If the phrase “Arnold Schwarzenegger Zombie Movie” calls to mind action-movie insanity, with catchphrases and machine guns and exploding corpses, Maggie — a quietly dark study of grief, terminal illness, and the bond between parent and child — is not the Arnold Schwarzenegger Zombie Movie you’re looking for.
Though he does wield an axe in Maggie, it’s mostly (mostly) for the purposes of chopping wood, a necessary task since the farmhouse he occupies with his wife, Caroline (Joely Richardson), and their two young kids gets its power from a generator. America, or at least the rural Midwest, is functioning under a new set of rules since the worldwide outbreak of the “necro-ambulist virus,” which decimated cities but is now mostly contained. Technology has gotten simpler — a rotary phone is deployed, but a dying cell phone suggests this is a 21st century tale — but the battered survivors have kept up their lives as best as possible.
That’s a challenge with zombies in the mix, but order is maintained according to some new public-safety laws that make sense in practice, but present monumental emotional challenges to those who are tempted to break them. There’s a specific protocol for the infected, prescribed by doctors and enforced by police: after a person is bitten, he or she is permitted to spend the six or eight weeks before “the turn” with family and other loved ones. But once the contagious (and generally otherwise dangerous) symptoms of zombie-ness begin to set in, the patient is whisked away to “quarantine,” where certain (and excruciatingly painful) death awaits.
We glean most of this information via a conveniently exposition-heavy NPR report that plays as Schwarzenegger’s character, Wade, journeys to nearby Kansas City in search of his teenage daughter, Maggie (Abigail Breslin). She’s the product of his first marriage, to a wife that passed away before zombies began to roam. Maggie’s been missing for weeks, but she turns up in a hospital nursing an angry-looking bite mark on her arm. She’s released into Wade’s care, into a world filled with reminders of the ticking clock that now governs her life.
As Maggie slowly, painfully begins to succumb to her disease, Wade is faced with a terrible dilemma. The local doctor, who happens to be the father of Maggie’s best friend, sorrowfully advises Wade that Maggie’s unavoidable death should be handled at home. Like, with a shotgun blast — something Wade can’t imagine doing, even after he witnesses the horror of a neighbor whose decision to hide her zombified husband and young daughter does not end well for anyone.
Maggie, the first feature for director Henry Hobson and screenwriter John Scott 3, presents an extremely turned-down (and often rather under-lit) take on the zombie film, offering nods to genre tropes early on, as when Wade and Maggie stop at an abandoned-looking gas station ... “looking” being the operative word, because everyone knows zombies love lurking in such places. That scene gives viewers a chance to see Schwarzenegger crack an undead neck, but most of the movie unfolds as a dread-fueled march toward the inevitable, and its marquee star — not generally known for his acting chops — grapples with internal struggles that far outweigh anything his still-formidable (at 68 years old!) biceps can crush.
Thus, the viewer feels the odd sensation of watching a legendary action hero mope through what’s essentially a melodrama with a sad-piano score and a few memorably macabre body-horror moments. Maggie is so morose that one’s mind may wander during some of the sobbing, wondering at a few of the plot holes. For instance: in what touchy-feely post-apocalypse police state would people who are known zombies-in-the-making be allowed to freely roam amid the populace? Would that ever happen? Wouldn’t there be more of a shoot-on-sight survival mentality going on at that point?
But. Still. You have to give the arty Maggie props for daring to try something different. We’ve seen Schwarzenegger play the intensely protective Papa Bear before (what’s up, Commando?), but never like this. We’ve seen (and enjoyed) plenty of high-octane zombie films, but there really hasn’t been one as somber as this before. It’s an interesting, admirable effort that just doesn’t quite hold together at the end.