Ever since the success of 28 Days Later and Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead remake back in the early days of the century, we’ve been living in a cinematic zombie apocalypse. Every opportunist low budget filmmaker lacking a creative thought has turned to the zombie genre, filling the horror section of streaming sites with low-grade dross featuring the director’s extended family shambling about in pasty make-up. Mainstream cinema has tried its hand at the trope too, with the screen adaptation of Max Brooks’ cult novel World War Z proving an unexpected hit (and apparently spawning a sequel to be directed by no less than David Fincher). On TV, it seems every night there’s a zombie show broadcast on some channel or other, be it The Walking Dead, Z Nation or French import Les Revenants. At this point it seems the genre has been well and truly exhausted, and new British offering The Girl with All the Gifts has very little to add to this overcrowded market.
Author M.R. Carey adapts a screenplay from his own novel, one of many dystopian sci-fi tales to flood the publishing market in recent years. This one’s hook is that a young girl, Melanie (Sennia Nanua), holds the key to solving this particular zombie apocalypse. With the UK, and presumably the rest of the world ravaged, Melanie is held, along with several other children, in a secret research facility. Melanie is part zombie - known as a ‘hungry’ here - meaning she behaves like a perfectly normal child until she smells human flesh, at which point she turns into a Rottweiler.
The children attend a class taught by teacher Helen Justineau (Gemma Arterton), but each day the class size shrinks by one, as the children are dissected for experiment by Dr. Caroline Caldwell (Gemma Close), who believes she is close to finding a solution to the zombification issue. On the day it’s Melanie’s turn to be chopped up and studied, the facility comes under attack by a horde of the undead, and a small band of survivors - Melanie, Helen, Caroline and soldiers Eddie (Paddy Considine) and Kieran (Fisayo Akinade) - hits the road in search of fellow survivors.
Save for some evocations of classic British sci-fi horror movies like Joseph Losey’s These Are the Damned (children subjected to experiments) and Steve Sekely’s Day of the Triffids (sinister plant life), The Girl with All the Gifts is merely yet another run of the mill zombie movie, albeit with higher production values and better acting than we’re accustomed to from this genre. There’s very little here that horror fans won’t have witnessed in multiple previous tales of the undead, with a scene where a character gets bitten and pleads not to be mercy killed, a sequence where our protagonists have to quietly make their way through a crowd of zoms, etc etc etc.
The initial hook of whether it’s right to sacrifice one child to potentially save humanity (a variation of which was handled far more successfully in this year’s drone warfare drama Eye in the Sky) is largely forgotten about for most of the movie, as instead the narrative ticks off a checklist of zombie movie tropes, and we never feel Melanie is under much threat from Caroline and her scalpel.
The film suffers heavily from a failure to decide if it’s a grim and gritty Walking Dead style post-apocalypse drama or a young adult sci-fi thriller. While it begins with bleakness, things take a turn into camp and misjudged comedy in the final act with the introduction of a gang of feral kids who seem to have escaped from a particularly cheesy Star Trek episode, and a comic set-piece lifted straight from Scooby Doo.
The film’s major saving grace is the debut of 12-year-old Sennia Nanua, who manages to upstage the likes of Considine, Close and Arterton with arguably the most impactful child performance since Natalie Portman arrived on screen in Luc Besson’s Leon two decades ago. It’s a role that asks Nanua to run the acting gamut, requiring her to switch from adorable to terrifying, sometimes in a matter of mere seconds, and she pulls it off with the ease of someone who has spent decades in front of the camera. Were it not for her precocious talents, The Girl with All the Gifts would be simply another shambling corpse in the crowded herd of the zombie genre.