ANDREW JOHNSTONE on zombies, existential dread and The Girl With All The Gifts.
Early on in the film discovery phase of my life I happened upon George A. Romero’s landmark ‘zombie trilogy’. All at once clever, disturbing and satirical, these films were a delight and I have watched them many times since, but as the zombie phenomenon broke out into mainstream, I realised I was less a fan of zombies than I was of Romero, and while I have dipped into some of the more popular shows and films, nothing bar the British movies 28 Days Later and 28 Weeks Later have sustained my attention… until now.
I was out walking when I happened across Unity Books (Central Auckland) and decided to go inside. I must have walked passed the place a hundred times and while I often stopped to look in at the window display I was never going any further, as book buying is no longer my thing.
When I was younger and earning better I used to buy lots of books. I loved the excitement of book discovery and outlined of my personal space with a display I imagined explained to visitors something of my inner world. Considering I had few visitors the whole thing ended up seeming a little vain and frivolous, so one fine day I packed all my books down and left them out in a public space for people to take.
Thinking I had done some great deed, I drove back to have a look an hour later to find a group of shabby-looking kids kicking them about and throwing screeds of torn pages into the air. In retrospect, it was nothing less than my vanity deserved.
I am well pleased that phase of life is over and I have since learned that the value of the books most precious to me lies in the memory of the experience, not in the possession of the hard copy. But there I was in a bookstore and I saw they had a sci-fi section, which pleased me no end, because this genre is my first love. For some reason, I had the impression that bookshops devoted to literature largely eschewed the format out of a misguided sense that it just wasn’t worthy enough.
NZ broadcaster and literature fan Kim Hill certainly thinks so. I have heard her say it more than a few times over the years, and her opinion isn’t so unusual. I remember walking into a grand-looking bookshop in Wellington a few years back, and after a look about asked if they had a sci-fi section. The response was bemused blinking that left me feeling a bit inadequate. I scarpered, and spent my money elsewhere.
As for the genre itself, it is actually a mixture of things that includes fantasy, dystopian futurism, space opera, social and technological speculation, time travel and zombie narratives. So there I was running my fingers across the book spines when a title caught my eye. I pulled it out and balanced it in my hands and knew that I was going to read it and like it. I jotted down the title: The Girl With All The Gifts, and decided to order it from the library. Sorry Unity, but at almost $40 it was well beyond my means.
In MR Carey’s The Girl With All The Gifts, an infection has crossed the globe, turning humans into mindless hosts for a parasitic life form that craves protein. These creatures stand about waving in the wind until a movement or scent from a warm living thing triggers them into action, then its all running, clawing hands and tearing teeth. The few remaining humans have nicknamed them ‘Hungries’. If you have ever seen 28 Days Later, you’ll get the idea.
The uninfected have retreated to a couple of protected enclaves including a research facility where Dr Caroline Caldwell is seeking a vaccine by dissecting and experimenting on the body parts of the infected, but not just any old infected. Her team has discovered children who have been infected, but maintain something of their humanity.
These children are a striking new mutation and involved in the research is teacher and psychologist Helen Justineau, whose job involves trying to understand their nature. Are they still human? Caldwell thinks not, as she obsessively takes them apart with surgical tools. Justineau is not so sure and her emotional bond with a girl called Melanie is complicating things at the facility.
As for Sergent Parks, the guy who runs the day-to-day operations at Hotel Echo, these kids are dangerous. After all, he’s the guy who discovered them and has had first hand experience of just how overwhelming their hunger for flesh can be. He and Justineau are not seeing eye-to-eye and as far is Justineau is concerned Caldwell is out of control.
The kids are imprisoned and when required are strapped securely into wheelchairs and ferried about the facility. By and by it all goes wrong and Parks, Justineau, Caldwell, a soldier called Gallagher and Melanie (test subject Number One because of her extraordinary intellectual abilities) find themselves on the run across the barren wasteland that is now the British countryside in a desperate attempt to reach Beacon and safety. Caldwell needs Melanie for her research, Melanie is attached to Justineau (the only human who has ever shown her any care), and the others just want to survive.
The Girl With All The Gifts is a spare and neatly observed novel that follows in the grand tradition of Romero’s groundbreaking original zombie film, Night Of The Living Dead, which is centered on a group of disparate people thrust together by circumstance and trying to find a way forward against increasingly insurmountable odds. MR Carey is a novelist whose main source of income has been writing for comics (X-Men for Marvel as well as numerous projects for DC) and graphic novels. The tight narrative structure required for this type of prose has shaped him into an economical wordsmith who knows how to spin a compelling yarn without wasting space.
The book is a reliable page-turner with a well considered plot and neatly drawn characters that respects the reader’s intelligence and left me thinking that good writing is good writing regardless of genre. To hell with literature snobs – zombies make just as good a backdrop for tales of the human condition as do the sorts of themes and settings favoured by actual proper writers.
Okay, now I had read the book I just had to take a look at the film, which turns out to be very much in the tradition kicked off by Danny Boyle’s genius film 28 Days Later (2002) and its follow up 28 Weeks Later (2007). The Girl With All The Gifts could well have been titled 28 Years Later judging by the overgrown cityscapes our little band of adventurers are wandering across as they head for the sanctuary of Beacon.
In actuality, we are only eight years out from the initial outbreak but the huge mature trees filling the streets of London suggest a timeframe more in line with decades. The landscape is actually the abandoned Pripyat City in the heart of the Chernobyl exclusion zone, whose brutalist Sovietism is not London by any stretch of the imagination. Nice try, but it does serve to make the film feel a little b-grade, as in low budget. They would have been better off sticking to those neatly rendered CGI images of an overgrown London that otherwise worked so well.
The rest of it is filmed on sets and the results are quaint rather than convincing, reminding me of the TV shows I grew up watching in the late 1960s. I am thinking Star Trek, Lost In Space and Land Of The Giants, all formed on soundstages with sets that are inexpensive and suggestive rather than comprehensive. Maybe this was a purposeful stylistic decision?
The cast is a neat list of top line character actors including Glenn Close as the Dr Mengele like Caldwell, the ever-reliable Paddy Constantine (Dead Man’s Shoes) as Sergeant Parks and Gemma Arterton (Quantum Of Solace) as Justineau. They do a fine job with what they have. Melanie is helmed by an earnest Sennia Nanua whose uneven performance takes the edge off things, if only a little.
The film mostly stays true to a book written for easy big screen translation, but for reasons unknown the production team has eschewed some essential plot elements, leaving the film structure feeling a little flimsy. In the book, the fall of Hotel Echo is an event which tells us a larger story about the state of the world as it stands, but in the film version the security fences are easily knocked down by Hungries after being perfectly adequate for many, many months. Expedient but clumsy.
Colm McCarthy is an episodic TV director, and struggles a bit with the longer format of a feature film. The Girl With All The Gifts lacks sustained tension (sadly so, because the book hums along like fire on a fuse) and dramatic flair. A friend had seen it before I did and her opinion pretty much sums up my own: “It’s okay”. Still, there is potential for more from this loose franchise, and that would be nice. The British do post-apocalyptic better than most.
I am remembering how much I loved post-apocalyptic scenarios in my youth, a strange dislocated time when I feared my natural lonerist tendencies. In my less guarded moments I dreamt of long walks through cityscapes returned to nature. It was a silent and abstract world, and I was happily adrift in it. There were never any zombies, thrills, adventures or other people. My post-apocalyptic landscape was all about the mystical unconscious.
So what is the attraction of the zombie besides the obvious scare fest? Could it be down to some existential dread based on the loss of individuality? Whatever it is, it’s a popular theme and a reliable moneymaker. The other big player here is the body-snatching genre: that’s when ethereal alien beings take over the individual’s body, eliminate the consciousness and turn it into a vessel for themselves.
Stephenie Meyer’s (the Twilight series) The Host is a modern classic (though the sputtering 2013 film adaptation by Kiwi Andrew Niccol is not). Of the several other films originating from Jack Finney’s 1954 sci-fi novel The Body Snatchers, the best are the 1958 and 1978 versions titled Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Both are perfectly realised and are a ‘must see’ for those so inclined. The 1978 film features Leonard Nimoy as a charismatic cult psychiatrist and a brilliantly hysterical Donald Sutherland as a city health inspector on a mission to save the world from creeping threat. The final reveal is a classic.