Camo-clad officers swarm through a labyrinth of drab hallways to fetch their prisoners: seemingly normal children. These 20 or so 9-year-old kids each get the solitary confinement treatment but are all smiles when the soldiers barge into their rooms and strap them to the wheelchairs they’ll live in for the rest of their day at “school.” That’s a novel way to begin a zombie thriller, and it’s how Colm McCarthy’s The Girl with All the Gifts commences — not with gnashing teeth, but with a charming little girl named Melanie (Sienna Nanua) chirping in her cell, “Good morning, private.”
She’s not marked by decay or blood-stained teeth, but she’s absolutely a zombie, — or a “hungry,” as this film calls them. McCarthy’s drawing from a long line of zombie flicks that imagine the undead as more human than not and deserving of empathy. That scenario has played out on film many times before — Day of the Dead, Land of the Dead, Return of the Living Dead 3, The Rezort, Fido, Warm Bodies, etc. — but Girl’s able to transcend some of its clichés because Melanie is so damn likable. The meandering second act, however, is dead meat.
Imagine Melanie as a kind of Tracy Flick teacher’s pet but with more humility and a yearning to do what’s right. In this case, the teacher is Helen Justineau (Gemma Arterton), a green instructor who finds she has more in common with the undead she’s charged with teaching than the military that employs her. But the only reason these little “second-generation hungries” — as gestating babies, they got infected and ate their way out of their zombie moms’ bellies — don’t go full-on zombie themselves is because of a blocker gel that masks the humans’ scent. The second she gets a whiff of Justineau’s sweet, sweet un-gelled skin, Melanie’s jaw snaps and pops, ready to bite; this is a dreadful sight worth waiting for.
When the bigger, badder first-gen zombies invade the military base, little Melanie just happens to be above ground, waiting for Dr. Caroline Caldwell (Glenn Close) to slice her up — Caldwell believes she can use the fungus in Melanie’s highly developed and almost human brain to make a vaccine. Melanie escapes amid the chaos and sprints through an epic battle, with bullets flying and hundreds of undead ripping through flesh. The highly choreographed scene is reminiscent of that beautiful long take in Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men that follows Clive Owen’s Theo as he maneuvers through a bombed-out building to retrieve the baby that will save humanity. Here, in an original twist, Melanie’s both the baby and the savior, saving herself first and then the humans, if they’re lucky.
But the long middle section where Melanie, Justineau, Caldwell and a few officers speed away from the rampage mimics the go-nowhere humans-arguing scenes that hobble AMC’s The Walking Dead. Punctuating those dull expanses, in which it’s unclear where these people are headed or why, Melanie brightens up the film by acting like a regular girl. “Can I wear my new clothes?” she asks her pseudo-parents of the cute pink shirt and matching sneakers. A minute later, that shirt is covered in delicious cat blood. Those juxtapositions of sugar and vice are what make movies like this — with tween girls who could either save or savage the world — sing. Unfortunately, there just aren’t enough of those moments; like Melanie, The Girl with All the Gifts is neither dead nor alive but somewhere in between.