Few horror movie monsters are as slandered as the zombie. While Dracula, Werewolves, the Creepy Monster hiding under your bed just waiting to grab your ankle and Ethel, the suspiciously kind seventy-year old woman at number 16 command respect, the zombie is never treated as anything other than a shuffling, decaying mess with limbs falling off on the cinema screen. But there has always been an undeniable affinity for the zombie. It represents the niggling doubt that lays dormant, deep down in the heart and soul of the most fervent non-believer; that behind the white picket fences, the good times down at the local, the sing-a-long songs around the campfire, this is what you really are. Messy…decaying…shambling…meat. A 9-to-5-worker bee. Affixed, head down on your iPhone whilst your partner tells you about their day. Our true fear of the zombie has never been its bite, or that we might turn once infection sets in. It’s that we’re already zombies.
With post-Brexit uncertainty still lingering in the air like a noxious fart and the costs of housing, education and rent spiraling out of control, The Girl With All the Gifts couldn’t have arrived at a more appropriate time.
In an undisclosed, concrete bunker in the UK, (the novel references the base as RAF Henlow) multiple cells contain single, supposedly ordinary children. Clothed in bright orange Guantanamo Bay prison garments, the children are taken out of their cells everyday at gunpoint, strapped into wheelchairs and rolled with fearful precision into a large classroom where they learn the periodic table. Melanie (played by Sennia Nanua in her feature debut) is the smartest of all the children; she’s precarious, cheerful and eager to learn. She keeps a hidden picture of a kitten in her cell. But like all the other children, Melanie holds a dark secret: if a human gets too close without the aid of ‘blocker gel’ to ward of their scent, her hunger for flesh becomes insatiable and her teeth start gnashing, desperate to feed.
We learn that a fungus based on a mutant strain of Ophiocordyceps Unilateralis (I dare you to try and say that as fast as you can, three times in a row) has curdled the majority of the population’s brains into mushy, moldy potato pulp. These are the brain-dead “Hungries” feasting on humans. (You tried saying it, didn’t you? I knew you would.)
The children are systematically dissected in order to find a cure for the infection, and a particularly cold Dr. Caldwell believes that inside Melanie’s head lies to key to salvation.
We’re quickly introduced to the main characters: caring Miss. Justineau (played by Gemma Arterton), hostile Sgt. Parks (Paddy Considine) and cold, calculated Dr. Caldwell (Glenn Close.) The dynamics of the characters evolve throughout the course of the film, with Justineau playing a motherly figure, the only adult openly empathetic for the zombie Melanie, sharing an almost ‘Matilda’ type relationship with her, gradually becoming traumatised by the apocalyptic world around her, Parks thawing from resentment and aggression directed at Melanie into a cautious mentor figure and Caldwell doubting her own affirmations that she is not a real girl at all.
In true horror fashion, the base camp is overrun by the Hungries and this motley crew are forced out to survive in an armoured personnel vehicle. The disconcerting atmosphere set by director Colm McCarthy, (Peaky Blinders, Sherlock, Dr. Who) meshes together some of the best aspects of British horror (28 days later, The Bunker, Day of The Triffids, The War of The Worlds) and also conjures other influences (Richard Matheson’s ‘I Am Legend’ and Roger Zelazny’s ‘Damnation Alley,’) and has given it a fresh and invigorating take on the genre. Once the characters leave the complex, the film’s vision of London that has been deserted by civilized humanity for at least a decade is both poignant and distressing. Roots and weeds spread out from cracked pavements, abandoned and boarded up shop windows have an authentic level of grime and dust…everything feels so real if you had ever imagined a world left behind. Added into the mix is Chilean composer’s Cristobal Tapia de Veer’s wailing soundtrack, which creates a constant sense of impending doom. If you haven’t had the chance to check out Channel 4’s ‘Utopia,’ I would highly recommend it.
If you’ve read the novel, you will be delighted to learn that M.R. Carey (who also wrote the script) has kept the essence of the text material intact; what does it mean to be human? What lengths would you go to for the survival of the human race? A few scenes have been shaved of padding and fat to keep the pace flowing at an electric beat and there are a couple of perfunctory moments (notably the ‘creeping around ‘blind’ undead’ section and the horror cliché of a character that doesn’t run out of a situation when he clearly should) but my only gripe is that the make-up effects for the undead could have been executed better. To have such an iconic image as the devastation caused by Ophiocordyceps Unilateralis (seriously…look it up) and after having played, ‘The Last of Us,’ the Romero Zombie look seemed a little lacking. But it’s a minor grumble. It’s really the characters that stand out in The Girl With All The Gifts.
Arterton plays the haunted schoolteacher with aplomb, her scenes with Nanu realistic and grounding. Considine plays the wry soldier role with relish and the final scenes with Close and Nanu linger on in the mind long after the credits have rolled. Nanu is the standout here though, her diminutive killer evolving from quiet, precocious onlooker to ruthless predator, developing a sense of independence that makes for an enthralling climax.
The Girl With All The Gifts demands your attention and deservedly ranks up there amongst the greats of zombie celluloid. The third act has a satisfying punch to it and one particular scene involving the BT Tower will leave you questioning the contents of what may be festering at the back of your fridge. The final image will leave you haunted, as though you’ve been put through the wringer but lived to tell the tale. An exciting and thrilling experience, it’s a fresh incentive to visit London dystopia in all its dilapidated and colourless glory.
Review by Anthony Self