Disease has long been one of the many metaphors at the zombie movie’s disposal. They come freighted with plague imagery, and with concepts of sickness, infection, and contagion as core elements of plot progression. There’s often a scene in a zombie movie in which a healthy character is bitten, giving the other characters and the audience some queasy suspense as we wonder whether someone will kill their infected friend before full zombification takes effect. That’s the core sick pit of dread in Maggie, a new zombie feature that’s the directorial debut of graphic designer Henry Hobson. Working from a screenplay by John Scott 3, Hobson makes a disease-of-the-week picture out of horror materials, treating a zombie plague as a Black Death sweeping the country. The healthy hole up in their houses, praying the curse doesn’t visit their doors, forcing them to watch their loved ones turn zombie before their eyes.
The focus is on a farmer (Arnold Schwarzenegger) and his wife (Joely Richardson) whose teenaged daughter (Abigail Breslin) is in the hospital. She’s been diagnosed as infected with the zombie bug and given two weeks before her skin starts to decay and her cannibalistic appetite kicks in. What follows is not what one would expect from hearing Schwarzenegger is starring in a film about zombies. There’s no muscle-bound fight for a cure here. Instead, the girl is released home, where her family must watch her slowly succumb to her fate, and take her to be put down once she’s a monster. They know there will soon come a day when their daughter would mindlessly eat them. But until that day, they will enjoy the time they have left with her.
There’s an inevitability to this film’s progression, a slow, somber affair. It’s a gloomy movie, glum with distended dread as it stretches one familiar zombie moment to just under 90 minutes. The film is shot in dreary light, Lukas Ettlin’s cinematography always catching the sun in the process of rising or falling, with little direct illumination, especially in dusty farmhouse interiors. A deathly pall hangs over the proceedings, the atmosphere heavy with unspoken sadness, as if the family were starting to mourn even while trying to cling to their daughter’s presence. It’s a deathbed vigil with the added suspense of knowing the disease won’t just take their loved one. It’ll make her dangerous for everyone around.
Throughout are other zombie encounters haunting and startling, like one involving a little girl with hollow eyes and a filthy white dress slowly emerging from the forest, deeply unsettling and unspeakably sad. But the center of attention remains the family unit. Schwarzenegger, pushing 70, has aged into less of an action hero, but more of an actor. Always a formidable screen presence, he’s now able to rest his weathered face in a frown of pathos, here playing a character beaten down by an apocalyptic scenario that’s left crops burning and cars crumpled, and now threatens to take his daughter, too. Breslin plays her with a flat teenage affect made fragile by a death sentence, trying desperately to stay human, but also not getting her hopes up. Receiving a zombie diagnosis can’t be easy, but it’s a lot harder in Maggie’s world, where the transformation is in agonizing slow motion.
I wish this movie had more complications. It’s all so drearily straightforward, a clear line from point A to point B without any interesting detours along the way. Its commitment to one stifling mood, presented without variation in increasingly agonizingly long minutes, is a bit overdone. But Hobson’s command of tone and confidence in allowing his actors to carry potentially laughable material with total sincerity is admirable. He takes one of the key thrills of both zombie movies and Schwarzenegger actioners – the kills – and turns it into the most dreadfully sorrowful outcome.