Naughty Dog’s PlayStation title The Last of Us remains, four years after its initial debut, the best video game of the decade: a post-apocalyptic survival-horror adventure about an adult man and teenage girl traversing a wasteland America that concludes on various notes of wrenching moral ambiguity. It was a powerhouse about selfishness, deception and need, one in which the action flowed directly from character, and decisions often led to simultaneously awful, noble, and inevitable ends. Though it’s recently been announced that The Last of Us will receive a sequel in the near future, it’s the rare game to function as a true stand-alone—one with a clearly delineated beginning, middle, and end. And as befitting such a gem, it’s long been rumored to receive a big-screen adaptation, although that project remains, for now, stalled in development purgatory.
Enter The Girl with All the Gifts, a new UK zombie film (written by Mike Carey, based on his 2014 novel) that closely resembles The Last of Us in both detail and spirit. Both focus on a world decimated by a fungal infection that’s turned humanity into hungry monsters. Both imagine their plague as an epidemic of green foliage spreading across the dilapidated modern world like a corrupting pestilence. Both feature at their center a young girl infected with this disease, and yet uniquely so, such that her brain holds the key to a cure—if, that is, she’s sacrificed through dissection. And both end in uneasy ways, leaving one wrestling with complex ideas about the reason for living, the justness of sacrifice, and the relationship between personal desire and the greater good. Setting aside so much zombie fiction’s dull repetitiveness (I’m looking at you, The Walking Dead), it charts a new course for the genre by miring itself in questions with only difficult answers.
This isn’t to say that veteran TV director Colm McCarthy’s new film is a rip-off; rather, The Girl with All the Gifts refracts many key elements of The Last of Us through its own particular prism—which, in this case, is the zombie genre, and in particular, Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later, with the two sharing a vision of England hollowed out by an undead pandemic. In this frightful reality, mankind’s last refuge is an underground bunker populated by military and medical personnel, as well as a group of young children in red hooded sweatsuits. McCarthy opens his story on one such pre-teen, Melanie (newcomer Sennia Nanua), who’s introduced counting by herself in her cell, and then cheerily greeting armed soldiers in the morning when they come to strap her into her wheelchair. She’s then rolled to a classroom where, along with other similarly harnessed kids, she pleads with her kind teacher, Helen (Gemma Arterton), to hear another round of fanciful Greek myths.
The reason for this scenario is at first unclear, as The Girl with All the Gifts maximizes intrigue by only slowly revealing the nature of its scenario. [Inevitable spoilers follow] That becomes clearer once Melanie is fed a bowl of live maggots—and then falls into a sleepy post-meal stupor, as if drunk with pleasure. And it becomes altogether obvious when, after being moved by one of Melanie’s own pieces of writing, Helen touches the girl’s head—a big-time no-no that compels Sergeant Parks (Paddy Considine) to provide a reminder to Helen of their situation (which he does by spitting on his arm and sticking it in front of some restrained boys, who upon catching a whiff of his bodily fluid, suddenly transform into rabid beasts, their arms outstretched and their mouths chomp, chomp, chomping with feral intensity).
As it turns out, the world has been torn asunder by a virus that’s turned mankind into “hungries” (aka zombies). And thanks to their unconventional births, these kids are unique specimens who are both infected with the fungus, and yet have also retained normal cognitive abilities. Thus, they’re being kept for study by Dr. Caroline Caldwell (Glenn Close, sporting closely cropped grey hair), who wants to discern if they’re really thinking (or if the fungus is making them “mimic” human behavior), and who also wants to exploit their exceptional biological make-up for a cure—which requires carving them up in experiments.
To keep these kids from munching on them, humans coat themselves in a gel that masks their natural smell. Alas, those precautions are of little help when the base is overrun by hungries—a sequence of shocking terror that starts in Caldwell’s laboratory and terminates topside, where McCarthy situates viewers in the midst of all-out zombie chaos and carnage with breathtaking skill. If you ever wanted to see Glenn Close smash a zombie’s head in with a fire extinguisher, now’s your chance.
Beginning small and finishing explosively, that things-go-to-hell centerpiece sets The Girl with All the Gifts on the road.
In an armored vehicle, Melanie, Helen, Parks, Caldwell and soldier Kieran (Fisayo Akinade) are compelled to find safe passage through an anonymous urban England landscape swarming with hungries. More specifics about those creatures (and Melanie) soon emerge, and additionally complicate one’s reaction to her quest for survival: an instinct that’s as natural as the fungus that’s wrapped around her brain, and has transformed the Earth into a verdant nightmare. McCarthy generates dread in slow-mo aerial shots of trucks fleeing hordes of pursuing zombies. More chilling, however, are quieter moments, such as Melanie—who loves Helen as a mother, and is feared by Parks as an imminent threat—being sent out to scout paths ahead, during which she investigates abandoned homes (environments with which she’s never had any contact) and gives into her natural state (conveyed by foliage surrounding her face) by munching on stray cats. Far from simply a rampaging beast, Melanie, thanks in part to Nanua’s poised performance, turns out to be a complex character who’s cast as a modern-day Pandora, delivering to the world both horror and hope.
In a film full of stunning sights, a close-up of Melanie wearing a clear face mask (the better to keep her teeth at bay) ultimately becomes The Girl with All the Gifts’ defining image, encapsulating the issues of restraint and freedom at the heart of its tale. To discus the many twists and turns it eventually takes would be to deny viewers its potent surprises, especially once the characters are forced to navigate areas crowded with hungries who, with no food to hunt, stand upright and comatose along city streets and walkways. Even though a late discovery plays out less effectively than one might have hoped, it furthers McCarthy’s thematic inquiry into the nature of life, and evolution. And as with its kindred source material, The Last of Us, the film ultimately arrives at a climax in which notions of right and wrong (and “for the good of mankind”) become lost in a haze of individual cravings. In doing so, it reinvigorates the moribund zombie subgenre, and proves one of the year’s most haunting horror efforts.