No one loves zombies. For one thing, they don’t invite intimacy. They come packaged as a horde, as featureless as they are numberless, and their hunger has none of the seductive cachet of a vampire’s thirst or the tragic compulsion of a werewolf’s fury. Even the poor, loveless Gill Man is more relatable. With a few notable exceptions (Warm Bodies, iZombie, possibly Michael Jackson’s Thriller) the z-word are the least romanticized of monsters, not least because they can’t speak for themselves, much less declare for your heart. Or your brains.
Mike Carey’s The Girl With All the Gifts (2014) changes all that. His tale of a parasitic fungus-based zombie apocalypse that has overtaken humanity is not only a great read, but its film adaptation, which he also scripted, was one of the best movies of the last year and definitely one of the best zombie films in living dead memory. The titular girl is a reference to the Greek myth of Pandora opening her box of troubles on the world, but it’s really talking about Melanie, a precocious child being kept with a group of other children in a sort of paramilitary base. Much of the time, the children are confined in featureless, solitary cells. They subsist on a diet of grubs, no water, are sprayed once a week with chemicals in a communal shower, are cursed at and plainly despised by their soldier caretakers. The only diversion in their day is when they’re strapped into chairs that limit the least movement and are wheeled into a classroom. There, the children take somewhat arbitrary instruction in the weights and measures of a world that doesn’t really exist beyond the big steel doors of the facility anymore. Beyond those doors, hordes of zombies, here called Hungries, have routed human society, with fragments like the denizens of the facility trying to hold on against ever-increasing odds. The soldiers and scientists keeping Melanie’s cohort captive are feverishly working to find a cure for the zombie plague, but the way they hope to do that, we learn, is by experimenting on the children, and the children, including our sensitive, intelligent, imaginative heroine Melanie, are themselves Hungries.
While I like the idea behind the zombie plague, a riff on the fungus that makes ants into its zombie slaves, and just generally the whole world Carey has created here, Melanie is what makes this story special. More than that, she makes this story beautiful. It’s not that she’s our window onto this desperate world, nor is it entirely her rarity as a thinking, sympathetic, empathetic zombie. I mean, make no mistake, her plight at the beginning hurts to witness. Carey’s vivid language nested in the simple cadence of children’s literature goes a long way to conveying not only her brightness, but also her innocence, and between those lines, we read how abused and deprived she is. Melanie absorbs information with the startling ease of a prodigy, a great quality in an exposition-lifting main character, but she’s too much a child to interpret it all. Cells, worms, stinging chemical spray, and being hectored as “a friggin’ abortion” are and effectively always have been her world. And yet, she is not emotionally blunted or walled off in the least. I love how the movie shows Melanie sweetly, respectfully endure the disgust and fear of the soldiers when they move her from her cell to the classroom, even going so far as to remind one of them of a safety protocol he overlooked, and this will not be the last time I mention how pitch perfect Sennia Nenua’s performance as Melanie is.* You would expect her politeness to be an Eddie Haskell façade, but this tragic adaptation to her environment is without the least bitterness or duplicity. Her willingness to love, eagerness to learn, and guileless trust of her captors would be a poignant testament to the best of human nature, if only she were human.
There is one special thing in Melanie’s life though, one special person who inspires her and treats her with kindness and dignity, and that’s her teacher Miss Justineau:
The best day of the week is whichever day Miss Justineau teaches. It isn’t always the same day, and some weeks she doesn’t come at all, but whenever Melanie is wheeled into the classroom and sees Miss Justineau there, she feels a surge of pure happiness, like her heart flying up out of her into the sky.
Melanie loves Miss Justineau. She idolizes her, she fantasizes about her, she idealizes her. In the book, Melanie’s ten years old; in the movie, she might be closer to twelve. It’s fair to say that while she looks to Miss Justineau as an authority figure and probably a bit of a mother figure, she has a pretty intense schoolgirl crush on her, too. Miss Justineau is, to Melanie, all good things, and that will influence her profoundly throughout the story. It’s Miss Justineau’s stories, like the story of Pandora, that give Melanie and the other children an imaginative respite from the rote memorization and bare subsistence of their lives in the facility. And Miss Justineau loves the children back, especially her star pupil, even transgressing their most basic safety measure and touching Melanie fondly on the head. When Melanie comes under the knife of the lead scientist at the facility, Dr. Caldwell, it’s Miss Justineau who rescues her, wielding a fire extinguisher at her colleagues, unable to accept Caldwell’s insistence it is either necessary or that the children aren’t really alive. Especially not this child.
It’s at that point the
zombie Hungry outbreak finally breaches the perimeter of the base, leaving Miss Justineau and Melanie to flee with several soldiers, led by the grim Sergeant Parks – who has a crush on Miss Justineau himself, lending itself to an interesting rivalry – and Dr. Caldwell, who’s still determined to find the cure to the zombie outbreak by slicing up Melanie’s brain. Their flight to the imagined safety of the central command post Beacon is marred with calamity and dead things, including roving packs of Hungry children like Melanie, who have been learning more about how to trap and eat people than about periodic tables. Melanie allies herself solidly with Team Human during this time, submitting to being restrained even as she proves herself invaluable and trustworthy, using her heightened Hungry senses, along with her high degree of moral fiber and self-control, to help the humans survive. When Miss Justineau tries to get Melanie to go off on her own, the better to keep her from Caldwell’s clutches, she won’t abandon her beloved teacher.
“You’re my bread,” she says at last. “When I’m hungry. I don’t mean that I want to eat you, Miss Justineau! I really don’t! I’d rather die than do that. I just mean…you fill me up the way the bread does to the man in the song. You make me feel like I don’t need anything else.”
The film version of The Girl With All the Gifts sticks close to the novel, with only a few changes to speak of. Some, like the excision of the Junkers – your usual yahoos what use the zombie apocalypse as an excuse to devolve into Road Warrior bandits – and the majority of the scenes with the wild Hungry children keep things streamlined. The choice to cast Miss Justineau, a black woman in the book, with a white actress (Gemma Arterton), and to cast Melanie, a white girl, with a black actress (the previously mentioned, absolutely sublime Sennia Nenua) did cause a stir of controversy. Given the political and racial coding that lends itself to zombie films in particular, it’s not a change that can be dismissed, and either orientation has its own subtextual dynamic, but I don’t think I can do a better job discussing the implications than Kevin Wayne Williams did here at Black Girl Nerds.
I really like the film’s approach to Dr. Caldwell, portrayed by Glenn Close, too. In the book, Caldwell doesn’t host a scintilla of sympathy for the Hungry children and takes an adversarial position to Melanie. In a scene that doesn’t make it to the movie, she and assistant Dr. Selkirk vivisect one of the children without anesthetic, and it’s understood this is standard operating procedure in her lab. When assistant Dr. Selkirk voices her uncertainty, Caldwell deems it a waste of a precious limited resource. In the film, we’re given to understand the opposite, that the children are anesthetized before being cut up for her researches, which is also horrible, but at least less blatantly inhuman, particularly if you accept Caldwell’s thesis that the Hungry children aren’t even alive. Most of us who are meat-eating rationalize that measure of cruelty several times a day. Book Caldwell may be a scientist working hard to eradicate the Hungry plague, but she’s also a woman driven by naked ambition, still one of the most subliminally grievous sins in our culture. She’s not someone we’re invited to sympathize with, even when she’s dying of blood poisoning. Her plans for Melanie’s brain, last hope for humanity or not, carry a stain of monomania and viciousness by the end. Glenn Close’s Dr. Caldwell, however, is hard to disagree with when she pleads that she can save the human race if only Melanie will lie down on her slab and give Caldwell her brain. Even Melanie is nearly persuaded, and if it weren’t for the other Hungry children, and Caldwell’s admission that, yes, they are alive, Melanie might have willingly sacrificed herself. I think I prefer movie Caldwell; the better villain for this world is the one who strains toward heroism.
And the better heroine for this world must be a villain to the human race. Melanie is brave, faithful, and self-sacrificing until the end, but especially at the end, when she makes the decision to loose the Hungry contagion on the world. She is essentially opening Pandora’s box on humanity, and the only hope that lies at the bottom of it exists for the Hungry children like herself. “It’s not over,” she tells Sergeant Parks, before shooting him at his own request, “It’s just not yours anymore.” It’s a cold, Cronenbergian calculation, but only if you’re on the wrong end of it. The humans were as prepared to murder the Hungry children, and it’s the other children that Melanie realizes she must protect – not unlike Miss Justineau protected her and the other children in the beginning. And Miss Justineau still will protect them. As the last of the humans, protected from the contagion by a sealed van in the film and a hazmat suit in the book, she continues her work teaching the Hungry children, conferring on them whatever knowledge the human race had left to impart as the new stewards of the planet come into their inheritance. It’s bleak enough, but I can’t dissuade myself that Melanie might be the most formidable horror heroine in modern times, even if that makes me the monster.
* It’s a British film based on a British book by a British writer set in Britain, but watching Melanie, portrayed by a black actress, beatific and pliant before terrified authority figures is more than a little evocative of America’s epidemic of officer-involved shootings in recent years.
Angela is reasonably certain Melanie would have sorted Gryffindor in a different book world.
Most of us who are meat-eating rationalize that measure of cruelty several times a day. –> I am so glad you wrote this. I definitely saw this movie as a parable not only for civil rights of POC, but animal rights.