From its petri dish in the horror genre, the zombie virus has mutated and spread through almost every imaginable film genre. In the last few years alone, we’ve had zom-coms (Zombieland, Zombeavers), rom-zom-coms (Shaun of the Dead, Warm Bodies, Life After Beth), triple-A blockbusters (I Am Legend, World War Z), period mash-ups (Abraham Lincoln vs Zombies), documentaries (Birth of the Living Dead, Doc of the Dead), mockumentaries (American Zombie) war movies (Dead Snow), westerns (Gallowwalkers), sci-fi (The Last Days on Mars), found footage films (REC, et al.), video game adaptations (the Resident Evil series), serious-minded films (28 Days Later) – even Scooby-Doo on Zombie Island (surprisingly good). Now, as the 50th anniversary of George A Romero’s Night of the Living Dead approaches, the subgenre may be entering its ‘interesting indie’ phase, with films like The Battery, Open Grave,The Dead, and now Maggie, starring – in what may be his first acting role – Arnold Schwarzenegger.
If you tried to imagine the kind of zombie movie Arnie might make, particularly after the success of I Am Legend and World War Z, you’d probably picture Arnie in a film about a one-man ass-kicking army – Zommando, if you will – rather than a melancholy, dying-of-the-light indie, liberally sprinkled with Malickian sunlight-through-tree shots and mournful piano music. And yet here he is as Wade Vogel, an ordinary father – complete with serious-actor beard (cf. Nicolas Cage in Joe) – dutifully sticking by his teenage daughter, Maggie (Abigal Breslin), who is fatally infected with the ‘necroambulist’ (‘walking dead’) virus.
The film opens several months after the first outbreak, with infection rates dropping, and some semblance of normalcy returning to life in rural Missouri. A curfew is in force, the infected are quarantined (and eventually euthanised), while people in the first stage of infection, like Maggie, are allowed to stay with their families until their symptoms have progressed beyond Stage One. (This, admittedly, requires a leap of logic faith, since the disease mutates at different rates and the infected are extremely dangerous.) Maggie’s stepmother (Joely Richardson) is less than thrilled by the idea of having Maggie at home with a creeping zombie virus – not to mention a great black weeping sore on her arm – especially as she and Wade have two younger children to protect. But Arnie’s authority is absolute, and thus an awkward period of home care begins as Maggie circles the drain, warily observed by local law enforcement in case she should get ‘bitey’.
Directed by first-timer Henry Hobson, a prolific British graphic artist whose work can be seen on The Walking Dead, The Tree of Life, The Thing and Fright Night remakes, and The Last of Us videogame, Maggie has a lot going for it, not least two outstanding central performances, one from a reliably brilliant 19-year-old with proven acting chops (Breslin, so good in Signs, Little Miss Sunshine, Zombieland and Haunter) and another from a 67-year-old megastar better known for his physique, one-liners and one-time box office might than his chameleon-like ability to disappear into acting roles. It’s interesting, too, that the film doesn’t topple over under the weight of Schwarzenegger’s diminished but still considerable star wattage. Hobson is to be applauded for coaxing an effectively understated performance out of the former action hero, but Schwarzenegger deserves credit, too, for a willingness to stretch further than his other post-‘Governator’ roles – The Last Stand, Escape Plan, Sabotage, The Expendables films and Terminator Genisys – have permitted.
Unfortunately, all of this isn’t quite enough to make Maggie an entirely worthwhile enterprise. The post-infection world is realistically imagined, but isn’t terribly interesting, forcing the focus on the family dynamic, itself ill-served by an underwritten screenplay, by first-timer John Scott 3 (no old-timey ‘III’ for the son of John Scott, Jr.), which sometimes feels like one of the weaker episodes of The Walking Dead, except with characters in which you’re not entirely invested. Maggie perhaps aims to capture some of that show’s sense of melancholy and despair, but here it feels unearned; yes, we’re saddened by the imminent demise of a teenage girl, and of the plight of her father, who has already lost his wife (Maggie’s mother) to a more pedestrian ailment, but the ramifications of this – not to mention a potentially promising subtext about the treatment of the terminally ill, and the issue of euthanasia – remain unexplored, and despite an interesting premise and two highly watchable performances, Maggie is ultimately a bit… drab.
David Hughes (@DavidHughesTwit)