Upon first glance, the zombie drama Maggie is different from its genre counterparts. Arnold Schwarzenegger has the lead role, yet director Henry Hobson’s feature debut has a somber core, without any action or big-scale scares. Still, the best zombie fiction is more character-driven nowadays (e.g. The Walking Dead television and videogame series, the Colson Whitehead novel Zone One). Once the novelty of Maggie’s tone and Schwarzenegger’s straight man performance loses its appeal, the film spins its wheels as a maudlin love story. There is some intrigue, particularly in terms of world-building, except Hobson does not have resolve the material requires.
Schwarzenegger plays Wade, a Kansas farmer who is struggling in the wake of a zombie outbreak. The country seems scorched and depilated, although some basic infrastructure still functions (Wade can still pump gas, though there’s no clerk behind the counter). His daughter Maggie (Abigail Breslin) ran away from home, and after a two week search, he finds her in a hospital. She’s infected now, and the doctors give her weeks before she shows signs of transition like loss of appetite and decayed skin.
Back at home, Wade and his wife (Joely Richardson) preserve some order as the remnants of the outbreak upend every attempt at routine. Everyone tells Wade that Maggie must return to quarantine, and “taking care of her” himself ultimately seems like the better option. He defies his family and the police, all out of love for his daughter that seems increasingly irrational.
Maggie looks and sounds like a zombie-flavored Lifetime film. The cinematography by Lukas Ettlin is drab yet evocative, with grays and shadows that are austerely beautiful, not horrific. The score by David Wingo is full of mournful strings, with an echo of the terrific trailer for the zombie game Dead Island (at three minutes, the trailer is arguably the most succinct zombie entertainment of the past decade).
Given its derivative production values, the strongest thing about Maggie is the script by John Scott III. His major decision is to lengthen the “turn” from human to zombie. A longer transition means that characters can react to zombification as they might any other fatal disease. Body horror defines the changes to Maggie’s body, and these scenes are an icky metaphor for adolescence: in other words, people cannot trust Maggie because she’s no longer the girl they remember (there’s also a romantic sub-plot with a cute boy whose body is changing). Wade’s unwavering love for his daughter is poignant, and Schwarzenegger deepens it with a performance defined by shell-shocked compassion.
There has been so much zombie fiction, in so many different mediums, yet only recently did I realize that the transition time is what matters most in terms of tone. The transition in 28 Days Later lasts a matter of seconds and it’s a paranoid action film, while the long transition in Maggie means that Breslin and Schwarzenegger must play their characters as if they’re already mourning. To his credit, Hobson raises the stakes of Wade’s cognitive dissonance as Maggie’s body decays: by the time her eyes are opaque and she struggles to breathe, the tension is whether the scene is meant to be horrific or heart-warming.
Despite this escalation, Maggie spins its wheels since Wade and Maggie are given no chance to surprise themselves. There is only one possible ending here – the outbreak is contained, more or less – and the tension slacks accordingly. Instead of a tough love, Hobson prefers flashes of Malick-esque pretense, which denies closure for Wade and the audience, too. Longtime zombie fans have seen enough tough choices that they may get impatient with Wade, and the failure of Maggie is that we never quite see things from his flawed, well-meaning perspective.