I’ve liked several of the films Arnold Schwarzenegger’s made since his return to acting a few years back, especially the hugely enjoyable The Last Stand. However I’m apparently an outlier, as nearly all of his recent films have either underperformed or straight-out flopped at the box-office, paling in comparison to his heyday. It’s no real surprise that his next film will see him return to his most famous role as The Terminator (though from the looks of things that might also underwhelm). What’s certainly true is that these films have nearly all been factoring in nostalgia somewhat, drawing from Schwarzenegger’s long history as an action icon. He has actually branched out a bit; doing comedy scenes entirely in German in Escape Plan, playing a much more unpleasant, morally ambiguous antihero in Sabotage, but he’s not done something truly different.
Maggie, his newest film, gives him a chance to do just that. It’s a low-budget, independent zombie movie that played a few festivals before receiving a VOD release. While Arnie may have briefly dabbled in horror before (End of Days), this is a totally different beast; it’s a horror-drama, with far more emphasis on the latter.
Maggie is no typical zombie film, yet still shows a commendable respect for its audience’s familiarity with the genre, never once feeling the need to introduce the concept of a zombie or anything (though it doesn’t call them that). The zombie apocalypse is already in process when the story begins. The world isn’t ruined – there are still police and doctors around, but they have no cure for the spreading infection.
Arnold plays Wade, a farmer whose teenage daughter Maggie (Abigail Breslin) has become infected. He knows he’s supposed to hand her over for ‘quarantine’ but instead defiantly opts to take her back to the farm so they can spend her final days as a family.
While Maggie is a novel approach to zombie movies, it must also tailor the creatures themselves to suit its needs. The zombification process here is drawn-out, taking several days, and the film’s pace reflects this. It’s a slow-burning paternal relationship study more than anything else, there’s very little in terms of action. In some ways this could be just an examination of a parent dealing with a terminally ill child, and there are many scenes that reflect this. It portrays not just the father’s point-of-view on the situation, with a long sequence when Maggie goes off by herself and interacts with other teens, one of whom is also infected. There’s no cheesy Warm Bodies-type romance here, it’s all rather tender.
What of course separates Maggie from the disease analogy, is that when she ‘dies’, she will become an immediate threat to others, such is the concern of both her stepmother (Joely Richardson) and the local cops Wade knows. We get some moments of conflict that feel familiar in a zombie movie if more spread-out of Wade’s reluctance to accept that he’s going to have to shoot her, but this leads to a climax containing a startling moment unseen in a zombie movie.
As for Arnie himself, he does a fine job here. It’s a wholly new character for him, playing a vulnerable man, yet at no time does he feels stretched by the material or resort to overacting. His uncharacteristically low-key acting suits the sombre tone of the film itself and he never feels at all out-of-place.
The film itself is atmospherically directed by newcomer Henry Hobson, boasting a lovely score and excellent cinematography. It contains many striking shots, such as a child zombie encounter and a uniquely filmed desperate suicide scene, but perhaps there is just too little story here to really elevate Maggie. Still, it is trying to something commendably new with both zombie films and its leading man.