In zombie movies, the central tension always hooks itself on survival. Death is literally the enemy, as characters struggle to stay alive and avoid fate as a reanimated corpse — except in Henry Hobson's indie film Maggie, where it's simply an inevitability.
If the zombie genre has long been about cheating death, then Maggie is about accepting it. This isn't a film built around action-filled highs and lows; it's a straight and narrow road that examines a person's right to die how they wish.
Maggie, out in theaters May 8, is the story of Wade (played by a very paternal Arnold Schwarzenegger) and his infected daughter, Maggie (Abigail Breslin). This is a world where zombies are no longer a novelty, but a harsh reality; infections generally take 6-8 weeks to turn their victims, at which point they're hauled off to quarantine to be euthanized. The film is commonly described at the closest thing we have to The Last of Us in movie form (for now), and that's not a bad assumption to make. Hobson designed and directed the title sequence for Naughty Dog's wildly popular game.
But where Naughty Dog's work is often a brutal show, even in some of its most emotional scenes, Maggie is a welcome step back from the ultra-violence I've come to expect from zombie films. It's more like 10 minutes of The Last of Us mixed into a film about a kid with a cancer.
Terminal illness is the best way to describe Maggie's plight. The film opens with Wade retrieving his daughter from the hospital. She's dying, slowly but surely, and all that her family can do is make her comfortable for her final weeks and say goodbye. Once home, Maggie spends her time time sulking in her room listening to music, hanging out with friends and kissing (also infected) boys. Sprinkled in between these very normal teenage behaviors are the real horrors of the film: family members who are scared off by sickness, a father who cannot bring himself to give up his daughter and Maggie's gradual spiral. While Wade struggles with the idea of either shipping his daughter off to die, or doing the deed himself, Maggie gradually learns to accept her fate.
The film is slow yet certain of itself with a concise story to tell. It's dotted with violence, but these instances are rare and serve only to illustrate a specific point, even in their most ham-fisted moments. When Wade is confronted with zombies, he dispatches of them swiftly and without remorse — until he encounters a young girl with the disease. Wade cuts an intimidating figure as a beefcake capable of planting an axe in a man's head, but he's the most helpless person of the film. Nothing he does will save his daughter. Even the movie's gross-out beats, like Maggie pulling maggots out of her decaying arm, are a gritty metaphor for death as a cruel and ugly process.
Nothing he does will save his daughter
Maggie obsesses over the simple things, like its eponymous character enjoying a swing from her childhood, or taking extra care to paint her nails. But a character study this is not; neither Maggie nor Wade are developed in any meaningful way. We know next to nothing about Maggie or Wade's past, except that her mother passed away years before. We don't even know how or when Maggie was bitten, or the circumstances that led her there. And honestly, it's not important. Disease arrives unexpectedly and squats in the weeks after a diagnosis.
This is what makes Maggie an enjoyable horror film and not just a drama. It preys on human beings' most primal fear: our own death. But unlike so many zombie movies before it, Maggie doesn't want its characters to take charge of their life. It's more interested in handing over the keys to their demise. That's what makes it so terrifying — and powerful.