Contains spoilers for Shaun Of The Dead
When someone says to you ‘Arnold Schwarzenegger zombie movie’, you do not imagine Maggie. You do not picture a slow, sombre and harrowing piece about knowing your loved one is going to die. You do not picture a largely gore-free piece of cinema or a distinctive take on zombie films. You will get to see Arnie killing zombies, but it’s not kick-ass. It’s brutal, distressing, and usually cuts away before skin and flesh rupture. Maggie isn’t actually an Arnold Schwarzenegger zombie movie though. It’s an Abigail Breslin one.
It’s also a movie that is difficult to enjoy, but you should still consider seeing it. It’s a bit like the scene from Shaun Of The Dead when everyone realises Shaun’s mum has been bitten, only it lasts ninety five minutes, has a less warm colour palette, and there’s much less promise of comedy.
Before the film starts, a zombie outbreak occurs and humanity overcomes it. The cities are abandoned but people still live out in the country, and the schools are going back soon. This victory could be because this version of the plague is a slow transformation, rather than a quick one. People maintain their personalities for a while as their bodies deteriorate. Zombie patients are kept in quarantine until they’re about to lose the remnants of their humanity, when they are poisoned and killed. Farmers are burning their crops in an effort to rid themselves finally of the ‘Necroambulist’ plague. We see this world through a slightly watery Zack Snyder filter, desaturated and grim.
Maggie Vogel (Abigail Breslin) is bitten, and her father Wade (Schwarzenegger) is allowed to take her home for a few weeks before she becomes dangerous, so Maggie can say goodbye outwith the bleak confines of quarantine. The film then builds up to the point where Wade knows he will either have to leave his daughter to die surrounded by other zombies after being given a painful injection, or to do it himself. Thus, whenever Arnie kills a zombie, it’s a reminder of what he’s going to have to do to his daughter.
The acting is mainly excellent, with the cast doing well with the occasionally clunky dialogue, making it sound believable. Breslin is fantastic as Maggie, and Joely Richardson does a lot with an underwritten role as her stepmother. Schwarzenegger dials it right back as Wade. While he will take a lot of the focus in this film, it’s a very atypical role for Arnie, and he deserves praise for it. Occasionally, his presence is distracting – usually when he has a sustained amount of dialogue and sounds like ‘Arnie’ – but for the most part he underplays everything, and for the majority of the time has no lines. Approaching 70, Schwarzenegger now has a lined and worn face that means he’s more effective when silent. It’s here you realise that his voice is unique and firmly associated with another kind of film, so credit to him and for the film-makers for remembering his impact in the first Terminator film, where he barely speaks either. His face in this films speaks of his character’s current plight, but also a long life hard lived.
Breslin, though, really makes the film work. Instead of the usual quick transformation her slow deterioration allows for a prolonged examination of the horrors of losing someone to a zombie attack, and could be allegorical for any number of debilitating conditions. Breslin sells the fear and animalistic tendencies, while also convincing as a normal teenager trying her best to make peace, to live a little while she can. In terms of the physical effects we get some excellent make up and Breslin’s distressing reactions, plus the occasional harrowing chaotic cut to the moment she was bitten. In trying to pick up threads of a discarded life, we get painfully awkward goodbyes and a romantic subplot. The zombie allegory for illness isn’t overriding. The infection touches on other areas of loss, but the logic of the story dictates that it has no completely analagous real-world equivalent.
The ending is a divisive one. As I don’t want to spoil it for anyone reading this, I will simply say that it works, and is touching.
Overall, then this is not an easy watch. Instead of Arnie vs Zombies it’s a thoughtful and unsettling film about people forced into making incredibly difficult choices. It’s not relentlessly grim, but it’s not an easy watch and despite the short running time can be gruelling. The script is occasionally clunky, but fortunately the cast are perfectly in tune with its sensibilities and can salvage most of these lines. If you’re a fan of Schwarzenegger, watch it to see his restrained and sensitive performance. If you’re a fan of zombie movies, watch it to really get into the heads of the people left behind. You might only watch it once, though, it’s not an easy film to love, but it’s definitely admirable.
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