Who else would you bite and eat, if you were a zombie, if not your neighbors? They’re accessible, trusting, and likely well nourished. It’s a recipe for deliciousness if ever there was one. There is one small problem with this peculiar appetite: humankind can’t survive that kind of neighborliness. In Colm McCarthy’s The Girl With All the Gifts, surviving one bite means you become a live-flesh eating predator yourself. If you don’t survive, you’re a meal. It’s a damned if you do and damned if you don’t kind of lifestyle. Understandably, not being bitten or eaten in the first place are the overarching goals of the humans in this story.
Melanie (played by the brilliant newcomer Sennia Nanua) is a hybrid zombie tween. Through an accident of birth, she and a few like her can control their urges to eat living beings—up to a point. In the military facility where she and the others are housed, she attends school and is fed a diet of live worms nightly. Protein-rich though they are, worms have not been the diet of the growing number of zombies at the gates of the base. As they pour in from everywhere, slobbering for human flesh, the so-called “hungries” slowly outnumber and simply devour the soldiers. The hungries are afflicted with Ophiocordyceps unilateralis, according to Dr. Caroline Caldwell (Glenn Close) the base researcher/scientist. She considers Melanie and her classmates the only hope of a cure for the disease. Caldwell conducts experiments on the children extracting organs in the belief that their tissue contains a vaccine.
Ophiocordyceps unilateralis is a real virus, according to the International Mycological Association. Dubbed zombie ants, it affects certain ant species in Brazil and Thailand causing them to commit suicide by becoming plant hosts. Mike Carey (the novelist and screenplay writer), and director Colm McCarthy have done their homework here. Not only is this an authentic virus, but scientists are researching its possible cure for various human diseases. With any luck, their methods will not be as draconian as Dr. Caldwell’s. The doctor’s laboratory is littered with the body parts of Melanie’s dead classmates. Undaunted by failure, she performs a vivisection on a different hybrid every day. “I’m so close to finding a cure,” she explains enthusiastically. She absolves herself of guilt by saying the surgery is painless.
The doctor, like the soldiers guarding the base, believes homo sapiens should and will prevail against the hungries. The Girl With All the Gifts poses questions about that kind of arrogance: Don’t ethics and morality make us human? If we are our own worst enemy, how can we survive? Should we?
The answer lies in Melanie, the Badass Black girl hybrid zombie; it’s so obvious that it smacks you in the face. Melanie’s superior intelligence is established early, when she knows the periodic table even though her class hasn’t studied it yet. She has a curious mind, and as we soon learn, ethics and morals. What’s cute is that she also has impeccable manners.“Good morning, Private Gallagher. Good morning, Private Devani,” she says with a smile to the soldiers pointing sub-machine guns at her head as they walk into her room each day. They are right to be afraid of her. She is, indeed, the most dangerous creature in the movie.
In the novel, Melanie is a ten-year-old White girl with long hair. In the film, she is a 12-year-old Black girl with a short afro. The symbolism is subtle but effective. She is the only visibly Black person in the classroom. (In fact, the name Melanie means dark skin.) This casting decision poses more questions. Are Black women the salvation of humankind? Is zombieism the opposite of “woke?” As a Black woman, I would say yes to the first question out of race pride. However, there is really no one savior race.
Being “woke,” as demonstrated in this film, means making a contribution. Melanie does this because she becomes part of a nuclear family of sorts. The group sets out to find safety through a terrain crowded with human-hunting zombies. Each new location brings Melanie (and the viewer) to a new definition of the words human and devastation. Each location also reveals more despair than the last. What is obvious from the outset is that this group needs Melanie to survive, but Melanie doesn’t need them. Yet, she stays. Although humans turn into flesh eating zombies within seconds of being bitten, she never doubts that there is a permanent solution to this temporary problem.
Of course, hers is a child’s naiveté, and her stratagem proves that. It also proves that in a time when a real-life plague engulfs our entire world, we have to learn how to keep ourselves and our loved ones safe. We also have to learn how not to be a danger to others. Maybe that is the true meaning of neighborliness.
“The Girl With All the Gifts” is currently streaming on Netflix.