I was really worried that this movie would be too scary for me, but its immediate familiarity reminded me that I’d read the book upon which it is based (by M.R. Carey), and knowing I’d survived the book meant I could surely handle the film as well.
Not for nothing: it’s about a “fungus” that’s extremely zombie-like in its presentation. Miss Justineau (Gemma Arterton) is a teacher at a military-run school at Hotel Echo. Her “hungry students” are all infected with the fungus. Under heavy restraints, they aren’t just taught, but tested. Melanie (Sennia Nanua) is test subject #1. She’s a very sweet young girl until flesh is nearby, and then her jaws start chomping involuntarily.
When the base is suddenly overrun by hungries, Melanie escapes with the compassionate teacher as well as Dr. Caldwell (Glenn Close), the woman doing all the experiments, and just a few remaining soldiers. Because they’re low on blocker gel (the lotion that makes them less appetizing to hungries), they’re loathe to keep her so close by, but Dr. Caldwell is unwilling to let her best subject go. Melanie might be the key to an antidote.
Their small party need to make their way to the next safe spot, called Beacon, but getting there isn’t going to be easy. There’s some typical zombie movie gore, but this movie manages to be more by focusing on the relationship between student and teacher. And Melanie manages to be more than just a zombie, with her constant yearning to be fully human. Newcomer Sennia Nanua is very compelling in her role; Melanie is a monster, but Nanua gives her a sense of humanity that transforms this horror film into something more urgent, more terrifyingly relatable.
Director Colm McCarthy gives us some memorably startling images, even going so far as to shoot aerial footage over Chernobyl for an apocalyptic feel. The Girl With All The Gifts is not a traditional zombie movie, nor horror. It has a social conscience and some sound science, refreshing the genre with intelligence and dark humour. It’s not a perfect movie, it’s a little muddled, a little indefinite, but it’s a thought-provoking hybrid much like Melanie herself.