In the granddaddy of all zombie movies, 1968’s Night of the Living Dead, the most bone-chilling scene isn’t the goriest or the most graphic. It’s the moment when a mother descends into a dimly lit basement only to witness her young daughter in a sundress crouching over the lifeless body of her husband, munching on his guts. There’s something unnatural and terrifying in the disconnect between childlike innocence and insatiable bloodlust. It’s just primally wrong. Colm McCarthy’s The Girl with All the Gifts touches that same taboo third rail and revels in it. It’s a film for people who thought they never needed to sit through another zombie flick. It’s also quite likely the strangest entry that will ever appear on Glenn Close’s IMDB page.
At this point we’ve all seen more than enough movies and TV shows about the flesh-devouring undead. Their moment of peak pop-cultural saturation has come and gone. It was a nice run while it lasted. But there’s only so many ways to tell the same story. What makes McCarthy’s dystopia fresh is its wicked set-up. The film opens in a mysterious underground prison bunker where a 10-year-old girl named Melanie (Sennia Nanua) sits in a cell, heavily restrained in a wheelchair. She certainly doesn’t look dangerous. So why is she being treated like Hannibal Lecter? It soon becomes clear when she and a dozen or so other children are wheeled into a classroom and they start to snap and chomp like chum-happy piranhas after they get a whiff of human blood. Close, who plays a butch-haired evil doctor, is studying Melanie and the rest of the zombie-tykes for an antidote to the fungal plague that led to the fall of humanity. Gemma Arterton plays a teacher who wants to believe that the usually calm, sweet, and highly intelligent Melanie is somehow different—that deep down she’s more moppet than monster. Paddy Considine splits the difference as a soldier who doesn’t trust the so-called “Hungries.”
When their fortified compound is breached by the hordes of undead outside, Melanie and the three adults (plus a couple of soldiers who are basically the equivalent of soon-to-be-killed Star Trek away-team officers wearing red uniforms) hit the road in a military vehicle and head for London, where there may or many not be more survivors. Adapted by Mike Carey from his own novel, the film fleshes out some interesting new ideas, like a “blocker gel” that suppresses the scent that drives zombies wild, fungal vines that sprout out of the host zombie’s brain like mad weeds, and the notion of zombie babies that ate their way out of their mothers’ wombs (this, probably for the best, is only described by Close and not shown). The inventive world-building and giddy shocks of the first half of the film (there’s one zombie siege of an operating room that’s an absolute honey) lose some steam in the slower-going second half, which frankly gets a little plodding. But McCarthy, a veteran of British TV shows such as Sherlock and Doctor Who, has a real command of the creepy story he’s telling thanks to a group of actors (including the newcomer Nanua) who are more talented than the genre usually provides. There may still be a little life left in the undead after all. B+