Between The Walking Dead’s divisive season 6 finale and Arnie non-event Maggie, zombie-watchers haven’t been deprived of undead downers lately. Happily, Scottish TV vet Colm McCarthy (Doctor Who, Sherlock) brings something new to the table with his second feature, a savage, stylish riff on M.R. Carey’s smartly allegorical 2014 zombie novel.
Working from Carey’s script, McCarthy weds care to scares in a subtext-rich spread of charged character conflicts and loaded leaps of empathy: plot wobbles aside, there’s hope for old horror staples here.
The focus is a kid who might eat your face if crossed, yet The Girl with all the Gifts summons sympathy for Sennia Nanua’s Melanie. Banged up and fed grubs in military camp, she’s one of several kids viewed with clashing opinions by adults.
Since these zombie kids are oddly intelligent, teacher Helen Justineau (Gemma Arterton) wants to educate. Paddy Considine’s Sgt. Parks advises discipline; Dr. Caroline Caldwell (Glenn Close), meanwhile, prefers dissection, hoping the kids’ brains will offer clues to cure a fungal zombie virus (based – shudder – on real fungal infections) that’s left Britain devastated.
Even this far into zombies’ screen evolution, McCarthy brings fresh ferocity to his ‘Hungries’, as they’re called here. Their guttural, chattering mannerisms rattle the nerves. A containment break-out scene, meanwhile, truly chills and thrills: in a miracle of low-budget filmmaking, the flesh-ripping action erupts like a riot between Aliens and Saving Private Ryan.
As Justineau, Caldwell, Parks, fellow soldiers and a muzzled Mel survive and flee across country to a safe beacon, McCarthy balances threat, thematic concerns and post-apocalypse context with care. The ravaged Britain (alas, poor Pret…) depicted lends big-screen punch to scorched Brit-turf familiar from TV classics such as The Day of the Triffids. Later, a feral encounter with a young Hungry gang makes Lord of the Flies look like The Goonies.
The plot rambles slightly, but subtexts are clearly seeded in character. McCarthy’s film reflects generational tensions like Roald Dahl’s Matilda with the fleshy munchies. The conflicting adult attitudes towards handling undead youth have potent implications. Which is better: empathy, scientific efficacy or extreme control?
Either way, the leads embody each position well: Considine weaponises his perma-frown, Arterton emotes and Close gamely embraces genre fare as an ambiguous scientist with Alien-vintage Veronica Cartwright hair. But McCarthy’s stealth weapon, in more ways than one, is Nanua, who toggles between recognisable pre-teen behaviour, unusual appetites and hints of something more – a preternatural intelligence working behind the eyes…
Some daft behavioural moments slacken the tension (clue: porn mags), but that intelligence is otherwise well served by the teasing finale. Divisive? Sure, but it’ll provoke post-film debate. One thing is sure: there’s life in zombies yet.