One of the most difficult things about the horror genre these days can be finding a new way to explore various sub-genres; we’ve seen hundreds of zombie movies come and go since The Walking Dead first became a TV juggernaut several years ago, as well as countless vampire films and television series since the Twilight movies became as popular as they did for years, but many fail to try and do anything different. And what I’m always looking for as a fan are stories that can bring something new to the table, something I haven’t seen mimicked to death countless times, and that’s precisely a huge reason why I loved The Girl with All the Gifts as much as I did.
Certainly the influence of films like Day of the Dead and 28 Weeks Later can be felt in director Colm McCarthy’s adaptation of the popular novel of the same name, but nothing about The Girl with All the Gifts feels like a retread at all—making it one of the best experiences I’ve had watching a zombie movie in some time.
In zombie cinema, one of the reasons we dread these creatures’ appearances so much is because they are mindless, flesh-eating monsters with no sense of humanity left to them. For The Girl with All the Gifts, writer Mike Carey (who also penned the novel) gives these monstrosities a new face by way of a young girl named Melanie (Sennia Nanua), who is infected with a zombie-like virus and is currently being studied at a government facility alongside other children with the same affliction.
Melanie and the other kids are kept in cells at night, but during the day, they’re brought into an educational environment where the lovely Helen Justineau (Gemma Arterton) is tasked with teaching her unconventional class and observing their behaviors in the name of research for Dr. Caldwell (Glenn Close), who wants to use them as a way of building a cure for stopping the plague of “Hungries” (as they’re called here) before the human race is lost forever to the all-consuming virus.
And as the research facility is overrun by hordes of Hungries who can no longer be contained, Melanie and her group of captors set out looking for allies or potentially a new home, and along the way she teaches them a few things about just what it means to really be human, and why Melanie might be the last hope they have of surviving the unforgiving nature of the dystopian world that threatens them at every turn.
As mentioned, there are several ingenious aspects of The Girl with All the Gifts that really made it a standout effort to me—the genesis of the zombie plague (which came about because of a mold-like infestation) and the ways that the unaffected go about trying to conceal themselves from the flesh-eaters (they use a salve on their skin as a way of masking their scent from any potential attackers) were both rather ingenious touches to the overall story.
Additionally, putting such a beautiful and innocent face in the form of Melanie front and center does a wonderful job of making us feel conflicted as viewers; we know she’s dangerous but yet, we want to hug her all the same, and Nanua is absolutely brilliant in the role. Melanie is a character who recognizes that she is dangerous to others, but at the same time, she’s still just a child who is curious about where her place in this world really is, and the results are something quite remarkable. At one point, Nanua has to hold her own against the force of nature that is the talent of Glenn Close, and the up-and-coming actress more than proves she can handle it.
Also, watching Close go nuts while wildly stabbing zombies in the head wildly is my new favorite thing ever. Thank you, Mr. McCarthy, for making this possible. Arterton, who I absolutely adored in Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters, turns in a genuinely heartfelt performance in Girl as a teacher who is increasingly conflicted about how her abnormal students should be treated, and Paddy Considine (from Hot Fuzz and The World’s End) is enjoyable as a grizzled military leader desperate to “stay off the menu” (as he so matter-of-factly says at one point).
A striking and elegantly told tale of survival that turns the tables on everything we’ve come to expect from zombie cinema, McCarthy has crafted something very special with The Girl with All the Gifts. If you’ve been feeling burned out watching the living dead shamble their way towards potential victims as of late (which is something I get, believe me), this will absolutely help renew your faith that there are still new and clever ways to explore this oft-visited horror sub-genre.
Movie Score: 4/5