The zombie conundrum is this: what to do with friends (or even loved ones) after they “turn”—that is, after they’ve been bitten, infected, or whatever the method of transmission is and become zombies themselves. The Girl With All the Gifts—a creepy, sneaky addition to the genre—ups the ante as far as this conundrum is concerned, giving us a zombie (or “hungry,” as they’re called) as sympathetic protagonist.
That would be Melanie (Sennia Nanua), a preteen girl we first meet in a heavily fortified prison cell. An alarm buzzes, two armed soldiers enter, and Melanie politely, pleasantly cooperates as they restrain her in a wheelchair—being especially careful to strap her head back so that she can barely move it. Melanie, you see, is something of a hybrid: a sentient child who has ravenous, cannibalistic urges. She, along with a dozen or so other children, are housed in an underground bunker, where they are taught by a compassionate instructor (Gemma Arterton) and studied by a calculating scientist (Glenn Close), all while the sergeant in command (Paddy Considine) makes sure that a large number of guns are trained at their heads.
These early scenes are the high point of The Girl With All the Gifts, as director Colm McCarthy makes use of this underground space—especially the wide, fluorescent-lit “classroom,” where each wheelchair has a numbered spot on the floor—to create an uneasy air of mystery and menace. Even as we naturally come to care about Melanie (Nanua gives her a brightness and curiosity that is undeniably alive), we learn to fear her. It’s not every kid, after all, who greedily scarfs down a bowl of live mealworms.
It’s not every kid who greedily scarfs down a bowl of live mealworms.
As a metaphor (because all good zombie movies also function as metaphor), The Girl With All the Gifts works as a potent consideration of original sin—the notion that we are all born broken, with a propensity toward evil. That we also have an inner striving to be our best selves is reflected, too, in the character of Melanie. “I don’t want to be a hungry,” she says, even as the blood from her most recent kill is smeared across her face.
There are racial implications at play here too, considering that Melanie is black. After the movie’s main characters are forced to flee the bunker together, the sergeant only allows Melanie to come along if she rides on top of the truck, with her hands bound and her face restricted behind a plastic mask. If this imagery doesn’t bring to mind uneasy associations with slavery, consider that other soldiers refer to Melanie as an “it,” while Close’s scientist regards her body as a commodity to be plundered.
For all of this metaphorical richness, however, The Girl With All the Gifts loses something when it expands its canvas beyond that opening locale. The zombie encounters become more familiar, while various character motivations—especially during the climax—are highly suspect. Still, the movie does end with a clever coup d’état, an inversion of what we saw at the very start. The zombie conundrum at this point is quite different. The question isn’t what do we do with the zombies, but what do they do with us?