The zombie zeitgeist has come and gone. Infested though we were, we’ve moved on from the horrors of last decade into new territories, and now even old stalwarts like The Walking Dead have become pale imitations. That’s the big shame of The Girl with All the Gifts. It came too late to make an impact and, as a result, will be overlooked by the same crowd who, just a few short years ago, were making real plans for what to do should we become overrun by the undead in reality.
It seems unlikely that in 2017 we’d get a film that so reimagines the stakes of the zombie apocalypse. The subject has been so well mined that the structure has collapsed. But I guess if we’ve learned anything about zombies it’s that you can never trust that a thing is ever really dead. There’s always a new threat around the corner, and just when you least expect it you’ll find yourself face to face with a horde of creatures screaming for your flesh.
The Girl with All the Gifts is a revitalization of the conventions that have plagued the zombie genre for years. Successfully reframing the familiar standards, the film is a rare new angle on the zombie tradition, and while it feels a bit too late to have any sort of impact on the wider culture it’s still a must see for any would be warriors of the apocalypse.
Sometime in the future, the world has been overrun by a fungal plague that turns people into zombies. In a secluded base somewhere in Britain, the army keeps a group of children who are infected by the fungus yet still retain their higher functions as prisoners for scientific study, among them Melanie (Sennia Nanua). Melanie and the children are kept safely behind the steel doors and are moved around only after being safely restrained in modified wheel chairs. Under the tutelage of Ms. Justineau (Gemma Arterton) the children are taught science, math, and Greek mythology, but it’s all a part of scientific studies of Dr. Caldwell (Glenn Close) who is determined to see if the children are people or are controlled by the fungus. When the base is overrun by “hungries” Melanie, Ms. Justineau, and Dr. Caldwell are forced out into the wilderness with a group of soldiers where the young girl learns the nature of her existence and the source of her ceaseless hunger.
Zombie-human hybrids have been hinted at before, but never quite like this. It seems odd to humanize something so inhuman as the undead, and the attempts to do so up until now have been, well, silly. Zombie godfather George Romero did it first (as always) with Bub in Day of the Dead but, if we’re being honest, that attempt doesn’t hold up well by today’s standards. What separates Melanie from the rest of the hybrid pack is that she’s entirely human.
For her and the children like her, the fungus is more symbiotic than infection. Its hold on their human impulses isn’t absolute, making them more an evolution than anything else. Rather than trying to humanize a zombie, what The Girl with All the Gifts does is present the idea in an entirely unique way. Yeah, she will eat you if given half the chance, but that doesn’t necessarily mean she wants to. This allows for a rather poignant discussion on nature and nurture. Can her impulses be overcome? Is she human?
It’s tempting to roll your eyes at some of the more standard zombie tropes, but here they feel like an organic outgrowth of the plot rather than a checking of the box. The typical rules apply, but they’re presented in such a unique way that it feels entirely fresh and new. Moreover, while there are still standard zombie jump scares, the film works tirelessly to instill genuine tension and psychological drama rather than rely on bumps in the night.
Coming too late in the game to have any real effect on the genre is certainly disappointing, but that doesn’t mean this is film to be ignored. Even those weary of zombies will find something to enjoy in this gem, which ranks as a modern classic of the subgenre. The Girl with All the Gifts is an exciting new take on zombies that breathes life into the undead unlike anything that’s come alone in quite some time.
The Girl with All the Gifts is now available on iTunes and on demand platforms.