Let’s face it: a lot of us are pretty weary of zombies by now. On those grounds it might be tempting to give The Girl With All the Gifts—one of a handful of YA genre novel adaptations screening at this year’s Fantastic Fest—a miss. (In fact my spouse told me afterward that if he’d known in advance about the “Hungries”, as they’re called in the film, he would have never set foot in the theatre due to sheer exhaustion with the genre.) But if you did, you’d be missing out on a genuinely good take on zombie horror with a terrific protagonist.
That adolescent protagonist is a girl called Melanie, played with exceptional deftness by Sennia Nanua. When we first meet her, she’s a prisoner in a military compound along with nineteen other children. They are treated with extreme caution by the soldiers around them, who routinely refer to them as “it” and call them names like “Cujo” and “frigging abortions” (the latter of which is innocently and heartbreakingly repeatedly by Melanie more than once, and which takes on a special horror later on, when the children’s origin is revealed). When they are allowed out of their cells for their closely monitored lessons with the kindhearted Helen Justineau (Gemma Arterton), they are restrained tightly in wheelchairs according to a strict protocol.
The reasons for this cold, dehumanizing treatment are revealed slowly and with a rising sense of dread, culminating in a disaster at the compound that sends Melanie on the run with Miss Justineau, scientist Caroline Caldwell (Glenn Close), and soldiers Parks (Paddy Considine), Gallagher (Fisayo Akinade), and Dillon (Anthony Welsh). As the little group attempts to make their way to safety, they must also confront hard questions about their own future and that of humanity, including the cost of Dr Caldwell’s desperate search for a cure to the condition that has turned swaths of the population into teeth-chattering, ravenous creatures known as “Hungries”.
Adapted by Mike Carey from his own novel and directed by Peaky Blinders director Colm McCarthy, The Girl With All the Gifts sometimes feels like a particularly extravagant British science fiction TV drama (an effect compounded for some of us by Cristobal Tapia de Veer’s excellent soundtrack—he also composed the eccentric, atmospheric score for the late, lamented Channel 4 drama Utopia). This is no bad thing, though—this film is as well-acted and well-paced as anything you’d see if you’re a fan of that kind of television.
Strong execution aside, whether it really brings anything new to the business of zombie entertainment is another matter. The “fast zombies caused by a contagion” trope is a bit 28 Days Later. The scenes of London, occupied only by Hungries and overgrown with foliage both normal and strange, have a certain Day of the Triffids/Quatermass vibe to them. What does come as a surprise is the story’s resolution, which calls back to the oft-referenced myth of Pandora—Melanie commits a shocking act that unleashes something terrible, in the name of preserving what hope she can see in the bleak world created by the contagion.
Much of the movie’s success hinges on Sennia Nanua’s performance, and she perfectly embodies both Melanie’s almost-eerie, sweet-natured intelligence and the mindless savagery that drives all of the Hungries, who go into monstrous frenzies at the scent of human flesh. Melanie’s attempts to make sense of her world—at first so limited, and then so strange and profoundly dangerous—are beautifully played. And you really can’t go wrong with costars of the caliber of Arterton, Close, and Considine; their characters’ relationships with Melanie are often touching and sometimes horrifying, and each actor plays these moments with grace.
Director McCarthy and writer Carey aren’t revolutionizing the zombie horror genre here, but in the end they don’t really need to. Sometimes it’s simply enough for a film to be a well-told tale offering suspense and chills, and on that count The Girl With All the Gifts succeeds admirably.