Race, Horror and the Death of the Status Quo

By  · Published on March 1st, 2017

What ‘Get Out’ and ‘The Girl With All the Gifts’ teach us about the future of cinema.

Last October, The Ringer’s K. Austin Collins wrote a piece about Jordan Peele’s then-upcoming Get Out and the horror genre’s potential to do more than simply rehash the familiar anxieties of black characters in film. “The future of horror,” Collins wrote, “can and should be one in which race amounts to more than a historical past.” When Collins finally had an opportunity to review the film this past month, he praised the film for doing just that, noting that Peele posits racism “not as a historical challenge to overcome but rather as something uncanny and unknowable.” In both pieces, Collins argues for – and engages with – films he hopes will place issues of race solidly in the present… and, perhaps, the future.

But while the cultural impact of Get Out was almost immediately felt – winning over non-Armond White critics and audiences alike – another film slipped into theaters that only served to further Collins’s point. The Girl With All the Gifts, a low-budget adaptation of M.R. Carey’s novel of the same name, is also a horror film, albeit one considerably more interested in humanity’s future than its present. In this film, a young girl – half-zombie, half-human – attempts to integrate herself into a group of survivors who treat her with disgust and mistrust. And together, the two films offer a biting critique of horror, race, and who benefits from the status quo.

Let’s start with Get Out, the film of the two you’ve probably already seen. No review I could offer would do justice to Peele’s nuanced exploration of horror and race; for that, you are strongly encouraged to read the aforementioned K. Austin Collins piece or this insightful conversation at Son of Baldwin between Law Ware and Robert Jones, Jr. As these critics have noted, Get Out does a tremendous job of flipping the script on its white audience members, subverting familiar horror tropes and not-so-gently nudging people to examine their own place in the narrative. As the film barrels towards its bloody conclusion and Chris is forced to cut through an upper-class white family, Peele’s film delights in showing us how ever-present issues of race truly are. When the sight of a police car causes an entire audience to gasp, you’ve tapped into that “uncanny and unknowable” concept of racism that Collins discussed.

Chris is not the only black character to take survival into his own hands, however; that honor also belongs to the young heroine of Colm McCarthy’s The Girl With All the Gifts. Melanie (Sennia Nanua) is a girl caught between two worlds. Infected by the zombie fungus while still in the womb – she is told at one point that she had eaten her way out of her mother’s body while still an infant – Melanie is nevertheless capable of rational thought and human compassion when not consumed by hunger. It is only when Melanie picks up the smell of blood does she revert, pursuing any living thing within smelling distance. Despite adopting the non-threatening mannerisms she knows will endear her to the soldiers – in her politeness, she refers to each captor by their rank or title – the survivors see her only for her violent potential or the promise of a cure that comes with her destruction.

The unique idea at the core of The Girl With All the Gifts is that the walking dead may be a necessary evil in the evolution of mankind. Unlike most zombie movies, which end on an ambiguous note, The Girl With All the Gifts ends with the destruction of all mankind. Melanie chooses to trigger the next stage of the infection’s evolution, allowing the fungus to become airborn and wiping out all human life across the planet. In the movie’s most haunting scene, Melanie is asked by Glenn Close’s military doctor to sacrifice herself for the sake of a possible cure. “Why should it be us who die for you?” Melanie asks, setting the fungus on fire and filling the air with plumes of smoke. As the air fills with seeds, Melanie comforts one of the dying soldiers, telling him that humanity is not over, “it’s just not yours anymore.”

Review – ‘Get Out’ Brings the Funny But Fumbles Some of the Serious

Both Get Out and The Girl With All the Gifts offer the kind of scathing critique of society and the status quo that can only be found within the horror genre. Not only do Chris and Melanie spend much of their films attempting to “pass” in a society that views them with disgust, they are also horrified to discover that they are only the latest in a long line of victims served up to ensure the survival of others. When they fight back, then, it isn’t only for themselves; they are salting the earth to prevent the hatred and violence of their oppressors from ever taking root again. We watch Chris butcher an entire family, we watch Melanie end the entire world, and not only does our faith in their heroism never waver, we root for both characters every single step of the way. There can be no future alongside those who treat Chris and Melanie as commodities to be exhausted.

After decades of horror films that have pointed to the “other” as a source of fear and discomfort, it is striking to see two films in theaters at the same time that present their white characters as not just an enemy to overcome, but as a society to upend. Much has been written already about the horror genre’s powerful resonance in 2017, and with plenty of prestige and studio horror films still in the pipeline, my gut tells me that there are plenty of articles left to come. But with both Get Out and The Girl With All the Gifts offering us an unflinching look at a society that must die so that diversity can live, it’s hard to imagine any movies matching the one-two punch of this past weekend at the box office.

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Matthew Monagle is an Austin-based film and culture critic. His work has appeared in a true hodgepodge of regional and national film publications. He is also the editor and co-founder of Certified Forgotten, an independent horror publication. Follow him on Twitter at @labsplice. (He/Him)