of it. As Close‘s Dr. Caldwell puts it, Melanie has an “exquisite repetition of learned behaviours”. Lofty stakes these may seem, the film never loses sight of what’s important to the story – a little girl wanting to remain alive. And like many that came before it, it’s that fundamental, basic struggle that make it so captivating. Exquisite repetition of learned behaviours, indeed.