There aren’t that many truly great films that feature zombies. The list is short but distinguished: the works of George Romero and Lucio Fulci, 28 Days Later, and a few others. But now we need to add The Girl With All the Gifts to the list. It’s the rare zombie film that innovates the genre with skill and excitement.
Based on the novel by former 2000AD writer Mike Carey, who also wrote the script, The Girl With All the Gifts is set in an dystopian British setting. It starts simply. We meet a girl named Melody (newcomer Sennia Nanua) who is being detained against her will by a pack of soldiers. She’s kind and polite, but the soldiers detest her, calling her and her fellow young prisoners “abortions”. Instantly we’re hooked. Who is this girl? Why is she eliciting these reactions? As it turns out, it’s because she’s not... totally human.
Part of what makes The Girl With All the Gifts so good is that Carey does something almost no zombie properties do anymore: he tries something different. The character of Melody represents something fresh about the undead (here called “hungries”) and that story makes the film stand out in a genre that’s become incredibly redundant.
That’s far from being the only thing good about the film, though. Scottish director Colm McCarthy has recruited a stellar cast to give the movie some real density. There’s Paddy Considine as Sgt. Eddie Parks, the unforgiving soldier in charge of the facility Melody where is being kept. Gemma Arterton is Helen Justineau, Melody’s teacher and the one person who doesn’t consider her a monster. And then there’s Glenn Close as Dr. Caroline Caldwell, a woman who is desperately working on a cure for the infection. Close, in particular, gives one of those performances that if it wasn’t in a genre movie, would likely get awards attention.
Having that many talented actors can’t help but elevate a film, but McCarthy doesn’t only lean on his actors. After all, he’s created a zombie apocalypse that’s both familiar and new. We’ve seen this overrun city before, but there are small tweaks here and there that place it in its own world. There’s a history that’s unique and well developed. Plus, it’s delightfully off putting how the dark interiors of this world are portrayed as safe havens, but the sunny, brightly lit exteriors are conversely menacing, partially because of the hundreds and hundreds of zombies walking around the biggest action scenes.
As for the overall story, some are likely to compare The Girl With All the Gifts to Naughty Dog’s popular video game, The Last of Us, and it’s a valid comparison. Both films are about young girls, crucial to the mystery of the zombies, being transported across great distances by strong characters. The worlds even look sort of similar at times. But where The Last of Us was more about a relationship between father and daughter, this film is about humanity as a whole — and how even the zombie virus can be viewed in different ways.
But mainly The Girl With All the Gifts is just plain great. It’s captivating, entertaining, provocative, and most of all, it’s the freshest take on the zombie genre we’ve seen in years.
The Girl With All the Gifts opened in the UK on September 23rd in the UK.