By this point in the history of the zombie movie, the genre is not exactly known for its surfeit of fresh ideas. The Walking Dead, Day of the Dead, Dawn of the Dead, Diary of the Dead, Shaun of the Dead, Juan of the Dead, Dance of the Dead, even Flight of the Living Dead – the dead (or undead, I suppose), they have had their time in the sun, and then some.
But then along comes a new challenger to the otherwise, ahem, brain-dead canon: The Girl with All the Gifts, a twisty take on flesh-eating films from Scottish director Colm McCarthy. Here, the world is a zombie-ridden hellscape, sure, but a cure might also lay in the most unusual of places: the blood of half-zombie, half-human schoolchildren, especially one young subject named Melanie (newcomer Sennia Nanua) who might hold the key to the world's survival – if not exactly humanity's.
McCarthy, best known overseas for his television work on Peaky Blinders and Sherlock, spoke with The Globe and Mail about resuscitating an otherwise decaying art form.
This is such an unusual take on the zombie film for a few reasons, but first because audiences are just thrown into the world you've created and all expectations of what a zombie-fied world look like are tossed aside. Is that what attracted you most to the project?
When [screenwriter Mike Carey] and I developed it from his short story, it was mostly all about playing around with any concepts you might have of who is a protagonist in a zombie film and who is an antagonist and messing around with them. We built the story up together by using one idea: what is a monster and what is innocence? The idea of just throwing audiences into this world was a thing we also decided to do together, because that's always interesting, isn't it?Science fiction is boring when someone starts explaining the science to me.
Mike's novel was also written alongside his screenplay. That's pretty unusual, no?
Yeah, but it's just the way it worked out. Mike had written the short story and we talked about it as a film, chatted about the story and after he wrote the treatment [for the film], the two projects diverged. We shifted the point of view, for instance, from multiple characters to just Melanie, though it's interesting as novels, horror novels that is, have a good tradition of playing around with multiple perspectives, because you can then mess around with who's a good guy, who's a victim. It was interesting in talking with Mike after – I haven't actually read the book yet – that there are things he prefers in the book, but also some things he prefers in the film.
Have you had a long-standing fascination with the zombie genre?
I've seen a lot of zombie films as a teenager and I think teens in general, or teen boys, watch a lot of horror. There's a lot of morbidity that goes on in that age. But at this point in my life, it was more using the zombie movie as a good environment to tell a story in. I wasn't desperate to just make a genre movie.
The genre has proved, though, a great vessel to tell whatever kind of story you're interested in telling.
That's the great metaphor that zombies offer, a window into our own mortality and the helplessness of being human. I read an interesting myth about where the notion of zombies first came from, a slaver's myth. In Haiti, they had this issue with slaves who were finding the conditions of their enslavement so horrifying and impossible that they were committing suicide. So what the overlords decided to do was pay off the local priests of what we now call voodoo to perpetuate this myth that if you commit suicide, you could still be brought back and enslaved in perpetual living death, a slavery that would last all eternity. Horrifying. So how the myth evolved from that is fascinating, to see it become represented in the films of the seventies where it was all about satirizing society, the [George A.] Romero movies. But for us, it's more about the idea of what does life and death mean and what does it mean to be a fundamental human being? What is a good person and what is a bad person?
Those ideas seem to crystallize in the finale, which could be viewed as pessimistic or optimistic.
What I hoped is to achieve an ending that feels emotionally like a happy ending, but is also surprising in that sense to the audience. You're rooting for something that you normally wouldn't root for on paper. That's the fun of telling a story, isn't it? The hypnosis of tricking people into taking a certain journey.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
The Girl with All the Gifts opens Feb. 24 in select theatres and is available on iTunes.