Arnold Schwarzenegger‘s return to movies following his tenure as Governator of Cally-for-nee-uh has not been, shall we say, as glowing as fans of his ’80s and ’90s work may have hoped. It’s basically consisted of crappy action movies where he’s playing a character who’s supposed to be much younger, crappy action movies where he’s surrounded by other old-as-crap action stars, or rehashes of franchises and characters he’s already played. Not the most stellar, it has to be said.
That’s why his decision to star in a zombie movie might seem like just another eye-roll of a choice, but what he chose was about the most atypical role he’s ever taken, in one of the most atypical zombie movies in the genre.
Maggie, directed by Henry Hobson and written by John Scott 3, is an indie family drama set in the backdrop of a world where the zombie outbreak exists but hasn’t yet taken over everything. More rural areas and smaller cities have attempted to get the disease under control with quarantine units for the infected, who can take around eight weeks to fully turn. Schwarzenegger plays Wade, a farmer and married father of three — two young children with his second wife (played by Joely Richardson), and an older daughter, the titular Maggie (played by Abigail Breslin). Maggie has gotten infected and runs away from home to spare her father the grief and the danger it could bring. He eventually finds her, in a quarantine hospital, and it’s only due to his friendship with the town doctor that he’s allowed to take Maggie back home. The younger kids are sent away and he and his wife hunker down to spend as much time as possible with Maggie before the inevitable, even as the authorities are attempting to make him give her to them.
Schwarzenegger’s performance is stoic, strong, but undoubtedly kind as he internally deals with the sadness of watching his daughter effectively get sick and die while outwardly he tries to make everything seem okay, and normal. The script does a really nice job of giving moments of levity to this very heavy story that are both a relief to the audience and the characters who need a chuckle every now and then. Breslin is also quite impressive having to perform a rather difficult challenge of being both a girl getting sicker and sicker and having that sickness manifest as a monster we’ve all seen in zombie movies. She does a great job of balancing these two aspects and the filmmakers never present the zombie stuff as kitsch or particularly horror movie-y; there are a few jump scares and some zombie shuffling but mostly it’s a very somber family drama.
For most, zombie fiction exists primarily to be an allegory for some societal problem housed within a gory casing where devouring human guts and blowing off monster heads is pretty much the accepted rule. This movie also features such an allegory, equating the zombie infection with any epidemic and slow-moving killer like AIDS, but almost entirely forgoes the gore. It also has one of the best things going for it, which is the novelty of seeing Arnold Schwarzenegger act in a movie and not be an action star. Though he carries a gun throughout, we never see him fire it onscreen. It inverts our idea of what both the genre and the actor are capable of and it instead deals with the stigma attached to being one of “the infected” and how the authorities tend not to regard them as people anymore, even when they still have several weeks before the turn.
Maggie is a father-daughter tragedy and one that’s surprisingly effective, nuanced, and moving. It proves, among many other things, that there are stories to be mined from this subgenre that have nothing at all to do with severing limbs or devouring viscera and that, perhaps, what we should be thinking about is how such a problem effects those infected. What’s their quality of life? If they have a father like Arnold’s character, it’s at least the best quality of life you can hope for.