'The Girl with All the Gifts'
Oh hey! Another zombie movie. Yay? The shuffling and/or running undead have been inescapable in recent years and are among the biggest stars on TV. Just when it feels like there’s very little left to be dug up from this particular graveyard, along comes ‘The Girl with all the Gifts’ to stir the endless horror genre back to life. Sadly, the movie eventually gets overrun by zombie clichés.
The movie kicks off by laying out the filmmakers’ most original spins on zombie lore. We’re introduced to a disturbingly odd school system of sorts. All of the children are escorted from class to class strapped into chairs and sporting Hannibal Lecter-level physical restraints. They seem normal, though. In fact, a teacher named Helen (Gemma Arterton) has become particularly fond of the brightest girl, Melanie (the remarkable Sennia Nanua). Trouble is that the kids are zombies.
The “school” is a military outpost. The world is overrun by fungus-fueled zombies and the kids represent a new evolution of these creatures who appear to be remarkably intelligent and emotional as long as they can’t smell human flesh, which overwhelms them with hunger. Helen hopes that this new breed of zombie suggests that a cure, or at least a calming of the horde, might be possible, even if stuffy military scientist Dr. Caroline Caldwell (Glenn Close) doesn’t agree.
This is quite a clever twist on zombie horror, building off the budding zombie intelligence angle that George Romero explored in the later chapters of his ‘Living Dead’ series and emphasizing the humanity within the monsters in a fresh way. By telling the story through the point of view of one special zombie, screenwriter Mike Carey (adapting his own novel) twists the morality and horror of his piece just enough to make all the old zombie metaphors feel fresh. Blending the genre with the current YA sci-fi/fantasy trope of revolutionary young women protagonists who change the world is a rather amusing update that leads to a bitterly ironic finale.
Director Colm McCarthy makes the most of his minimal budget by crafting a beautifully neon-lit and beige apocalyptic world that borrows the aesthetic of the videogame ‘The Last of Us’ just enough to avoid accusations of plagiarism. The cast of British dramatists (including the great Paddy Considine as a zombie-loathing and ass-kicking sergeant) ground the absurdity remarkably well to ensure all the human drama stings as much as the monster mayhem. For the first act, ‘The Girl with all the Gifts’ feels like a cult film in the making.
Unfortunately, after this wonderful setup that spins most zombie genre tropes on their head, there’s an assault from the undead on the army base. All the main characters and a few Redshirts jump into a van and hit the road in the hope of finding another active human outpost. From that point on, ‘The Girl with all the Gifts’ slowly devolves into yet another zombie movie. Every 10-15 minutes, we get a sudden gory zombie attack. In between, the characters talk seriously and earnestly about exposition and the similarities between humans and zombies. Lather, rinse, repeat. Even though the cast give the old debates a semblance of life and McCarthy has no problem delivering violent set-pieces that pack a punch, it’s just very familiar and formulaic.
Near the end, Carey’s script starts to perk up again with a few new ideas, but by then it’s too little, too late. What starts as an exciting spin on dusty genre lore soon devolves back into yet another zombie movie in a manner pretty much guaranteed to irritate those who are tired of hearing the big themes and speeches of ‘Dawn of the Dead’ parroted yet again. Still, at least the movie does bring a few twists to the party, a damn good cast, and an impressive aesthetic. That ain’t bad. Matter of fact, it’s amazing that a zombie movie this watchable can even still be made in 2017. Time will likely be kind to this one once zombies finally fade out of the mainstream again. For now, it’s a brief peak in an otherwise consistent downward trajectory of a genre that needs to go away for a while.