Zombie movies carry with them an certain level of expectation, and most check off the tropes one by one, starting with an unexpected breakout followed by plenty of gore. The best of them give us characters that we care about, and put us on edge to see if they’ll survive the undead hordes. The worst deliver simply mindless bloody mayhem, usually accompanied by very bad quips. Every once in a while, though, a filmmaker delivers something a bit different to the genre. George Romero altered our perceptions of the zombie film with Night of the Living Dead in 1968. Danny Boyle did it again in 2003 with 28 Days Later, giving the zombies deadly speed to match their ravenous hunger.
Robert Kirkman revitalized the genre yet again with his comic and later hit TV show The Walking Dead, giving us human drama pitted against the backdrop of the zombie apocalypse. The Resident Evil games and movies carried things in a bit different direction, making the cause of the outbreak tied to a corporation’s dabbling in biological warfare. Now director Henry Hobson in his feature debut delivers something fresh to the genre again by treating zombies more as a terminal disease, and playing off the drama with a father coping with his infected daughter. This is the premise of Maggie, and it succeeds in delivering a fresh take on the zombie movie while being both heartfelt and chilling.
Maggie never calls the victims zombies. Instead, they are victims of the necroambulist virus, and can take weeks to go from human to flesh eater. The film opens with Wade (Arnold Schwarzenegger) searching for his daughter Maggie (Abigail Breslin) in the hospital. He takes her home to his wife and her stepmom Caroline (Joely Richardson), who promptly sends off their two younger children to live with an aunt. The film traces the disease’s progression through Maggie, starting as a small blackened patch on her arm and eventually spreading throughout her body, darkening veins and making her eyes turn milky white. For a zombie film there are actually relatively few encounters with the living dead. Wade does encounter two of his neighbors, a father and a daughter who have turned in a tense little scene, and Maggie gets flashes of the attack that has infected her.
The movie instead focuses on how one deals with a loved one infected by a deadly disease, knowing there is no cure save death. Those who wait too long run the risk of getting infected themselves, and the police try to enforce the idea of putting the infected into quarantine once they cross a certain threshold. Wade is determined to deal with his daughter in his own way, and their releationship is shown over the course of the film, by turns delivering some heartfelt moments and one welcome scene of levity in an otherwise bleak and somber movie. The dread is built up nicely, as we know how this is likely to turn out, but along the way Maggie is very much humanized, as her a couple of her infected friends. We are treated to the human they are rather than the monster they will become, and the film is that much better for it.
This is a very different vehicle for Schwarzenegger, and those going in expecting to see the Terminator lay waste to hordes of flesh eaters are going to be sorely disappointed. Instead we get one of the best dramatic turns of Schwarzenegger’s career, as the action star delivers a nuanced performance told with very little dialogue, instead conveying the emotions he’s feeling through his facial expressions. We see a deep love for his daughter, along with a fierce desire to protect her as he is also weighed down by the knowledge of what’s inevitably to come. Breslin is also fantastic here, going from frightened to having a fatalistic determination to face what’s coming. She delivers the stages of the virus through facial expression, body language, and is helped by some terrific make-up effects. It’s genuinely chilling to see her make the progression towards flesh eating creature, sniffing her stepmom at one moment and saying that she smells food.
Richardson does a nice job as the stepmother trying to stick things out with her husband and his daughter, trying to be the voice of reason with Wade as Maggie grows steadily worse. A doctor and the local police chief also try to give advice, with the doctor giving Wade three options but advising him to take one that will end things quick. The sense of dread is built nicely, and is more an undercurrent than in your face. In that way the chills work a little bit better, especially when combined with some truly emotional moments between father and daughter and Maggie and her friends. Even though the ending is presented as somewhat ambiguous, it doesn’t detract from the overall feeling. There’s a sadness to the whole movie, but it’s one borne of heartfelt emotion and is very relatable to audiences, more so than most zombie scenarios. It’s in this quiet, introspective way that Maggie mostly succeeds.
Maggie is a very different movie than one might have been expecting to release during the summer movie season where things that go boom and splat generally dominate the cinemas. For those looking for a horror fix that’s a bit more quiet and introspective, Maggie may be one for you to watch. Terrific dramatic performances by Schwarzenegger and Breslin make this a drama worth your time, and those performances both touch your heart and leave you with a bit of a chill in the end. It’s nice to see something different released amongst all the bombast. Do yourself a favor. Take a quiet moment, and give Maggie a chance. You may find it to be one of the nicer surprises of this summer movie season.
Maggie is now both in theaters and available on VOD.
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