Dir: Henry Hobson
Lionsgate, USA/Switzerland, 2015
Starring: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Abigail Brelsin, Joely Richardson
Would a zombie apocalypse really be fun as Zombieland suggests? Maggie says no.
As Schwarzenegger self-referentially reminded audiences during the recent Terminator: Genisys – he is “old, but not obsolete”. A sure indication (plea?) that the now 67-year-old paragon of muscle-bound machismo can still be regarded as credible when it comes to starring in Hollywood’s vehicles for the action heroes of yesteryear (or, ‘geriaction’ films). Insofar and despite a few exceptions, ‘Ahhnuld’s’ return to the big screen following his stint as ‘Governator’ has not been too impressive, and the intentional jokes on his credibility began to wear thin from the offset – even when the humour is intended to be protected by gimmick (see The Expendables series). However, Arnie’s self-conscious remark he repeatedly uttered in Genisys did get me thinking: what would happen when he finally is obsolete (when he reaches the age of 146, I’m sure).
This is precisely what makes Maggie – Henry Hobon’s debut and easily Arnie’s most interesting (and quietest) film since his return – mostly successful. It seems to be a genuine showcasing that Arnie can still be credible, but not in a gun-toting, “I’ll be back”/“Get to the choppa!” kind of way and without him resorting to self-referential deprecation. Taking place in a distant-future America that has been ravaged by a (you guessed it) zombie apocalypse, Maggie’s slight premise principally concerns a farmer, Wade (Schwarzenegger), who is caring for his infected (or ‘necroambulist’) and eponymous daughter (Breslin) before she fully succumbs to becoming a member of the undead after being infected. Instead of a zombie bite quickly causing a person to turn as most zombie films would have it, in Maggie there seems to be a limbo period of a couple of weeks that can be prolonged by medication before the inevitable turn happens.
Essentially, the film has eschewed the typical approach to zombie films and has instead used this popular hypothetical apocalypse as a device to explore terminal illness – particularly, how a parent copes when it is their child that has been stricken. We see characters reading from brochures that offer support for families dealing with ‘necroambulists’ just as you would see in hospitals for real illnesses and the topic of euthanasia comes up infrequently during the film. Additionally, the film essentially takes places entirely within the precious period of time a victim and their family endure before the inevitable death.
Aside from Maggie being an obvious parallel for terminal illness sufferers, the premise also taps into another universal fear that zombie films often neglect: contamination. Maggie has been bitten and her body is basically betraying her as the illness causes her skin to become lighter and the colour in her eyes gradually fade (courtesy of some terrifically subtle make-up effects). In one of the films strongest moments, one of Maggie’s fingers prematurely necroses forcing her to chop it off with a kitchen knife before it spreads up her arm. This, effectively, is touching quite heavily upon body-horror and is representative of her own ‘intimate apocalypse’ that is somewhat reflected by the global apocalypse of the infected outside world.
Furthermore, Maggie’s stepmother’s (Richardson) understanding of the potentially contagious condition sees that her own children are sent far away from their infected stepsister. Similarly, there is also a moment in which Maggie’s attempt to make small-talk with young children in a hospital waiting room sees their mother immediately call them away from her in the same way a mother would after noticing her children being offered sweets from a stranger. In Maggie, the infected therefore represent the leper, the AIDS victim, the ‘Other’ in that the majority of society shun them and want nothing to do with them except know that they are at least 100ft away at all times. These moments also reflect how parents would do anything to prevent their own children’s death – something that Wade now has to endure.
In recent years, the zombie film has deviated from its horror origins with various forays into comedy and romance with films such as Shaun of the Dead (2004), Zombieland (2009) (which also starred Breslin), Warm Bodies (2013) and Life After Beth (2014). Maggie, then, is a much more serious affair than its fellow ‘anti-zombie’ films and Arnie’s inimitable presence surprisingly doesn’t undermine this as much as one might think (despite his Austrian brogue sounding slightly out of place, as always).
The film would have benefitted from a few more moments of respite in order to counter the impending sense of doom in which the entire film wallows so to offer some glimmer of hope. I thought the film presented a clear opportunity to do so when Maggie was acquainted with some of her friends for one last evening out by a campfire. But despite a brief moment of intimacy that Maggie shares with a fellow infected boy, we just watch them debate, a tad uncourteously, over what one should do with an infected family member: should we offer them to quarantine or shoot them in the head? In this regard, Maggie will come across as oppressively dull to some; especially to those who are expecting Arnie to being fighting off hordes of the undead with Black & Decker tools as Maggie barely features any actual zombies – something that to me is quite bold and commendable.
Ultimately, and aside from the aforementioned shortcomings, this was a refreshing entry into zombie-lore that contemporary culture seems to be so fascinated with and wasn’t ever completely compromised by Schwarzenegger (whose performance was altogether fine). Hopefully, he’ll feature in more films as thoughtful as Maggie in the future (before he is “obsolete”).
- Liam Hathaway