I can’t say I care for zombies particularly or even understand them — OK, they’re the living dead, but what do they have against the living living? Why do they always want to bite their faces off? — and I can’t say I cared for The Girl With All the Gifts either. This is an adaptation of the dystopian horror novel of the same name by Mike Carey, who also wrote the screenplay. I have not read the book, I confess, as I don’t do much that’s dystopian if it doesn’t involve Margaret Atwood, but I know it was critically well received as well as hailed as ‘an original and compelling new take on the zombie genre’, which may well be the case, but there is little evidence of that here. Instead, I would say it’s business as usual, pretty much.
The film is set in a Britain of the near future where humanity has been afflicted by a fungal disease that transforms victims into ‘hungrys’ who are greedy for flesh and blood rather than, for example, pizza and chips. (What do the living dead have against the living living? Why can’t they just eat pizza and chips?) It certainly opens chillingly and intriguingly in what appears to be some kind of prison or military base occupied by small, innocent-looking children dressed in orange sweats and Crocs. (If you’d asked me which footwear was most likely to survive an apocalypse, I would have said Crocs, no question.) Our interest is piqued. Who are these kids? Why are they strapped into wheelchairs? Why are they accompanied everywhere by soldiers with guns? Who chose their footwear?
Our focus is Melanie (Sennia Nanua), who is ten or thereabouts. Melanie is sweet except in those instances when she smells human bodily fluids and her jaws clatter ravenously, and then she’s not so sweet. Melanie is a ‘hungry’ but, unlike other ‘hungrys’, she can think and has retained human qualities, like emotional warmth. Melanie is ‘partially immune’ to the fungus and is therefore of interest if a cure is to be found. Melanie is wheeled to a classroom every day — she is strapped down so she can’t eat anybody — where she is taught by kindly Miss Justineau, who is uninfected, and has taken a shine to Melanie, just as Melanie has taken a shine to her. (We can tell Miss Justineau has feelings for Melanie because she can’t look at her without tears in her eyes.) But there’s also cold, stern Dr Caldwell (Glenn Close), who wants Melanie’s brain and spine to make that vaccine. And she’s about to operate when the base suffers a zombie attack — there are hordes at the door, dressed in their rotting rags; why don’t you ever get stylish zombies? — which means the three have to go on the run, along with a soldier, Sgt Eddie Parks (Paddy Considine).
So it’s a small band of the (mostly) uninfected hiding from the infected as they travel across the country. But at least they don’t meet gangs of marauding hungrys lurching around, stretching out their decomposing arms, clamouring for flesh, finding a fix, then looking up with blood dripping off their chin …don’t be silly! Of course they do! Because this is a fairly low-budget film, any special effects are quite iffy, with make-up that could be Halloween round my house, and when they finally reach London, the CGI is so decidedly iffy it looks like a model with bits of plant stuck on it, which is probably what it is. (I would also wish to ask why every high street had to show a derelict branch of Next: OK, the brand isn’t what it was in the Eighties, but why make it personal?)
As directed by Colm McCarthy, it is dully and ploddingly told, without imagination, suspense, tension, or any sense of mounting dread. I am scared easily, as we know, but was not scared at all in this instance and, without the fear, much of the flesh-feasting just seemed tediously unpleasant. Meanwhile, the authority figures aren’t given characters as such, just jobs to do. It is Miss Justineau’s job to look at Melanie with tears in her eyes. It is Dr Caldwell’s job to spout chunks of exposition. And it is Parks’s job to protect everyone. I should also add that if deeper questions were being asked about what it is to be human, or if a fungus has as much right to thrive as we do, then it all passed me by, I’m afraid. I have never cared much for zombies, and this did not change my mind.