Just when it seemed like everything had been cleared out in Marvel’s wake, the movie gods bless me with a chance to watch a zombie film in which Abigail Breslin plays an infected and Arnold Freaking Schwarzenegger plays her protective father. If that doesn’t sound the least bit interesting, I can offer you no hope. There’s no possible way that doesn’t sound like an awesome film on paper.
Except that in reality, it isn’t. At all. Oh, it’s hardly a bad film, but it doesn’t contain a single trace of anything that remotely resembles fun.
Maggie is your typical zombie film in that the apocalypse has happened, there’s a global pandemic, undead ghouls are everywhere, you know the drill. The gimmick this time is that people don’t turn within minutes or hours of being infected.
No, the process of turning into a zombie is one that happens over several weeks after getting bitten. In the meantime, the infected are stuck with frequent doctors’ visits and useless informative pamphlets, struggling to maintain a comfortable and at least somewhat normal life before grim finality starts to settle in. And of course, the infected might be able to find support in each others’ company, away from the people who fear them and wish them dead for having an illness through no fault of their own.
Basically, the zombie virus is used as a kind of allegory for living with a chronic and ultimately fatal disease. AIDS is the obvious example, but any other degenerative illness (cancer, Alzheimer’s, etc.) would fit the bill just as well. What makes it worse is that in this particular case, a teenage girl (the eponymous Maggie, played by Breslin) otherwise in the prime of her life has to live with the knowledge that she’s going to die in the immediate future. So it’s kinda like The Fault in Our Stars, except without the romance or the comedy.
Remember, Maggie is becoming a zombie. She’s not going to die quietly in her sleep. She’s going to become a bloodthirsty monster that’s a danger to her family, her friends, and everyone else within running distance. Which means that if she doesn’t bash her own brains in somehow, someone else will eventually have to do it for her. And she has to make her peace with that within the few precious days in which her higher consciousness is still functioning.
Then of course there’s her family. Maggie lives with her father (Wade, played by Schwarzenegger) and her stepmom (Caroline, played by Joely Richardson), along with two half-siblings. The kids are barely worth mentioning, since they’re quickly sent to live with relatives while Maggie’s condition plays out. So it’s Wade and Caroline who have to live with Maggie and maintain some semblance of normalcy, all while struggling with the decision of when to put a bullet in their girl.
If all of this sounds like heavy stuff, that’s because it is. Don’t get me wrong, all zombie fiction deals with mortality and hopelessness to some degree, but most zombie films compensate for that with action scenes or scares to get the blood pumping. Not here. This film is aggressively dour, the drama is laid on very thick, and the brief moments of comic relief are pretty much entirely concentrated at the halfway point. Moreover, the beautifully composed visuals are almost completely drained of color and the sound design further contributes to an oppressively bleak atmosphere.
The actors all turn in fine work as well. Breslin does a superlative job with such a meaty role, and it’s great to see what Schwarzenegger can do when he bothers to give a shit. It’s still tough for him to act through the accent, but at least he’s trying.
However, Wade is a problematic character in so many ways. I get that he’s stuck in a situation with no good solutions, and that sucks. Full sympathy for that. But there’s at least a dozen times in this movie when he flat-out refuses to kill his daughter or let anyone else go near her. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that it should be an easy decision to make. But as Maggie’s condition keeps on declining past the point of no return, it gets harder and harder to sympathize with Wade’s bull-headed determination to let her keep on living and unharmed. Your mileage may vary, of course, but there has to come a time when Wade simply deserves whatever’s coming to him. A guy can only turn down so many warnings before the rest of us just throw up our hands and say “Brother, you asked for it!”
Then there’s the matter of quarantine. Yes, it seems that there’s a sort of concentration camp where infected are legally required to go once their condition has reached a certain point. We never see the place for ourselves, but we hear that the infected are all simply thrown into a pit together regardless of their phase, so they can tear each other apart. The lucky ones who survive that ordeal are given a cocktail of drugs so excruciating that even the undead will feel pain right up until the end.
In summary, the government has set up a quarantine system so awful that the infected and their families have every motivation to break the law, letting the infected rot in the comfort of home, surrounded by the vulnerable living. Way to go, jackasses!
That aside, the fact remains that if the infected are living in Hell anyway, what difference does it make? If nothing else, at least they won’t have to live in constant fear of losing control and biting someone. Moreover, Wade has the opportunity to pass his burden on to someone else. He could easily let his daughter go and force someone else to make the decision of when to kill her. Hell, he’s legally obligated to do that anyway!
But no, Wade keeps on turning down that option, risking the ire of his neighbors and local law enforcement, all so he can keep on not killing his zombie daughter in comfort. Again, I’m not saying that putting her in a concentration camp should be easy, but there has to be a line drawn somewhere.
I don’t mean to sound like Maggie is a bad film. It really isn’t. A few plot holes and some poor world-building aside, the movie is very elegantly constructed, with solid performances, sterling visuals, and some beautifully creative sound design. The zombie makeup isn’t half bad, either. Also, even if every zombie story has at least one character who gets bitten and eventually has to be put down by another character, the choice to expand that cliche to a feature-length film makes for some surprisingly poignant drama.
The problem with this film is that it’s just so bleak. This is not an easy film to sit through, or a pleasant one in any way. To repeat, that doesn’t mean it’s a bad film, and at least the depression only lasts for 90 minutes. Still, anyone going to see it should go in with adjusted expectations and a certain kind of attitude. I know there are filmgoers out there who somehow enjoy such pessimistic and misanthropic stories as this one and I’m sure they’ll find a lot here to enjoy. No one else should bother.