The Girl with All the Gifts
Review by Mike Finkelstein
Here, in 2023 (when this review was written), we're in an interesting moment for zombie horror. The genre has gone through a series of natural evolutions, starting as "creatures resurrected by black magic" onto "flesh eating creatures that just... came alive" and then "being resurrected by a plague." That has naturally evolved now into a more... well, I was going to say realistic but that's not entirely true. Let's at least say "more plausible" explanation for how a zombie plague could occur: the cordyceps fungi. This is a parasitic fungal infection that takes over brains (specifically ants) and turns them into mindless droves of the fungal collective. If that fungi could, somehow, infect humans, we'd all become drones to the collective. We'd be fungally Borg.
That's a pretty scary concept, and while viral zombie plagues are still depicted in media, the fungal zombie plague has been growing in popularity. It started with The Last of Us, the 2013 PlayStation 3 and PlayStation 4 game that depicted a fungal zombie plague and the survivors exploring the world after. Other works have come since, from Netflix's Cargo to the HBO adaptation of The Last of Us, and, in the middle of it all, The Girl with All the Gifts. The fungus is having its moment, in part because it does seem so plausible and because the explanation for why this infection could happen (i.e., global warming and its all our fault). It makes the plague seem real, like something to be feared. It's hard to argue with something that plausible, and that just makes it scarier.
I will admit that the first time I saw The Girl with All the Gifts I didn't really pay much attention to the explanation for the plague. I hadn't played The Last of Us at the Time and the film came out seven years before the HBO TV series helped to make the fungal infection a major part of the zombie discussion. As such, when they said, "cordyceps" in the film the first time, I was like, "eh... whatever." However, now that I know what that fungus is, and I've seen other works using it, I had to admit that I both like how this film uses the concept even if, somehow, it does feel just a touch derivative. The whole story of the film focuses on the second generation of humans born in a world where the cordyceps infection is spreading. That makes human-zombie hybrids, little kids who can think and talk and feel but who also crave the flesh of the living from time to time. It's interesting but, then, The Last of Us did it first.
I don't feel like this is a spoiler since the TV show reveals this within the first episode (and I have to assume the game does it within a similar time span), but in The Last of Us the main character, Ellie, is a girl infected with cordyceps from birth. She can think and talk and feel, though (and, bonus, she doesn't crave human flesh). That game did it, and it used it as part of its exploration of the apocalypse that occurred. That's neat. Once you've seen that though, you have to look at The Girl with All the Gifts and think, "man, yeah, this feels cribbed from the game." Now, I'm not accusing the writers of that, not really. You have a zombie plague and it's natural to think, "I wonder what the second generation would be like." It's just weird that this film and that game so closely use similar plot points to tell their stories.
Of course, The Last of Us doesn't feel like the only inspiration for The Girl with All the Gifts. There's also elements of Day of the Dead mixed in as well. The film focuses on Melanie (Sennia Nanua), a young girl who (we quickly learn) was infected from birth with the cordyceps fungus. She, and her whole class full of other kids, have lived in an underground military base since birth, being taught by Helen Justineau (Gemma Arterton). The other soldiers in the base, like Sergeant Eddie Parks (Paddy Considine) and Private Kieran Gallagher (Fisayo Akinade), treat her like a monster to be feared (which, frankly, she kind of is). Meanwhile, the head of the zombie kid project, Caroline Caldwell (Glenn Close), believes Melanie may be the path to a cure... somehow. But it's only Helen, their teacher, that really seems to care for these little monsters.
Unfortunately for the soldiers, their base is very quickly overrun by the first generation of infected, the adults who caught the 'ceps as it slowly spread. These infected are mindless drones, set on hunting, biting, and eating (which helps them spread the fungal infection right quick). Now, the few survivors to escape the base -- the teacher, the doctor, and Melanie included -- have to find safety somewhere. It'll be a long trek, and not everyone is going to live, but Melanie will finally gets a taste of freedom she's craved for so very long. And, in the process, we might just see what that true next step of the apocalypse really will look like...
I want to be clear, while I do feel like the pieces of this film are derivative -- borrowing heavily from The Last of Us, Day of the Dead, and 28 Weeks Later most especially -- that doesn't make it a bad film. It is hard to shake the feeling that you've seen some parts of it before, but the elements are combined together well here, and the whole presentation is not just well crafted but also well acted as well. This is a solid piece of zombie fiction that does feel like a natural part of the genre.
In fact, that's specifically while I've reviewing it here and not over on Asteroid G as, despite it's cordyceps origination, this film feels much more like an extension of classic zombie horror. These monsters are ravening, meat craving beasts who bite and chew and kill while, only occasionally, actually spreading the virus as well. If the scientists in Day of the Dead hadn't flown off to paradise but, instead, were forced to drive to safety, that would be this film right here. And it works because it solidly conveys that next step in survival, the next thing the humans have to do just to get alone.
In the process it also performs a very important function of zombie fiction (the part George Romero introduced and made a foundational element of the best zombie cinema): it uses the monsters to comment on humanity. Melanie is a zombie but she's also a kid. She thinks, she feels, she just wants to be able to play and be a child. Despite this, though, the soldiers live in fear of her. They treat her, and the other zombie-kids in their care, like monsters. They're mean, they're abusive, and they treat the kids like shit (while the kids are still happy and polite because this is the only life they've ever known). The soldiers, through their treatment of the hybrid kids, reveal more about themselves than through anything else this film has to say about them. The zombie kids act as a mirror, revealing the worst impulses of the soldiers.
The apocalypse, and Melanie specifically, also reveals much about the doctor, Caroline. She's a scientist willing to go to any length to find a cure. She comments about how, if the plague were to get worse, it would be the end of humanity. As such she'd be willing to butcher every zombie child if it meant getting rid of the monsters. Of course, there are two facts she's doesn't see in this: one, but killing the children Caroline would become a monster and, two, the world has already ended and she just can't accept it. She's living in denial, which is natural, but it's Melanie that realizes humanity has lost its way and its the hybrids that will, likely, inherit the Earth. That's dark, but it's also an interesting take.
What Melanie represents, in a very real way, is all the darkness of the zombie apocalypse as well as the hope for something that can get through it. That is, in fact, the reason she's called "the girl with all the gifts" (not in the movie but via the title). The movie, early on, makes sure to inform us of Pandora, the girl with a box fill of all of the world's evils but also, within it, hope. Melanie (it's pretty well implied) will be all those things and we're watching to see how that plays out. Will she be evil or good, destruction or hope. The audience can quickly assume it'll be a bit of both, really, but we have to watch to play out. That's a pretty nuanced storyline for the genre, and it works well.
Plus, as an early example of cordyceps horror, this film has some interesting ideas that aren't just cribbed from The Last of Us. These I won't spoil as they don't just come up in the first act of the film, but suffice it to say this film has some interesting ideas about the fungus and it's eventual life cycle. That's enough to put this in its own interesting class of zombie fiction. It elevates The Girl with All the Gifts to be more than just zombie horror. It stands well with the 2omero classics, a zombie work worth watching for its commentary as well as its horror. It might start off feeling derivative but it's ideas, and its impulses, make it stand far above most zombie fiction. If you like zombie horror, this is a film well worth checking out just for its ideas alone. Plus, then, you get a solid story that builds off elements you know to make something hopeful, horrible, and sad, all in equal measure. It's great.