The scariest aspect of most zombies movies is the way they transform the familiar human visage into a grotesque, unthinking, carnivorous beast. “The Girl With All the Gifts,” director Colm McCarthy’s smart and elegant adaptation of M.R. Carey’s novel, inverts that formula by turning one zombie into the star of the show and giving her the innocent face of a child. As Melanie, the infected adolescent at the center of this minimalist thriller, newcomer Sennia Nanua delivers a startling performance by bringing a gentle quality to horrific circumstances.
The term “zombie” is pliable, and Carey’s original premise bends it especially well: While much of the world has been transformed into thoughtless flesh-eaters, the young children under imprisonment at a research facility continue to behave like normal people. But the adults in charge, headed by the stern Dr. Caldwell (Glenn Close, in an underwritten but effective turn as the story’s main antagonist), take no chances. The children remain locked up and tied to wheelchairs, even when they’re brought into a classroom for daily instruction from the kindly Helen (Gemma Arterton).
There’s good reason for the caution. Despite their seemingly normal brain function, the children transform into chattering little monsters eager for blood as soon as they get a whiff of their human overlords. When hordes of zombies—or, as the survivors in this movie call them, “Hungries”—storm the gates of the facility at the end of the first act, the grownups still standing must hit the road.
While far from achieving the masterful tension of “28 Days Later,” McCarthy and Carey (who adapted the screenplay) retain a similarly contained approach, developing a taut atmosphere as a handful of characters attempt to survive while their situation grows increasingly hopeless. Holed up in a tank, the cast boils down to a quartet of main characters: Helen dotes over young Melanie, who’s eager to learn more about the world and why she’s regarded as such a threat, while Close’s Dr. Caldwell keeps trying to dissect the girl in search of a cure for the disease. Rounding out the group, the scowling Sergeant Parks (Paddy Considine) mainly throws his gun around and barks ham-fisted dialogue at the more intellectual members of the group (“Our mission is to keep ourselves off the fucking menu!”).
Despite some of inventive additions — “blocker gel” to ward off the undead, a giant infectious plant that sprouts out of the zombies when they reach critical mass — the ensuing survival tale adheres to pretty standard territory, but Melanie’s role complicates the proceedings. The petite killer goes from quiet observer to starving hunter, a duality that initially works in the group’s favor as she manages to ward off other less sentient zombies that stand in their way.
In the process, however, she develops a greater sense of individuality that sets the stage for a fascinating climactic showdown. The result echoes Richard Matheson’s post-apocalyptic vampire saga “I Am Legend,” in that both evoke sympathy for the source of humanity’s demise rather than antagonizing it. A thrilling zombie movie with brains, “The Girl With All the Gifts” strengthens its traditional qualities a greater element of surprise.
Still, the movie falls back on some token ingredients, including yet another scene of survivors tip-toeing through the mindless undead as they stand around in a clueless stupor. And there are the inevitable moments where discardable characters wind up alone in quiet places where it’s so obvious they’ll meet their doom the scenes may as well end midway through with a title card that reads, “et cetera.”
However, in adhering to the classical tropes of the zombie genre, “The Girl With All the Gifts” delivers. Chilean composer Cristobal Tapia de Veer’s pounding soundtrack creates a constant sense of uneasiness, while the film’s vibrant imagery pairs immersive master shots of the empty landscapes with telling closeups that hint at divided allegiances. In the spectacular finale, the movie takes on the haunting, expressionistic dread of a Bosch painting.
Of course, no visuals can fully obscure the usual beats in play. From “The Night of the Living Dead” to “The Walking Dead,” so much of this material has been mined dry that it has gotten harder to distinguish when it’s actually done well. But “The Girl With All the Gifts” really does offer up a fleshed-out world rich with eerie implications, saving the biggest one for the memorable finale. As Melanie grows more confident in her understanding of the threat around her, she begins to take control in ways her human peers can’t anticipate, and her defiance creates a complicated moral base for the story. Ultimately, “The Girl With All the Gifts” suggests that the end of the world is relative.
“The Girl With All the Gifts” premiered on the opening night at the Locarno Film Festival. Saban Films will release it in North America in 2017.