The zombie genre has exploded in recent years, fuelled by a morbid end of days fascination with the way the apparent vivacity and robustness of human civilisation could so easily be brought down to undead ruin by any number of small, unnoticed Achilles heels.
That’s good news if you have a darkly moralistic tale to tell of homo sapienic arrogance; not so good if you want a better than even chance of standing out from the shambling crowd.
Fortunately in the midst of all this apocalyptic sameness, British writer M. R. Carey found a way to tell a thoroughly original tale of man vs. his animated corpse counterparts which shed new light on a genre that seemed to have precious few new narrative paths to take.
The Girl with All the Gifts, which began life as a successful 2014 book release for the successful comic and book author, has now found its way to the big screen courtesy of a pared-down screenplay by Carey himself, and assured, nuanced direction by Colm McCarthy, which deftly retains the intelligent, thoughtful insights of its predecessor while becoming very much its own rabidly-fast storytelling monster.
Drenched in an eerie, tense atmosphere where the fear is palpable and the risk of not surviving at all is desperately real, the film, like the book, is one of those rare examples of a story that is very much of its genre but also distinctively set apart too.
Dispensing with the feral human Junkers (think Mad Max-ian survivalists) that added in another element of danger and civilisational breakdown, the cinematic version of Carey’s recounting one remarkable girl and a nifty evolutionary leap by what’s left of humanity strips itself to doing what it does best – a warts-and-all examination of humanity’s hubris, an unwarranted, unflinching belief in our own superiority that is brought to its knees by something as small as fungus, specifically Ophiocordyceps unilateralis.
This small denizen of tropical forests – yes conspiracy theorists and doomsayers of the world this harbinger of undead doom actually does exist – manages to cross the species barrier in Carey’s darkly hopeful tale, bringing with the end of all things, and quite possibly, the beginning too, if anyone will actually pay attention.
One person, although most people don’t see her that way, who doesn’t have any choice but to sit up and take notice of the new order prevailing across the world, is Melanie (Sennia Nanua), a young human/zombie hybrid, possessed of both the autonomic need to feed on human flesh and an incisive, enquiring will that sees her emerge as the best and brightest of a strangely locked down classroom of similar young people, the products of women pregnant at the time of infection by the fungal interloper.
Melanie, starved of human contact – exposed flesh without the all-important Blocker Gel smeared liberally on it is catnip to Melanie and her strapped-down classmates, limiting interactions by her military guards who seem all too happy to abide by that stricture – but rabidly curious about a world she has yet to see, kept as she is in a darkened cell much of the time, is more human than anyone can see.
Bar, of course, the establishment rebel of our morality tale, Miss Helen Justineau (Gemma Arterton) who, as the teacher of this most unusual of classes, sees what many other can’t, or pragmatically refuse to (case in point, vaccine researcher Dr Sharon Caldwell, played with ferocious implacability by Glenn Close) – that Melanie and her new wave ilk are far more human than anyone will admit.
Sensing someone who can give her the love and affirmation she needs, Melanie worships and adores the only authority figure who has ever treated her as anything other than a fertile test subject or a threat, a bond that is only strengthened when the military base she and Miss Justineau are on falls to the fast-moving, herd-like “Hungries” as they’re known, precipitating a mad dash across dangerous British countryside for the relative though dubious safety of Beacon, the last bastion of what passes for human civilisation in the fungus-ravaged country.
Along with Melanie and Miss Justineau for the wildest and most deeply-unsettling of rides into a world long ceded to the undead – buildings are carpeted with green, cars sit rusting, with much of the decay covered by strange pod-bearing plants growing unnervingly out of countless zombie carcasses – is Sergeant Parks (Paddy Considine), Dr Caldwell and two “Ensign Fodders” who quickly meet disturbing but morally instructive ends.
Seeking safety and a new place to call home, the mission is quickly revealed as a fool’s errand for all concerned but Melanie, who discovers bit by bit that the world is no longer the preserve of Homo Sapiens but whatever it is that this clever, curious and all-too-human young girl and her more Lord of the Flies-ish counterparts have become.
Informed by a gritty, authentically-gruesome aesthetic that doesn’t flinch at showing the full primitive monstrosity of a world surrendered to nightmarishly ferocious survival of the fittest, The Girl with All the Gifts is astute, clever filmmaking, that somehow manages to offer hope in the midst of what is, by our estimations at least, a hopeless situation.
Augmented by industrially-beautiful music that is deeply redolent of mood and menace, the film never flags once, delivering up a viscerally frightening tale that comes complete with some delightfully clever visual flourishes (holed up in a hospital, the first sign someone in the team passes is for the Dept of Immunology) and ironic touchstones (Melanie wild, guttural next generation have chosen a library in which to roost, the tribal new and the educated though doomed old sitting cheek-by-jowl).
Sporting a slimmed-down narrative that proves Carey is one of those rare authors who’s able to step away from his material and take what is needed for a visual medium and discard the rest, The Girl with All the Gifts, bristles with a foreboding sense that none of this will end well, never more so than when the team, silent as church mice, and sloth-like in movement so as not to trigger their flesh-hungry enemy, are edging their way through a throng of silent, tomb statue-like Hungries who stand silent and still when not in threatening motion.
Both a striking visual reminder that humanity long ago lost the fight for sheer numbers and influence to the undead, and gripping, edge of your seat storyelling, this scene encapsulates much of what makes McCarthy’s spare, gritty zombie thriller so compellingly watchable.
It is moralistic without being preachy, unsparingly bleak while never surrendering its humanity, which finds its home in the touching relationship between Melanie and Miss Justineau, and hopeful when, for all intents and purposes, optimism is a spent force, long lost to despair and a grinding sense that everything is irredeemably lost.
Sporting a look and feel that suggests a world in freefall decay, and possessed of the kind of sparse but emotionally-evocative storytelling that grips you from the get-go, The Girl with All the Gifts is proof positive that’s there not just something new to say about zombies, but that’s the end of all things for humanity, may not be the end of all things after all.
You just have to know where to look, right Melanie?