Like most horror fans, I love zombies. Movies like White Zombie, Dawn of the Dead, and Train to Busan rank among my all-time favorite horror films, so my appreciation for this subgenre runs pretty deep. But somewhat surprisingly (to some people, at least), my favorite thing about these movies isn’t the blood, gore, and zombie action. Rather, in my opinion, the best thing about them is that they often have deep, insightful messages, and one of the best in that regard is The Girl with All the Gifts.
This film has everything zombie fans crave, like blood, violence, and cool monsters, but it’s not just another unimaginative Night of the Living Dead rip-off. It puts some really interesting twists on the typical zombie mythology we all know and love, and it tells a very different kind of zombie story than we’re used to. Those unique touches make The Girl with All the Gifts unlike anything this subgenre has ever given us, so let’s take a deep dive into this beautiful movie and see what important lessons we can learn from it.
Setting the Stage
When The Girl with All the Gifts begins, we find ourselves in what seems to be some sort of prison/school hybrid, and we see a bunch of soldiers treating the children there very harshly. In particular, the movie focuses on a girl who we later find out is named Melanie, and the soldiers treat her like she’s a top-level threat. For example, they approach her slowly with their guns pointed at her, they strap her into a wheelchair so she can’t really move, and they refuse to talk to her.
Being thrown right into the middle of this strange situation is a bit jarring, so at first, you have no idea what to make of it. It’s basically child abuse, and it’s pretty disgusting. These are human beings, not rabid animals, so you have no idea why any of this is happening. However, as the movie goes on, you learn the truth behind this harsh place, and it all starts to make a bit more sense, even if you still don’t agree with it.
You find out that the world is in the midst of a zombie outbreak, and these kids are second-generation zombies. See, the zombie infection in The Girl with All the Gifts is caused by a fungus (not a virus), and when that fungus infects a pregnant woman, her unborn child also becomes infected. But unlike their mothers, these second-generation zombies aren’t the wild, animalistic monsters we typically see in these movies. For the most part, they look and act just like normal human beings, so it can be tough to tell them apart from uninfected children.
However, there is one big difference between them and the rest of the population. Since they’re still infected, they have some very dangerous zombie-like instincts, and they often struggle to control them. And that’s why the soldiers in this facility are so afraid of the kids. These children are all second-generation zombies, so the soldiers, teachers, and scientists who work there have to take every precaution to stay safe. If one of them gets bitten, they’ll become a (first-generation) zombie, and we all know how bad that would be.
On top of that, because these children are infected, most of the people who work with them don’t consider them truly human. In fact, at one point in The Girl with All the Gifts, one of the soldiers stops the kids’ teacher, a woman named Miss Justineau, from touching one of her students, and he angrily tells her, “You think something’s human because it’s made in the right shape.”
In isolation, that comment doesn’t make much sense, but in this context, its meaning is totally clear. The guy is saying that even though these children look human (they’re “made in the right shape”), they’re actually something else. They’re monsters bereft of human dignity, and they should be treated as such.
Miss Justineau obviously thinks differently, but she can’t say so. She has to agree with the man, and that sets the stage for the rest of the movie. The Girl with All the Gifts is essentially an exploration of human dignity, and it uses these second-generation zombie children (and in particular, Melanie) to make its point that all human beings have an inherent dignity and deserve to be treated with love and respect.
What Human Dignity Means
This really comes to the fore a few scenes later, when the head scientist at the facility, a woman named Dr. Caldwell, brings Melanie to her lab and tries to dissect her in order to make a zombie vaccine. At the last minute, Miss Justinaeu steps in and stops Caldwell from going through with her plan, and the two of them have a brief discussion about it. Justineau says Caldwell shouldn’t be killing children, and she argues that you only need to talk to these kids for five minutes to see that they’re human beings. In contrast, Caldwell contends that these second-generation zombies simply “present as children,” and she ends the discussion by saying, “What you’re feeling, I accept it, but I can’t afford it.”
It’s a brief scene, but it really encapsulates everything The Girl with All the Gifts has to say. For starters, in a somewhat counterintuitive way, Caldwell’s plan underscores the meaning of human dignity by going in the completely opposite direction. She wants to use Melanie as a means to achieve her desired end of creating a zombie vaccine, but the whole point of human dignity is that we’re not simply a means to further ends. Rather, each and every one of us is an end in ourselves.
In other words, we’re not just objects for other people to use and abuse as they wish. We deserve to be treated with love and respect, and while we could spend hours debating and talking about what exactly that entails, one thing is pretty clear: human dignity means that you can’t harm another person to achieve your own ends, no matter how good those ends may be. So even though Caldwell’s desire to create a zombie vaccine is obviously good, she’s going about it the wrong way. She’s treating Melanie like an object rather than a human being, and that’s a gross violation of the girl’s dignity.
Secondly, Caldwell’s final line that she “can’t afford” to view Melanie as a human being highlights a really sad truth about our world. Deep down, she knows Melanie isn’t a monster. She knows Melanie is a human being like you and me, and she doesn’t have a good reason for denying it. She simply wants Melanie to be less than human so she can use her to make a vaccine, and that kind of dehumanizing doublethink has been going on for ages.
Every time one group of people wants to persecute or mistreat another group in any way, they always have to dehumanize their victims. To take just one example, when slavery was legal in America, White people had to tell themselves that the Black people they enslaved weren’t fully human. Otherwise, they wouldn’t have been able to treat them so cruelly, and the same thing continues today in modern forms of slavery like sex trafficking.
Because of that, we have to be really careful about how we think and talk about people. While words may seem inconsequential, the truth is that the way we talk deeply affects the way we think, so if we start talking about people in dehumanizing ways, we’ll start thinking that way as well. And if we start thinking of other people as less than human, we’ll treat them as less than human, and we’ll end up acting just like Dr. Caldwell in The Girl with All the Gifts. Sure, we may not literally try to kill someone to make a zombie vaccine, but we’ll violate people’s dignity, all the same, so we need to be really careful to always view others as human beings with the exact same dignity that we have.
Thirdly, Miss Justineau’s argument that Caldwell only needs to spend five minutes with these kids to see that they’re human foreshadows the rest of the movie pretty clearly. Once their brief conversation is over, the facility becomes overrun with (first-generation) zombies, and only a few people make it out alive. Among them are Melanie, Caldwell, Justineau, and a few soldiers, and as they try to find a way to survive in this zombie-infested world, Caldwell and the soldiers slowly come to realize that Melanie really is human.
At first, everyone except Miss Justineau treats Melanie poorly, just like they did before. For example, they call her “it” instead of “she” and “her,” they give her an almost Hannibal Lecter-like mask so she won’t bite anyone, and they’re super rude when she talks to them. However, as The Girl with All the Gifts goes on, they begin to rely on her more and more for their survival.
In particular, there are a few times when they find themselves surrounded by zombies with no clear way out, and she helps them escape. Since she’s a zombie herself, the other zombies won’t attack her, so she can go out among them and look for ways the group can get away safely. There’s even one scene where she doesn’t find any routes that are clear of zombies, so she uses a stray dog to lead the creatures away and create an opening for her companions.
Because of that, it quickly becomes harder and harder for Caldwell and the soldiers to wilfully blind themselves to the truth about Melanie. She has multiple chances to go off on her own and leave the group to fend for themselves, but she doesn’t. Instead, she helps them again and again, even to the point of putting herself in real danger sometimes, so she’s clearly not just a monster that mimics human behavior for its own benefit. Rather, as we viewers have known all along, she’s a human being just like them.
However, even in the face of all that evidence, Dr. Caldwell still tries to deny Melanie’s humanity one last time. Towards the end of The Girl with All the Gifts, Caldwell attempts to dissect the girl again, and she even says that Melanie should sacrifice herself for the people she loves, including Miss Justineau. At first, it looks like this new tactic is going to work, but then Melanie asks Caldwell if she thinks the second-generation zombie kids are really human. Surprisingly, Caldwell admits that they are, and in response, Melanie utters arguably the most powerful line in the entire movie: “Then why should it be us who die for you?”
With that brief exchange, The Girl with All the Gifts explicitly confirms the key points it hinted at in Miss Jusineau’s conversation with Dr. Caldwell the first time she tried to dissect Melanie. Remember, during that discussion, Justineau said that you only need to spend five minutes with these children to see that they’re human, and while Caldwell obviously spent more than five minutes with Melanie, Justineau’s main point still stands. By spending time with the girl, Dr. Caldwell came to realize that she really is human, so she has the same dignity that Caldwell herself has. Sure, Melanie may be different in some respects (most notably, she’s infected with a symbiotic fungus and has some zombie-like instincts), but at her core, she’s still a human being.
And that’s an incredibly important point for us to keep in mind as well. We too can fall into the trap of focusing so much on the ways other people differ from us that we forget the most important thing of all, our shared humanity. Granted, no two people are exactly alike, and some people may even be vastly different from us, just like Melanie is vastly different from Dr. Caldwell in some key ways. But beneath all those differences, they’re still human beings, so they still have the exact same dignity we do.
On top of that, Melanie’s line, “Then why should it be us who die for you?” highlights what human dignity is all about. As we talked about before, the whole point of it is that we’re not just objects for other people to use and abuse. Rather, we deserve to be loved and respected, so it’s wrong for someone to use another person as a means to their own ends. And that’s exactly what Melanie is saying in this scene! She’s calling out Dr. Caldwell for violating her human dignity by trying to use her as a means to create a zombie vaccine.
A Vision of Dignity for All
At the end of The Girl with All the Gifts, Melanie and Miss Justineau are the only two members of their group left alive, and the final shot shows Justineau teaching a class of second-generation zombie children, with Melanie helping to keep them in line. It’s a cool little moment, and it beautifully embodies the message of the entire movie.
It shows different people coming together and living peacefully on the basis of their shared humanity, and that’s a microcosm of what the world should be. All of us, regardless of our race, age, religion, gender, level of development, sexual orientation, or any other differences we may have, are equally human, so we’re all equally valuable. We all deserve to be loved and respected and to live a life free from violence, persecution, or oppression of any kind, and anything less is a gross violation of our human dignity, just like the way Dr. Caldwell and the soldiers treat Melanie in The Girl with All the Gifts is a gross violation of her dignity.