The world of horror is vast. With so many films across the spectrum of budget, studio involvement, quality, availability, and, above all else, pure scare-the-living-shit-out-of-you-ness, it helps to have trained professionals parse through some of the older and/or lesser-known offerings. That's where Team Fangrrls comes in with Deep Cuts, our series dedicated to bringing the hidden gems of horror out of the vault and into your nightmares. Today, we look at the big-hearted yet unnerving zombie movie, 2016's The Girl With All the Gifts.
"Parents just don't understand" is basically a mantra of coming-of-age stories. But in the zombie drama The Girl With All the Gifts, this generation gap takes on a world-shattering significance to tell the tale of a little girl who is either a monster or a hero, depending on your perspective.
Based on Mike Carey's sci-fi novel of the same name, The Girl With All the Gifts drops us into a bizarre world where heavily armed soldiers transport children, who are chained to wheelchairs, into a cement bunker that serves as a grim classroom. Despite these unwelcoming surroundings, tween Melanie (Sennia Nanua) is cheery, greeting every soldier by name even as they hiss that she's a "friggin' abortion." She loves class, and she loves Miss Justineau (Gemma Arterton) in particular, the kind teacher who tells them stories and treats these captive classmates like kids instead of monsters. We soon learn that might be a mistake.
Melanie and her peers are the first generation born after a fungal outbreak that has turned millions into ravenous zombies, though the term used here is "hungries." The infected become snarling, snapping ghouls who go wild at the scent of the uninfected's flesh. If her students catch the scent of Miss Justineau, their jaws chatter uncontrollably as their hunger overtakes their humanity. The real question is: Do these children have humanity at all? While infected adults become mindless, flesh-craving fiends, these children -- who ate their way out of their infected mothers' wombs! -- seem to have some sense of control. So can they be trusted?
When the military base is overrun by feral hungries, Melanie and Justineau flee to safety along with some soldiers and a scientist researching a cure (Glenn Close). Cast out into a world she's never known, Melanie has a chance to blossom in a way she never could in chains. Less frenetic than most zombie movies, The Girl With All the Gifts is a story of terror, offering bloody kills and a world dramatically transformed by the undead. More than that, it's about a little girl's self-discovery. Sent out on recon missions, Melanie begins to see who she is and how she fits into this brave new world. Her discoveries pave the way to a hauntingly bittersweet finale that is spiked with tragedy and change.
Newcomer Nanua is riveting as Melanie. Her adorable face and eager smile make you want to believe she's no monster, but Nanua's scratchy growls and sharp physicality never allow us to forget Melanie is part hungry. At the core of this zombie tale is a thickly thumping heart. Melanie loves Miss Justineau, and Miss Justineau loves Melanie. Justineau has a clear maternal affection for this poor girl who strives so hard to please the adults who offer her nothing but tests, scorn, and fear. Overcome with tenderness, Justineau strokes Melanie's hair to give a sign of gentle encouragement. For Melanie, this is proof that her burning crush is not one-sided.
After this, Melanie yowls at a seemingly jealous soldier, "She likes me best. She touched me. She'd never touch you!" Melanie fantasizes about a world where she can be her teacher's "special girl." It's a juvenile and relatively chaste dream that imagines Justineau as a mix of mother and girlfriend, savior and damsel-in-distress. But when they are pitched out into dangerous terrain rife with hungries, Melanie's dream becomes a tantalizing possibility, one where she can rescue her crush and win her love forever. In this sense, The Girl With All the Gifts has the air of a fairy tale. Harsh realities keep interjecting, forcing Melanie to some tough decisions while leaving audiences with some alarming questions about the true nature of our scrappy, happy hero.
Methodically paced, and laced with earnest emotion, bursts of violence, and heady discussions of morality, The Girl With All the Gifts is a zombie movie with surprising sophistication. In spurts, it's scary and thrilling, but director Colm McCarthy seems more concerned with creating emotional horror that will linger with audiences. Rather than jump scares and eye-popping gore, he drenches a charming ingénue in the blood of her victims and dares you to care about her while also questioning her actions. This ragtag group's quest for survival is ultimately one that will determine the future of life as we know it. While the children are our future, what does that mean when they are also beguiling little beasts?
Watch The Girl With All the Gifts on Amazon Prime.