In a strong year for smart, unpatronising horror, veteran TV director Colm McCarthy made his second feature (his first being 2010’s distinctive Outcast) with screenwriter Mike Carey adapting his own novel. An understated zombie apocalypse, this largely underplays the visceral money shots the sub-genre would seem to demand, crafting an eerily credible vision of a world ravaged by disease and following the grim plight of those who evaded death.
The girl of the title is Melanie (an impressive debut for Sennia Nanua), a bright and imaginative pre-pubescent whom we first see learning the Periodic table in class, appreciating sympathetic teacher Gemma Arterton’s interpretation of “Pandora’s Box”…and eating a pot full of worms in her darkened cell. Humanity as we know it has been decimated by a fungal infection spread by bodily fluids, turning the afflicted into rabid, insatiable flesh-eaters dubbed “Hungries”. Melanie was among a group of new-borns who ate their way out of their infected mothers’ wombs and are found to be partly immune to the “hungry” pathogen, able to think and interact like normal people. Held captive, studied and educated at a remote army base, the kids are the focus of Doctor Glenn Close’s experiments to find a vaccine, but when the base is bloodily compromised, a small group of survivors are forced on the run with Melanie in tow.
The cinematic zombie universe is so overcrowded, that it’s tougher than ever to find a fresh angle: narrative familiarity is reflected by the movie’s larger-scale set pieces. The creepily desolate, decayed cityscapes and deserted London shopping districts immediately earned the film comparisons to 28 Days Later - in reviews that ignored just how indebted Danny Boyle’s film was to numerous much earlier horror and sci-fi pictures. The most ambitious, overtly gory action sequence, in which a horde of hungries penetrate the army base, is the most generic scene in the film, though – in keeping with the film as a whole – supremely well executed and terrifying.
McCarthy’s film, however, is no compendium of clichés. It certainly builds to scenes of genuine alarm (a gang of feral juvenile “hungries” trap and kill a soldier) though acknowledges the impact to be had from implying more violence than it explicitly depicts. There are clever, and disturbing fresh riffs on the themes at work: the discovery of the plague’s secondary evolution stage incorporates unique and unnerving imagery while setting up a suitably ambiguous closing sequence. The scenes of the classroom “hungries”, manacled to their desks and briefly sent into a jaw-snapping frenzy by Sergeant Paddy Considine to prove their animalistic hunger, are genuinely distressing.
Carey’s screenplay has depth and an emotional undercurrent setting it apart from most of its sub-genre rivals, raising fascinating moral questions and offering no convenient answers. The small cast is top-drawer: Glenn Close has the most conventionally “horror-movie” type character and borderline B-movie dialogue (“It’s the end of the world!”) but handles it all with the vast conviction and sincerity which she brings to everything she does. Considine and Arterton are effectively low key, while young Nanua’s naturalistic portrayal of a multi-layered character suggests a bright future: maturing enough to question her own humanity, she oscillates between normal, playful juvenile behaviour and the inescapable need to eat human flesh. Equally striking is the distinctive, haunting score by Cristobal Tapia de Veer.