Let me put it this way: I get it if you don’t want to watch a movie about a global killer virus that wipes out the majority of humanity and turns them into shambling, hungry corpses that chase down the living for fun, forcing the survivors to survive by any means necessary as their days slowly dwindle down to none.
It’s 2020: I dodge zombies on the way to the Safeway. I get it.
But if you have to watch just one zombie movie this year, make it the most innovative, thoughtful and prescient zombie movie I’ve ever seen – one that sneaks carefully around camp and interpolates the symbolism of the zombie itself to tap a richer, more interesting vein than usual. It’s the first zombie film in a decade to actually scare me, and maybe the first one since Dawn of the Dead to really make me think. It drags the zombie trope out of pop-culture and back to where it belongs: aggressive, cutting social commentary.
It’s good. The Girl With All The Gifts is appropriately named, and if you want to watch it yourself do so immediately. Don’t let me wreck the initial twists later in this writeup.
You won’t regret it.
Spoilers begin now. It’s nothing you won’t find in the trailer.
The Girl With All The Gifts centers on Melanie (Sennia Nanua, in her feature debut), a child who finds herself in captivity. She lives her life in a bunker, sealed inside a solitary cell whenever she isn’t being wheeled out on her Hannibal-esque stretcher to attend class strapped to her desk and muzzled. Aside from her imprisonment, Melanie is like any other child: she is inquisitive, bright and imaginitive. She’s articulate and clever, too, and an easy favourite of her teacher Helen. Helen, meanwhile, does her best despite the strange circumstances. She shows compassion and warmth for her young wards – an approach immediately at odds with the military regimen in control of the bunker and their head doctor Caroline Caldwell (played masterfully by Glenn Close).
At first, this is all we’re told. Melanie must be enormously dangerous – why else would she be shut in a cell at her age? Doctor Caldwell takes a special interest in her development while Helen, as much a prisoner as the children, injects what little kindness remains in their lives. We aren’t told how long they’ve been in the bunker, but it is understood they are to remain there indefinitely. This, we’re told, is whatever’s left of their lives. Whatever is left of humanity, theirs and ours.
One day, Melanie is taken in for a special checkup by Doctor Caldwell, but immediately something seems off. The operating table and the tools are too extreme for a checkup. The guards are told to leave, and not to return. Doctor Caldwell looks at Melanie hungrily as she prepares the inspection table – or is it a vivisection? Melanie struggles as she realizes what’s about to happen.
At the same time there’s a struggle outside – something called the Hungries have breached the gate and are overrunning the compound. Melanie makes a break for it and finds herself in the midst of an invasion. The creatures stream past to devour the militia still defending the base. Free of her mask and bindings, a hunger rises in Melanie as she sees a guard devoured. It’s something feral and bloodthirsty.
The Girl With All The Gifts has been revealed as a zombie movie. The undead flow past Melanie like a river: it’s like she isn’t even there. She runs.
It turns out the children in the bunker were immune. And hungry.
Melanie escapes momentarily but is recaptured in an escape caravan led by Doctor Caldwell, her teacher Helen, and the bunker’s leader Sergeant Eddie Parks. They need to contact central command and, hopefully, find a way to stop halt the outbreak.
This is the point at which the camera leans back and we realize the world has been destroyed. The adults refer to the zombies as ‘Hungries’ for the kids’ sake, but there’s no mistaking what they are: reanimated corpses infested with an illness that drives them to kill and consume flesh. They are everywhere and everyone, and Melanie was one of the few child test subjects designed to serve as vectors for a vaccine. She isn’t a zombie, but she isn’t wholly a child either – and she might have been their last hope.
At least, before the base was destroyed. Now what?
I won’t ruin any more of the film’s many, many surprises but it’s worth noting The Girl With All The Gift‘s central conceit: the girl herself. A Zombie is never just a zombie. Horror films are a mirror of the times in which they are produced, which means nearly all Horror films can be reduced down to a central operative theme: what are these people scared of?
Even a film that tries not to do this might do it by accident: is Prom Night about nothing? Are you sure? What about Meatball Machine, Audition or Hostel? What deeper anxieties might these films explore?
Zombie films at-large point to a fear of communal breakdown, so it’s important to note who we’re blaming, and who might be its savior. The Night of the Living Dead is an intensely political film, and 28 Days Later is no different – both blame society at-large in different ways. What might The Girl With All The Gifts might be saying by making only children immune to the zombie virus, and about the world those children will inherit? Why is the closest thing to a villain not the Hungries, who are neutral in their hunger, but an aging white doctor?
And is it any accident that the girl with all the gifts is Black?
The Girl With All The Gifts is a special zombie film, one that not only tears down our reality but dares to suggest a replacement. Every disaster film relishes in the destruction of the powers-that-be, but it takes an especially thoughtful one to erect something in its place and point to a future that looks nothing like our past – perhaps one that rights some of its wrongs.
Perhaps the children of tomorrow will be nothing like us: maybe they will be better.