A film review by Craig J. Koban May 15, 2015

RANK: 18


2015, PG-13, 95 mins.


Arnold Schwarzenegger as Wade  /  Abigail Breslin as Maggie  /  Joely Richardson as Caroline  /  Laura Cayouette as Linda  /  J.D. Evermore as Holt

Directed by Henry Hobson  /  Written by John Scott 

When one hears the words “zombie thriller” and the name “Arnold Schwarzenegger” in the same breath, certain images come to mind.  It’s inescapable.  

Part of the subtle genius, though, of Henry Hobson’s MAGGIE is how it so wonderfully and innovatively subverts not only our own expectations of the zombie genre (one that has literally been done to death over the years and seems desperate for some innovation), but also what we’ve come to expect performance-wise out of the iconic Austrian actor.  Rather compellingly, Au-nald does not play a limitlessly lethal and indestructible action hero, but rather a world weary and broken down rural father figure.  That, and MAGGIE is not an apocalyptic film that throws mindless gore at the screen.  Instead, Hobson focuses more intuitively on the way that such an end-of-days scenario has devastating effects on a family unit…and people in general. 

Schwarzenegger’s rather imposing and still beefy shadow, of course, looms large over this low budget independent film, but what I appreciate so much about his participation here – and in one of the more underrated films of last year in SABOTAGE – is how the star is beginning to embrace his encroaching senior citizenship and play more grounded and credible characters that harness his advancing years.  Schwarzenegger has always been respected more as a big screen movie star than an accomplished actor, which is a fare assertion (his thespian range is fairly limited).  Yet, the manner that he fully inhabits his quiet spoken and anxiety-riddled character here is kind of a game-changing turn for him as an actor.  He has never delivered a performance as understatedly textured and nuanced as he has here. 

Hobson deserves ample props too for managing to find a way to make a zombie survival film that doesn’t borrow heavily from the litany of clichés and conventions from the genre.  MAGGIE immerses viewers in its nightmarish vision with relative tact, economy, and restraint.  That, and he’s able to keenly focus on character dynamics first and foremost and how these helpless people struggle to eek out an existence amidst all of the apocalyptic doom that permeates their daily lives. I’ve seen countless zombie films that have relished in sickening levels of brain smashing violence and mayhem (many of those films I certainly have liked), but MAGGIE is more about the disintegration of a family unit set amidst it doomsday scenario and the life and death struggles of a father to maintain it.   



MAGGIE does not really explain the particulars of how the undead rose, which is arguably not the point here.  All we need to know is that society has been systematically breaking down since the advent of the zombie virus, leaving people trying to make the most of what semblance of civilized life they have left.  Midwesterner Wade Vogel (Schwarzenegger) has been hit personally and very hard by the zombie affliction, ubiquitously known as the “necroambulist virus”.  His daughter Maggie (Abigail Breslin) has been the most recent victim of a zombie bite, leaving the unavoidability of her “turning” a foregone conclusion.  Most zombie films have the victim turning relative quickly, but in MAGGIE it’s more like a real virus that slowly and steadily ravages its ways though the body, almost like a cancer.  Maggie does indeed have time left as a normal young woman, but her days are basically numbered.  Standard medical protocol is for the infected to be quarantined, but Wade will have nothing of it, and he promptly takes his daughter back home so that she can spend her last few days with friends and family. 

Maggie seems to take the news as well as anyone could under the horrendous circumstances.  The process by which she becomes a zombie begins to show physical signs and then emotional and mental ones (her bite wounds begin to spread across the rest of her body, her pupils start turning an unhealthy and ghostly hue, and her appetite for normal food begins to decline.  If anything, Wade and his wife (and solid Joley Richardson) are arguably the most traumatized by the thought of losing their daughter to the virus, but Wade steadfastedly tries to maintain a semblance of hope in an utterly futile and hopeless situation.  When Maggie begins to seriously deteriorate Wade takes her to the town doctor, but he gives him the terrible news that her condition is progressing and unstoppable.  This leaves Wade contemplating the unthinkable of what he must do when his daughter is truly “gone.” 

MAGGIE is unimpeachably good at mood and atmosphere.  Hobson – working with limited financial resources – gives us hints of the larger world of the apocalypse through shots of environmental decay (crops are routinely seen burning in the background in hopes of helping to quell the virus spread); a military presence populating the city streets; and showing ordinary people just looking fatigued and stressed.  All of these little visual cues work wonders for establishing the dark and dreary milieu of this film.  Again, Hobson’s motives here are not about lingering on what’s happening in the background of scenes, but rather on the more insular domestic crisis of Wade’s family life on the home front.  In a way, MAGGIE uses the zombie apocalypse as a framing device to show how one man’s compassion and love of his daughter overcomes all normal logic in dealing with her condition.  Wade is a figure to be admired for his commitment and compassion for his child, but ultimately MAGGIE becomes tearfully tragic in the sense that he will never really be able to save her. 

Since the film is more of a dramatic tone poem than a horror thriller, Hobson is required to let his actor do most of the heavy lifting.  Breslin has the difficult performance task of showing Maggie as a resilient and strong willed teenager that tries to keep her sanity together when everyone around her knows she’s a dead woman, so to speak.  MAGGIE becomes almost gut-wrenchingly sad in the sense that Maggie will inevitably never know the pleasures of adulthood, marriage, having children, and living a full life.  Breslin brings a warmth and authenticity to her part that’s both thankless and most welcoming.  When her mind and body begin to truly breakdown MAGGIE becomes devastatingly hard to watch, which is a testament to Breslin’s poignant performance 

And then…yes…there’s Schwarzenegger himself, who – much like Hobson’s handling of the underling material here – manages to dial back his normal larger-than-life performance tendencies and inhabit a defeated man that suffers from considerable agony and despair.  When one looks at the body of the actor’s more well known and established films – which are such a part of our collective memories and deeper pop culture – it’s almost unthinkable to see the grey haired, unshaven, and grizzled Schwarzenegger here as a man that knows he has lost the proverbial fight right from the opening moment of the film.  When Wade pitifully deals with – in one depressing moment – how he was forced to kill an infected 4-year-old girl that he used to babysit, MAGGIE attains a level of sobering dramatic weight that frankly has dogged most of Schwarzenegger’s past films and roles.  It’s ultimately refreshing to see him strip himself bare of the types of bombastic super hero characters of old and simply play a normal man that can’t use his brawn and brute force to win in the end.   

MAGGIE does have some decided rough edges.  I would have appreciated it being a bit longer (at just a tad over 90 minutes it sometimes has the feel of a film that left some subplots on the cutting room floor).  Nitpicking aside, Hobson’s film is an uncharacteristically moving zombie survival film in how it deals with the gruesome bleakness of its apocalypse on a much more personal and relatable manner.  MAGGIE is intriguingly spare and low key, everything that most other similar genre efforts are not.  And Breslin and Schwarzenegger create one of the most unexpectedly effective performances tandems of our young year.  If MAGGIE is a hint of things to come for Schwarzenegger’s career as he approaches his twilight years…then it’s a resoundingly strong step in the right direction.  

More, please.

  H O M E