Arnold Schwarzenegger in a slow-moving, emotionally wrought indie was enough to pique my interest at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival. “Maggie,” a post-apocalyptic zombie story, is worth seeing just to witness Schwarzenegger’s tender side. His brooding charisma and serious acting anchor this twist on the worn-out zombie genre.
Schwarzenegger’s character, Wade Vogel, is a Midwestern farmer and father of an infected teenager, Maggie (Abigail Breslin). She is fated to turn into a ravenous undead stalker whose sole mission is to chow down on humans. Wade calls in a favor from a friend who works in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and gets Maggie released from the hospital into his care, but only on the condition that Wade returns her to quarantine when she becomes a symptomatic “necroambulist,” i.e., a cannibalistic ghoul.
Along with Maggie’s stepmother, Caroline (Joely Richardson), the family resolves to wait out Maggie’s last days at home. Wade’s determination to keep his daughter with her family is a universal theme in itself — family members burdened with a dying relative, conflicted over taking care of them at home or putting them in an assisted-care facility. Few diseases, however, are as deadly and contagious as necroambulism, so Wade not only exposes himself to infection but also to the wrath of authorities that try to quarantine his daughter for the safety of the community.
The brutal treatment and suffering of those in quarantine is well-established by first-time director Henry Hobson. Wade trudges through the quarantine wards of the hospital in search of his daughter, glimpsing people strapped to gurneys, screaming and writhing in pain or left isolated knowing their wretched fate — to be put down like rabid dogs.
When Maggie has a gossipy night out with teenage friends, her infected boy-crush warns about what really happens to those in quarantine. They’re lied to, he tells her. The treatment drugs are far from painless. Even Wade’s doctor friend from CDC recommends killing Maggie quickly with a bullet rather than turn her over. And herein lies the deeply human twist to this zombie story by the writer credited as John Scott 3. Hobson patiently, scene by scene, reveals a family torn apart by their love for each other against a rural Kansas backdrop of farms burning in an effort to halt the spread of infection.
Breslin is heart-wrenching. Though she tries to tough it out and live up to her father’s stoic strength, you can see the haunting terror in her face as the skin-rotting infection spreads to her extremities. The most glaring fault in this movie, aside from a penchant for long close-ups of Maggie looking wistfully out of her bedroom window or the windshield of her father’s pick up truck — a technique all too familiar in indies about teenage angst — is the dearth of information about the lead character Maggie.
Why did she leave home and stray into zombie territory to begin with? What were her hopes and dreams that will never be realized? There are one or two touching scenes where Maggie reunites with her high-school chums, but they don’t go deep enough into Maggie’s character, and you can’t blame the talented Breslin.
With a better script, this movie could’ve been a major knockout instead of just a pleasant surprise from a first-time director. Still, even if you’re not a fan of the zombie genre, there’s still enough to sink your teeth into.
“Maggie” opens in theaters Friday, May 8, 2015. Rated PG-13. 95 minutes.
Watch the “Maggie” trailer:
Dorri Olds is a contributing journalist for TheBlot Magazine.