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D: Henry Hobson / 95m

Cast: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Abigail Breslin, Joely Richardson, Douglas M. Griffin, J.D. Evermore, Rachel Whitman Groves, Jodie Moore, Bryce Romero, Raeden Greer

In the near future, a virulent disease has arisen that eventually turns its victims into zombies. When farmer Wade Vogel (Schwarzenegger) tracks down his runaway daughter, Maggie (Breslin), he finds her in a big city hospital where she’s been treated for a bite wound inflicted by one of the infected. At this point the rules are clear: in six to eight weeks, depending on how fast the infection spreads through Maggie’s body, she should be taken to a quarantine facility.

Wade takes her home, where Maggie finds that her stepmother, Caroline (Richardson), is preparing to send Maggie’s stepbrother and -sister off to stay with their aunt. Caroline is nervous around Maggie and is fearful as to how things will play out. Her fears begin to come true when Maggie has an accident and breaks a finger; Maggie’s reaction is to cut it off. With Wade doing his best to keep Maggie safe and protected, an encounter with two neighbours who have “turned” leads to the local police becoming aware of Maggie’s condition. When they remind Wade of his obligation to take her to a quarantine facility, Wade is blunt: if he doesn’t, he’ll resist any attempts they make to take her themselves.

A visit to the local doctor, Vern Kaplan (Moore), reveals the infection is spreading faster than expected, and that Maggie could “turn” at any time. She gets a visit from her friend, Allie (Greer), who convinces her to meet up with her old friends, including Trenton (Romero), who is also infected and waiting to be quarantined. They spend some time by themselves, and Maggie experiences a degree of happiness she hasn’t felt since being bitten. But when she traps and feeds on a fox, it proves too much for Caroline and she leaves. Wade stays with Maggie as she continues to get worse, though another visit from the police highlights just how little time they have left together. With Maggie struggling to fight against her new “craving”, Wade has to decide which decision to make: either take her to quarantine, or carry out a mercy killing.

Maggie - scene

While Maggie will no doubt arouse some curiosity due to the presence of Arnold Schwarzenegger in a horror movie – let’s not count End of Days (1999), which was more of an action thriller with supernatural overtones – it would be a mistake to so casually describe what is actually an effective, emotionally-charged drama as simply a horror movie. This isn’t George A. Romero country, where limbs are ripped off and entrails pulled out of stomachs, but rather a poignant, understated examination of parental devotion in a time of despair.

As the beleaguered father, Schwarzenegger displays a range of emotions and a sense of pathos that shows just how far he’s come as an actor, and his presence here soon becomes more than a piece of stunt casting designed to give the movie a better chance at the box office. He’s very, very good in a role that allows him to be both imposing and vulnerable at the same time, and in a way where those aspects aren’t contradictory. Here, Schwarzenegger exudes a weary resignation as a father trying to hold on to a few more precious days with his daughter, and praying for the best. He uses his features – normally so passive – to great effect, giving clear expression to Wade’s doubts and apprehensions throughout, and there are moments where you genuinely feel for the character and what he’s going through.

Breslin is equally as good as the affected Maggie, struggling with trying to remain normal, and holding on to memories of her mother and her pre-infection past. She portrays the character’s anguish and terror at what’s happened – and is happening – to her with such conviction that the tragedy of Maggie’s physical deterioration and path to “turning” is all too horrible to watch. There’s a scene toward the end of the movie where Wade has fallen asleep in a chair and Maggie kisses his head – and then lingers for an uncomfortably long time. Thanks to John Scott 3’s measured, insightful script and Breslin’s astute performance the viewer can’t be sure if Maggie’s kiss will lead to something more terrible, or will remain just a kiss.

The tone of the movie, with its slow, deliberate pace and desaturated visuals, reflects the grim nature of the narrative, and it’s sensitively handled by first-time director Hobson. He steers clear of making Maggie’s plight too melodramatic, or imbuing her relationship with her father with any unnecessary or forced sentimentality. The wider world around them is painted with a harsh realism, with its ruined city and fields of burning crops propelling clouds of smoke into the grey skies. With a sense of impending doom present from the outset, it would be easy to assume that Maggie is a gloomy, depressing experience, but again, Hobson avoids such a pitfall by obtaining two pitch perfect performances from his two leads, and by leavening the drama with flashes of humour and never losing sight of the fierce love Wade has for his daughter.

By making this the focal point of the movie, Maggie transcends its initial appearance as yet another zombie movie in a genre that’s been done to death in recent years, and proves rewarding for holding back on all the gore. Aside from the consequences of Maggie’s gradual physical decay, the make up effects are used sparingly and to greater effect, and help keep the spotlight on the emotional devastation wrought by Maggie’s condition.

Rating: 8/10 – there’s much to admire here, not the least of which is Schwarzenegger’s quietly authoritative performance and an overall approach that aims for realism (in a fantasy genre) and succeeds in its ambitions; while it may not be to all tastes, and its dour, sombre mood may put some people off, this is still well worth seeking out, and has a subtlety and power that most movies in the genre can only dream of.