"I promised your mother that I would protect you."
It's jarring to hear Wade (Arnold Schwarzenegger) deliver that line long after his daughter has been bitten by a zombie. Many of us were raised on stories that depict Arnold as the ultimate action hero, saving the day, if not the entire world, over and over again.
In Maggie, he's a father resigned to heartbreak. There is no cure for his daughter's infection. The battle is lost before the film even begins. His aforementioned teenage daughter, Maggie (Abigail Breslin, Little Miss Sunshine) returns home with the doctor's diagnosis. She has about six weeks before "the turn." Six weeks before she becomes a blood-hungry, flesh eating zombie, capable of killing her entire family with a few quick chomps.
Unlike a majority of contemporary zombie stories, the film does not focus on a vast army of the dead. Instead, we follow the struggling survivors, who have lost countless friends and family to this outbreak. Maggie is a hushed, reserved entry in the genre.
Schwarzenegger's trademark action beats are few and far between. This is a real performance, which may sound like damning with faint praise, but it's true. Schwarzenegger shows terrific range in this role. It's perhaps the first time the former California Governor has been asked to produce genuine pathos. Filmmakers would be wise to take a closer look at Schwarzenegger's performance, as he is capable of hitting notes that we've never seen him even attempt.
First time feature director Henry Hobson shows excellent potential in crucial moments, such as a terse showdown between Arnold and the local police. Hobson may have landed the gig as a result of his design work on The Walking Dead's opening credit sequence. It's obvious he knows how to build mood and atmosphere. However, the look never feels particularly cinematic. It's a visually muted, but capably directed work.
Maggie quickly takes on the structure of a terminal disease story, wisely dressing these elements up in genre tropes. Written by John Scott 3 (that's no typo, he is credited as John Scott 3...) the script keeps its heroes continually off their guard, as they're forced to fight off the undead as they grieve their fading daughter.
The film's pace occasionally feels needlessly slow-burn. The entire narrative hinges on an event that takes place before the opening scenes. It's only a matter of time until Maggie turns. However, Breslin's endearing portrayal is so engaging that slowness of pace rarely becomes problematic.
Focusing on the day to day minutia of Maggie's condition was a wise screenwriting choice. The tone always remains grounded in narrative reality. The wound on Maggie's arm begins to rot, turning black and bearing maggots. Her step-siblings are hastily removed from the house for their own protection. We're never unaware of her continued deterioration. She's a ticking clock.
One of the most heartfelt sequences occurs when Maggie's friends drag her to a bonfire, complete with beverages and teenage boys. The zombie outbreak has become background noise for these teens. Even with the rising death toll, they still need to blow off steam. Breslin is remarkably poignant in her role, reminding the audience with every tragic move that she's still just a kid.
Maggie isn't the only one at the bonfire suffering from the infection. Trent, the object of her affection has hideous black veins sprouting up his neck, a foreboding sign that he will likely turn before Maggie does. There is a genuine sweetness in these scenes rarely found in zombie movies. It allows the connection between Maggie and Trent, fleeting it may be, to best fake watches resonate so deeply. It's rare to see such an idealistic portrayal of teens, especially in a horror film. You genuinely want to see these kids have one moment of happiness before it all ends.
Despite a halting pace and some lackluster visuals, Maggie contains two great performances and a lot of heart.
Tony Hinds is a Canadian writer who studied film at the University of Winnipeg. In addition to ShowbizMonkeys.com, Tony has reviewed films for Step On Magazine and The Uniter. You can find Tony on Twitter.