It seems that every year or so we get a zombie movie that attempts to bend the crowded genre in a new direction. I’m talking about movies like “Zombieland”, “Train to Busan”, and even Schwarzenegger’s “Maggie”. This year’s entry is “The Girl with All the Gifts”, a wickedly crafty zombie flick that twists the genre’s rules and packs more brains than you may think (and no, that’s not an attempt at zombie humor).
The tone is set in the opening scenes. The setting is an underground military base just outside of London. Director Colm McCarthy’s camera leads us down a dreary hallway lined with cells, one belonging to a young girl named Melanie (Sennia Nanua). A blaring alarm pierces the halls and we watch Melanie walk over and sit in a wheelchair. Armed soldiers open her cell and fasten the multiple restraints. They wheel her down the hall to a ‘classroom’ with other constrained children. It’s an eerie, uncomfortable opening that lays the groundwork for us.
You see, these kids are unique – a new breed if you will. I’ll let you find out how, but they are of special interest to the military facility. Melanie is the brightest among the ‘students’ and maintains a sweet demeanor regardless of the interaction. Some treat her well, such as her kind and caring teacher Helen (Gemma Arterton). Others are cold and indifferent. Take Dr. Caldwell (Glenn Close in her creepiest role in years) who basically sees the kids as lab rats. Offering a third perspective is Sgt. Parks (Paddy Considine), the military leader who is constantly leary of the threat these kids may pose.
These four are forced together when zombies (affectionately called “hungries”) penetrate the facility. They escape the base and head for London but (as you can guess) finding refuge is easier said than done. You could be tempted to say this becomes a standard zombie survival story at this point. Those elements are certainly there, but the movie has much more in mind.
McCarthy along with writer M.R. Carey play with the zombie movie model and employ many of its tactics. But at the same time they seem more interested in creating moral tension between the characters by forcing them to face complicated dilemmas that don’t have the easiest answers. We too are asked to wrestle with these things and come to our own tough, murky conclusions.
Nowhere is this better illustrated than with Melanie herself. The film walks a clever tightrope in its presentation of her. On one side is the genuinely innocent, lovely young girl who we have immense sympathy for. On the other side is something dangerous, ferocious, and potentially deadly. We fear her and are charmed by her at the same time. We hear her tender, sweet voice coming from her horrifying blood-stained mouth. It’s an unsettling tension the film creates and maintains throughout. Young Sennia Nanua is a key ingredient. Her tough, committed performance is vital both to the character and the movie.
Even with its tiny budget of around $5 million, “The Girl with All the Gifts” offers up an experience that should please both those who love zombie flicks and those who want more to chew on (figuratively of course). There is enough originality to make it feel fresh and it’s plenty creepy enough to make you squirm. That’s what I’m looking for in a “zombie movie”.
VERDICT – 4 STARS