FEBRUARY 25, 2017
With Walking Dead scoring massive ratings and World War Z more than doubling the gross of the previous highest grossing zombie film, I don't understand why we never got glutted with zombie flicks at the multiplex as we were with found footage movies in the earlier part of this decade or torture-y/hardcore horror in the '00s. And in turn I REALLY don't understand why The Girl With All The Gifts, based on a popular novel and led by three known actors (the horror genre doesn't need stars to be a hit, don't forget), got this nothing release - even here in LA it only played on one (not large) screen, with no marketing even for its accompanying VOD release. In a few years this is going to be one of those titles that gets cited as a winner the way we do for the likes of The Babadook or Hush, while folks have to be convinced the likes of Bye Bye Man actually got wide theatrical releases. It's a broken system, and has been for years, and I don't see it ever improving again; I'm happy I got to see it theatrically, but it's a shame I had to double check someone's geographical location before suggesting they do the same.
Because unlike many of the horror films you have no choice but to see on VOD, there's actually a scope to this film that would be served well on a big screen. It's not the kind of zombie movie where everyone holes up in a "safe zone" that gets overrun - it's about that safe zone being overrun and forcing our group of heroes (five of them) to make their way on foot through their eerily quiet, crumbling city to another safe area some miles away. The zombies are formed by a kind of fungal virus in this particular story, and it affects the world as well as its inhabitants, spawning these giant vines and pods throughout the city. So it's overgrown like many a post-apocalyptic film, but it's not just a cool-looking bit of production design - it's actually a source of the danger, as the pods threaten to burst and send the virus airborne. The zombies themselves are incapacitated by these vine structures, so our heroes stumble across a few that look like that they are victims of Eldon Stammets from Hannibal (and some are in groups, so it's like a cross between his victims and Lawrence Wells' totem), which is both the creepiest thing I've seen in a zombie movie in a while, and also one of the most unique.
So it's kind of funny that this is not a traditional zombie movie. It has a number of the beats of such films, but the zombies kind of stand in spot, swaying back and forth (like grass, keeping with the plant theme), unless they smell a human target. Humans are issued a scent blocker spray that they apply to themselves like bugspray, and that keeps them safe unless they make eye contact - allowing for a nailbiter scene where they make their way past dozens of zombies who are standing in place like mannequins. Sure, it's not much different than Shaun of the Dead's "let's pretend to be zombies and walk right past" bit (other than the lack of humor, obviously), but the zombies just standing there adds a level of uneasiness that sets it apart. Also, even when one zombie is alerted, it's usually isolated, so when one of our heroes accidentally spooks one, it's not like they're done for - they have to silently (and quickly) dispatch the activated one before any others catch on (kind of like in a Metal Gear game when you trigger an alarm but if you kill the closest guard things are fine). It's genius; it allows the sequence to break tension and then get it right back, which, if I've ever seen that before in a zombie movie, I can't recall it at this time.
Speaking of Shaun, it's kind of funny that one of the aforementioned recognizable faces is Paddy Considine, who appears in the other two installments of the so-called Cornetto Trilogy but gets a rare lead role here as one of the three adults who are in charge of the titular "Girl", whose name is Melanie and may be the key to saving the human race. She is one of several children who were infected in the womb but did not become full fledged zombies like the others, but live as a kind of hybrid. Like the regular infected, they have a thirst for flesh and blood (animal will suffice, though human is preferred) and get a bit worked up at the scent of one, but unlike the others they are capable of speech, free thinking, etc. Considine's character is kind of a Capt. Rhodes type who just wants to kill her, but he works with (for? I missed some of the specifics) Caldwell (Glenn Close), who wants to dissect Melanie and the other children in order to find a cure, believing their hybrid state is the key to a vaccine. And then there's Ms. Justineau (Gemma Arterton), who is the childrens' teacher and has taken a particular liking to Melanie. Naturally, she wants to protect her, so you have this odd dynamic where Melanie is being kept alive by the three adults but for different reasons. And naturally, the thing about her that makes them afraid of her eventually proves to be essential to their survival, as she can make her way quickly through the zombies to find supplies or a scout the best route, or sniff her way to find a missing member of their group.
And the cool thing is, I agree with all of them. Considine's character is introduced as an antagonist, but he comes around and bonds with her in his own way, and never really enters full "evil human" mode. Close's character actually inches, er, closer to that territory, as she will seemingly stop at nothing to achieve the "greater good", but since we never see any of the people she's allegedly trying to save (there are only like ten named people in the entire movie; we never see any traditional civilization, even in a flashback), her goal, while noble, is hard to really consider when it means the possible death of the little girl who we've spent the past 90 minutes with - a flesh and blood reality vs. a vague notion. Naturally, not everyone survives this journey, but the script by Mike Carey (adapting his novel) smartly balances out the primary characters so that one is never more or less likely to survive than the others, and gives them enough time for us to really care if and when they are dispatched. Not since Dawn of the Dead have I seen a zombie movie (or show) where I literally did not want ANYONE to die, a relieving feeling that I probably won't experience again for a while.
My only real nag about the entire movie was the ending, which generally works fine but I have a major question about how one character is still alive (to be as vague as possible - the final scene is obviously some time later, so what is ______ drinking/eating?), and Melanie's final action against the zombie fungus seemed a bit abrupt. I later learned that the book had a scene that set up her decision (I can't recall if they said it was filmed and then cut from the film, or just excised to begin with), so I get it now and it smooths over some of that concern, but neither I or they can/should expect everyone to follow up with the novel (or movie news sites) to get that context. Not that the ending was confusing or anything, but it seemed like they rushed through the final moments after pacing the previous 100 so perfectly, so it was a bit of a bummer that they couldn't retain that near-perfect quality. Perhaps book readers can mentally fill in those blanks and not even notice (with Carey writing both, I doubt there are any major changes - just things that the movie didn't have time for), but that's the double edged sword of seeing a movie based on a book - you're always going to partially dampen the surprise of one by experiencing the other first. I tend to watch the movie first before diving into the book, because the book will be fleshed out (it's like a director's cut!), whereas watching the movie after reading will almost always feel like you're getting cliff's notes, but rarely do I feel I SHOULD have read the book first so I'd have a little more understanding of the final moments of the story.
But a few quibbles about the ending is nowhere near enough to take away the fact that this is a great addition to the zombie sub-genre, and is very much undeserving of its unheralded release into the world after some well received festival appearances - including Fantastic Fest, and I'm almost afraid to look up what I saw at the same time I could have been seeing this, as I wasn't exactly in love with many of the movies I saw there this year (update: turns out it was Call of Heroes and The Void; I liked this more than either of them, but I doubt I'd have the chance to see them theatrically, so I guess it evens out). Then again, this way I got to buy a ticket at a regular screening, and do my part to try to convince the money men that movies like this should be championed and given a chance to thrive on the big screen.
What say you?
P.S. I didn't even realize it at the time, but the director was Colm McCarthy, who directed Outcast - a HMAD book selection! Definitely a name to watch and one I won't forget next time.