The zombie film has undergone so many reboots, iterations and dismantling that it takes something particularly unique to resonate.
In Henry Hobson’s debut film Maggie, that something is Arnold Schwarzenegger in a supporting role as a father struggling to maintain the serenity of ordinary home life as the zombie infection spreads around them. Despite the big name, the film is far removed from the idea of stunt casting. Yes, Schwarzenegger might draw more people to this than someone else, but Maggie works (and actually excels) because it’s a mournful, contemplative effort that denies the easy route of extraneous violence and typical zombie gore and emphasizes the pervasive sadness of losing touch with one’s humanity.
Essentially a father-daughter indie drama with the apocalypse as their backdrop, Maggie wastes little time in establishing any residual history of just how the plague began. Via snippets of radio transmission, we learn of some virus sweeping the world in which people experience “the turn” and become hungry for human flesh. Crops are ordered to be burned and anyone harboring an infected person outside of certain quarantine zones could be liable for punishment.
In this confused haze, Wade (Schwarzenegger) stumbles through a quarantine ward searching for his infected daughter Maggie (Abigail Breslin) after she ran away from home and was eventually found in urban Kansas City, wandering the streets homeless and scavenging for food. Given preferential treatment by his good friend Dr. Vern (Jodi Moore), Wade is allowed to take his daughter home and care for her until it’s time she be brought to a quarantine.
The logic here is that infection ranges from two to eight weeks, with symptoms and signs already clearly established, which allows authorities and clinical physicians a certain set of guidelines to act within. Body parts begin to decay, eyes turn a milky white and the infected maintains their personalty, feelings and reasons of deduction right up until the end and “the turn.” It’s a frightening and potent parable, much like the recently released It Follows, which attributes old school horror film specifications onto the damned youth of modern day America.
From there, Maggie becomes a slow-burn, sad waiting game. The local police (J.D. Evermore and Douglas Griffin) continually provide paranoia through their random “check-ups” on the farm. Step mother Caroline (Joely Richardson) doesn’t understand how to react and Wade continually evaluates the possibilities of how he’ll handle the end when it comes. There are no great infected horde homestead battles, just small, intimate ruminations that feel as oppressive and grand as any melee scenarios on the hugely successful The Walking Dead series.
As Maggie, Abigail Breslin does a touching job, striking the right amount of teenage awkwardness within her impossible situation, even still calling up an old boyfriend and hesitating when the answering machine clicks on, scared and unsure of exactly what to say. Likewise, Schwarzenegger, hidden behind a scruffy beard and weathered face, gives a solemn performance. If not for his unmistakable voice, one might not even recognize the former action star beneath his measured gait and quiet eyes that carefully watch and observe every twitch of his daughter as she descends into the clutches of the infection.
Filmmaker Hobsen, based on a script by John Scott 3, crafts poetic mood and tempo throughout. Even though the low budget touchstones are there, Maggie never feels burdened by them. And because the film chooses to magnify the inner turmoil of the zombie apocalypse, it’s fitting that we’re given only three or four settings and a handful of characters to tighten our focus.
After all, George A. Romero’s original vision in the film that started it all, Night of the Living Dead, was ultimately a subversive, independent treatise on racial inequality of the day. It’s only fitting that Maggie extends the incubation period for what feels like an agonizing amount of time to allow for lots of hand-wringing and emotional stasis in which we’re forced to observe a loved one waste away in front of our eyes. Apply any current sickness to that equation and, like Romero, the film has a lot on its subversive mind.
The film will open in limited release at the AMC Grapevine Mills and Look Cinemas in Dallas on Friday, May 8, as well as Video on Demand the same date.