Since the zombie movie made its first appearance with White Zombie (1932) — where the walking dead were more under an enchantment spell than actually dead — the zombie has been put to all manner of uses — from working in Bela Lugosi’s sugar mill to serving the interests of the Nazis in the 1940s. We’ve had underwater zombies and tons of the lurching George Romero flesh-eating zombies — mostly because they were (and are) cheap to depict. We’ve been blessed with brain-eating zombies and fast-moving rage zombies — even comical zombies and a zombie rom-com. Now title-designer-turned-director Henry Hobson and newcomer writer John Scott 3 bring us Maggie, with the zombie redefined as a disease-of-the-week family drama centered on a mopey teen zombie — or at least a mopey teen on the road to zombification. Is it a different take on the zombie subgenre? I guess. Does it fill a long-felt want? That’s another matter.
I’m not saying that Maggie is a bad movie, but neither am I saying it’s really a good one — or even especially original. Putting a different suit of clothes on the concept doesn’t necessarily change it. In fact, I’m not even sure whether this is a zombie movie as a family drama or a family drama with zombies. Perhaps it doesn’t matter. More of a downside is the movie’s unrelenting and drearily grim tone. It’s one of those affairs that’s determined not to let you forget that this is very serious stuff. Honestly, the only laugh in the film is the credit for “acting coach for Arnold Schwarzenegger.” I’d hate to imagine his performance without an acting coach. Yeah, he has a certain (now grizzled) screen presence, but the moment he speaks … well, he’s Der Arnold.
The whole idea here is that a zombie — or necroambulatory, as the film has it — plague is loose in the land. How it started seems a little unclear, but we know it can be transmitted by a bite, which is how our title character Maggie (Abigail Breslin) contracted it — though exactly how this came about is vague in the extreme. In fact, the whole family dynamic is on the vague side. Maggie is Wade’s (Der Arnold) daughter from a previous marriage. Mom died at some point and Wade married Caroline (a slumming Joely Richardson) with whom he has two younger children. (OK, he’d be more believable as Grampa Wade.) Maggie is in the early stages of turning necroambulatory, so she’s allowed to go with her father back to the family farm until it becomes necessary to quarantine and euthanize her. (Lots of shots of Schwarzenegger splitting wood pretty much covers his farming.) Understandably, this doesn’t fill Caroline with glee, but she tries to make the best of it — by packing the other kids off to a relative and settling in for the inevitable.
The thing is there are occasional good moments in the film — especially a touching scene between Maggie and an infected boy, Trent (Bryce Romero). In fact, the whole subplot with her and her old friends with everybody trying to ignore the subject at hand is well-handled, as is the horrific fate of Trent. There are also isolated moments of pretty solid horror (sometimes so we can see Schwarzenegger split something other than logs). And the ending is very good, even if some of the mechanics (especially Caroline just vanishing after a certain point) aren’t. But there’s also too much hand-held camera and murky lighting. In the end, Maggie is more an interesting attempt than a success, but genre fans should take note of it. Rated PG-13 for disturbing thematic material including bloody images and some language.