Danny Boyle changed the zombie landscape in 2002 with 28 Days Later. Gone were the Romero’s shambling zombified creations, replaced by manic, hyper-speed death darts teeming a land where the human element was just as, if not more, dangerous than their undead counterparts. The horror of these monstrosities were reflected, and even overshadowed, by the horrors of humanity’s ability for societal cannibalism. This theme has been replicated in the sub-genre ever since, with Robert Kirkman’s Walking Dead comics taking this thread to new extremes and the record-smashing AMC series following suit.
Recently, the diversity of the sub-genre has reached a fever pitch with comedies (Life After Beth, Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse), big-budget tentpoles (World War Z, Abraham Lincoln vs. Zombies) and even tear-jerking dramas (the Arnold Schwarzenegger-starring Maggie) all finding room in the horror-friendly entertainment zeitgeist. Enter The Girl With All the Gifts, a British-born zombie flick that in many ways subverts familiar themes by introducing an adolescent twist into its end of the world setup.
Directed by Colm McCarthy and adapted by M.R. Carey from his novel of the same name, Gifts is a zombie film that pays homage to Boyle’s creation from a thematic and stylistic standpoint. A highly militarized make-do societal structure lays atop a bleak world that peels itself back cautiously. McCarthy’s colors his world in gray varietals, creating a drab and unsurrendering vision of the future, occasionally accented by raging conflagrations or parking lot highways of the undead. From a purely aesthetic level, The Girl With All the Gifts feels crushing. As if there is no way out. Let’s rewind. Before we escape the compound where the film begins, we meet a collection of chipper children. Polite and compliant, Melanie (Sennia Nanua) waits patiently in her scrubbed cell. As she hears footsteps approaching, she takes two photographs from the wall, the only dressings decorating her sterile room, and stuffs them under her pillow. She sits in a wheelchair by her bed and straps in her feet and hands. Soldiers bulge in the room, weapons ready, surveying the space as if on a tactical takedown. Melanie greets them casually with a genuine smile, “Hello, Sergeant Parks!” With no words, she’s secured tighter and whisked away hastily.
Melanie and her “classmates” sit in front of Gemma Arterton’s Ms. Justineau, their doting schoolteacher who makes it her job to involve the bright-eyed students with their daily lessons, each fastened to their respective wheelchair. A caring soul, Ms. Justineau is easily enough convinced to forego the daily mathematics exercises to slip in a session of storytelling. The affection shared between Ms. Justineau and Melanie – and to the rest of the class – is accomplished swiftly, a side effect of Arterton’s empathetic characteristics as a performer.
In more ways than one, Melanie proves to be the teacher’s pet but when the slightest show of affection can bring one to the brink of death, Ms. Justineau is forced to learn that these children are not the doe-eyed youngsters they appear to be. They in fact are not even human. Nor are they zombies in the classical sense. These not-quite-dead-not-quite-living hybrids are not-so-lovingly called “hungries” and they are the subject of a scientific study that aims to find a cure for the zombie outbreak.
For how secure everything at first appears, we soon learn that the perception of security is just that: perception. McCarthy ably establishes the military complex only to send it all crashing down just when we’ve begun to get a read on how things operate there. This sends a key constituent of characters racing towards the unknown exposed in an uninhabitable world. Out of the frying pan, into the fire.
Compellingly skewed moral compasses Ms. Justineau and Melanie (clamped in a translucent Hannibal Lector masked) are flanked by familiar genre tropes – the hardened scientist in charge of the operation (played to near-perfection by Glenn Close) and the penitent soldier (an almost equally strong Paddy Considine) – but each finds the specificity within their character to make it their own. Close’s Dr. Caldwell’s callous approach to her subjects conflicts with developed maternal impulses while Considine’s Sgt. Parks’ straight-laced and merciless soldier discovers humanity in some strange places.
The Girl With All the Gifts scores points with its impressive performances, creating a disquieting dystopia by tapping into something that’s both thoroughly visceral and emotionally genuine. You feel for these characters, you understand their motivation and as such none fall easy prey to the good or bad binary. And though gory in parts, McCarthy’s picture never feels not a mere case of bloodlust for its own sake. Even if Cristobal Tapia de Veer‘s spooky, guttural soundtrack helps amp the discomfort to auditory extremes, there are sparse moments that will jolt you from your seat. Especially for real horror enthusiasts that are not usually susceptible to such embarrassments.
And for a film that pushes so hard towards realism, there is a hard bite of campiness to the feature that makes The Girl With All the Gifts feel at times tonally disparate. When a group of raggedy feral children (who would feel right at home beyond the Thunderdome) crop up, hissing and racing around on all fours, it doesn’t entirely match the hard fantastical realism McCarthy tries to generate elsewhere. But when the end rolls around and the pieces form together, it’s hard to fault McCarthy for a little bit of camp.
CONCLUSION: That ‘The Girl With All the Gifts’ feels like a spiritual sequel to Danny Boyle’s ’28 Days Later’ should be praise enough. Though it lacks in overalls scares, there are enough inventive and genuinely surprising narrative twists and turns (including a killer ending) and a rare find in the young and talented Sennia Nanua to make this unusual zombie flick worth a watch.