This spiritual successor to 28 Days Later is an excellent example of pared-back British horror film-making. It follows Melanie, a bright young girl who just happens to be a zombie. She lives on a military base with other zombie kids who are dressed in Abu Graib-style jumpsuits and strapped into wheelchairs.
They’re part of an experiment to create a vaccine against a fungal infection that instantly turns people into blood-thirsty animals – or “hungries” in the local parlance.
Melanie is special, though, brighter, more empathetic, less inclined to dislocate her own jaw, like a snake vomiting up an egg, at the faintest whiff of saliva. When hungries overwhelm the base, Melanie escapes along with her teacher, a few soldiers, and a scientist with dubious intentions.
In one of the year’s more left-field castings, the scientist is played by Glenn Close, who’s an enigmatic presence throughout, both ruthless and compassionate. Paddy Considine is on typically good form as an angry army man who’s fond of calling his pre-pubescent charges “fucking abortions”, and Gemma Arterton is the teacher with a heart of gold. They’re all great, but it’s the young Sennia Nanua as the precocious Melanie who really stands out, lending an air of innocence to her character, even when she’s eating a live cat.
Colm McCarthy’s movie borrows heavily from other classics of the genre, not least Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later, without ever feeling derivative. MR Carey’s 2014 novel drew comparisons with the thematically-similar video game The Last of Us, and this film does its best to keep those alive, with striking tonal and visual similarities, from the appearance of the hungries to the design of the deserted city streets – again, no bad thing.
Ironically, the film’s most original conceit – a Lord of the Flies style society of feral children – is also its weakest point. Finding one great child actor is tough. Finding a dozen is impossible, and they detract from the gritty realism of this mucky post-apocalyptic world. But The Girl With All the Gifts remains an exceptional horror movie, both smart and scary, a worthy entry into the zombie canon.
First published in City A.M.