For years, there has been a collective fantasy of a film pitting Arnold Schwarzenegger against a zombie apocalypse. Between all the opportunities for exploding heads and one-liners, the thing just felt like a can’t miss opportunity! Unfortunately, an Arnie zombie movie is finally here and it’s pretty much the exact opposite of what you’d hope for.
The big guy stars as a sad dad with a sad face and a sad walk. Why, you ask? Well, because he’s living in the midst of a fairly contained zombie apocalypse. The zombies are here and they are rampant, but it takes eight weeks for the bitten to go full zombie, so there’s plenty of time for quarantine measures to be taken. The reason Arnie is such a sad sack is because his daughter (Abigail Breslin) was recently bitten and now he’s got to play the waiting game trying to make her last few weeks of life as painless as possible. The bulk of the film is spent in a farmhouse, wallowing in this zombie-as-terminal-illness metaphor with the emphasis on quiet, somber drama. The movie takes a couple breaks from that norm when Arnie offs a few zombies (like you do) and when Breslin attempts one last night out with friends. Otherwise, the movie is all about claustrophobic misery.
The film’s biggest strength is its acting. The great Austrian mountain that is Arnold Schwarzenegger actually gives a pretty damn good performance. Granted, it’s very underplayed. His character is a man of few words and fewer postures, so the bulk of the work is done simply by looking at Arnold’s grizzled face, which director Henry Hobson lingers on lovingly. Schwarzenegger keeps it simple and subtle, even squeezing out the first tear that his face has probably ever released. (It’s amazing the tear wasn’t so intimidated by Arnie that it had to crawl back up the eyehole, but I guess the big guy is softening in old age.)
Arnold proves to be far more credible as a fragile human character than ever before. Even better is Breslin, also cast against perky type. She does the heavy lifting in the movie, burned out from frame one and in a constant state of deterioration. It would have been easy for the actress to flail and wail in big dramatic breakdown scenes, but she keeps things quiet as well and carves out a far more heartbreaking performance.
In fact, ‘Maggie’ might be the most subtle, sad and quiet zombie movie ever made. That’s not necessarily a good thing. A little bit of po-faced drama in a zombie movie goes a long way. It’s clear that Hobson and his screenwriter John Scott 3 (yes, he puts a number in his name) were trying to play with the genre, removing all the sensationalism of zombie flicks to see what a movie would feel like with just the tragic human spine. At times it’s interesting, but ultimately it’s just too much of too little. Zombie movies should be fun, after all, or at least frightening. There’s none of that here. Most of the screen time is dedicated to hopeless crying. If that had never been part of zombie entertainment before, it might feel like a revelation. But let’s face it, heavy handed metaphors and human misery are as significant zombie staples as flesh-munching, hording masses, and entrails.
As a matter of fact, everything that the filmmakers cover in ‘Maggie’ within the narrative, characterization, tone and drama was in the original ‘Night of the Living Dead’. This movie is essentially a feature length expansion of the subplot in George Romero’s groundbreaking classic about a family protecting their bitten daughter. That Romero managed to cram it all into a secondary story and capped it off with an unforgettably horrifying finale (which the folks behind ‘Maggie’ didn’t even attempt) kind of proves that there isn’t an entire movie in the idea.
‘Maggie’ features two strong lead performances and some clever ideas, but the movie isn’t close to being as clever, insightful or original as it thinks it is. We’ve seen this all before, and given how overloaded the current culture is with zombie content, there was really no need to see it again.