The zombie genre has been played out and regurgitated for a long time now, leaving horror fans jaded and looking for a new angle. In 2014, Mike Carey (as M.R. Carey) wrote The Girl with All the Gifts, a book about a zombie plague instigated by a fungus. In 2016, he wrote the screenplay for a film of the same name. That film woke horror fans up in a big way due to the fresh take on the genre and a massive helping of P.O.C. representation.
A fungal outbreak transforms humans into flesh-eating maniacs, ravaging England and leaving uninfected survivors to live in protected compounds for safety. Dr. Caroline Caldwell (Glenn Close) has been searching for a cure by using infected children who have kept their faculties except when exposed to unprotected skin. One such child, Melanie (Sennia Nanua), is exceptionally bright and is next on the doctor’s list for dissection at the military base where they all live. Melanie is a devoted student to her beloved teacher Helen Justineau (Gemma Arterton), who also feels a maternal attachment to the pleasant young girl. On the day of Melanie’s procedure, Helen protects her just as the compound is attacked by rogue humans and escaped infected, leaving Melanie, Helen, Dr. Caldwell, and a handful of army personnel on the run from chaos. As the group search for a safe haven, Melanie learns of the power she wields, and her knowledge will be crucial to their survival.
This film blew me away, not only for the story but for the character of Melanie. I’ve read the book, and Melanie was written as white, while Helen was first envisioned as a Black character. The reversal of Melanie and Helen’s color in the film creates layers of undeniable complexity. Here is yet another instance of a white creator expanding his world to cast someone of color as the lead. In interviews, Carey said he wanted the film to be as diverse as possible, so most of the characters were also cast with people of color.
Sennia Nanua’s performance was so nuanced. She has a combination of an old soul and youthful innocence that worked perfectly for Melanie’s journey. As a young Black girl, Melanie realizes her power in a world made for her this time, free of the trappings of white, patriarchal society. This is a huge message in a world where Black women are ignored and underestimated or killed and forgotten. When her character is asked to be a sacrifice, she refuses, turning the sacrificial negro trope on its head as well as the historical experimentation on Black bodies. Her saying no is an affirmation, one that Black women, young and old, can champion. While Melanie is obedient, and an exemplary Black person who follows the rules and doesn’t want to cause any trouble, she is also a renegade when she learns she has power over not only the fate of humans but of her own kind.
The title of both the film and the book refers to Pandora of Greek mythology, who opens a box that releases pestilence and evil, cursing the world. While it’s said to be misogynistic, because, like Eve, Pandora defies the gods, it shows a radical rejection of assimilation and the majority rule. By switching the character of Melanie from white to Black, she is an example of Afrofuturism by changing the white, patriarchal vision of the world that has been spoon-fed to people of color for hundreds of years. She leads a revolution that extends further than flesh-eating creatures, and the significance of her power and leadership endures as a symbol of Black resistance.
I couldn’t end this post without mentioning the scoring. Canadian-based, award-winning composer Cristobal Tapia de Veer has expressed the musical moods of my favorite T.V. series Utopia, Humans, and Black Mirror. In The Girl with All the Gifts, he used his brilliant sensibility, soundscapes, and breathy vocals to guide us musically through this post-apocalyptic world.
The next time you watch The Girl with All the Gifts, think of its origins, the un-centering of white creators, diversity, and empowerment in storytelling and the impact it makes, especially in this moment of social change.