If you missed the first two installments of this monthlong series, they’re here and here. Now let’s dive into a more recent release…
This does not come close to being the scariest zombie film ever made, but it just may be the saddest. It’s a very atypical film for this genre, in that it eschews most of the horror elements in favor of focusing on the core relationship between a father and his teenage daughter, and the awful options left in front of them after the girl is bitten by one of the living dead.
Speaking of atypical, while Arnold Schwarzenegger is the star of the film, you could hardly call it “an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie.” The qualities that made Schwarzenegger so indelible to our collective consciousness in films like Conan the Barbarian, The Terminator, Predator, and Total Recall, are completely absent here. For the first time in his career, he is playing a role that could easily have been filled by someone like Kevin Costner, Gary Sinise, or Matthew McConaughey. Schwarzenegger plays Wade Vogel, a strong, reserved farmer and loving family man in the American heartland, coping with the outbreak of a zombie plague that is slowly destroying society. Wade is married to Caroline, played by Joely Richardson. She’s his second wife—his first died a number of years ago. His eldest child, Maggie, played by Abigail Breslin, is the product of his first marriage. With Caroline, he has two young children, a boy and a girl.
The film begins with Maggie having already been bitten by a zombie. She’s run away to keep her family safe, and implored her father not to look for her. But Wade does it anyway, and insists on bringing her home. It’s important to note that the film rewrites the “zombie apocalypse rules” to a certain extent, in the sense once you’re bitten, it can take several weeks for you to succumb and join the ranks of the walking dead. It also seems to take a page from Zack Snyder’s remake of Dawn of the Dead, in that you have to die of a zombie bite to come back as a zombie. (This puts it in contrast with the George A. Romero movies and The Walking Dead comics and TV series, in which it’s established that no matter how you die, you’re coming back as a flesh-eating ghoul.)
Maggie’s homecoming puts a strain on the whole family. As her condition deteriorates, her stepmother Caroline becomes increasingly afraid of her, and worries about the safety of the other children in the house. Meanwhile, local law enforcement officers tasked with rounding up the infected and bringing them to quarantine—where they will be observed and eventually exterminated—keep coming around to implore Wade to turn Maggie over to them, for the sake of the rest of the community. Wade refuses, insisting that he will never let his daughter go to quarantine. But his options are extremely—and tragically—limited.
It’s not hyperbole to say that you’ve never seen Arnold Schwarzenegger like this before. He’s not the all-powerful, sure-to-come-out-on-top heroic figure here. There are no confident smirks or catchphrase one-liners in the vein of “I’ll be back” or “Consider it a divorce.” He is startlingly human and vulnerable in this role—just a regular man caught in devastating circumstances. He is not much different from any parent having to cope with the fact that their child has advanced cancer or AIDS. As Wade, Schwarzenegger faces an unthinkable situation, the most horrible of all: The fact that he will outlive his child.
Abigail Breslin, whose resume includes Little Miss Sunshine and Zombieland, turns in fine work here, particularly as Maggie’s condition worsens and she reconnects with old friends. Her scenes with Schwarzenegger are especially touching. They work very well together.
Maggie is a quiet, subtle, slowly paced film, but emotionally powerful, especially if you’re a parent. There’s a moment right near the end that still makes me tear up, just thinking about it.
If you’re a gorehound, look elsewhere. But if you want a different perspective on the zombie plague genre, one that focuses exclusively on the emotional toll such an outbreak takes on both the victims and their loved ones, Maggie is definitely worth checking out.
© All text copyright Glenn Greenberg, 2015.