PG-13 | 95min | 2015 | (USA) | Henry Hobson
Maggie is a post-apocalyptic film set in a recognizable albeit devastated world. Humans have survived; the “zombies”—that is, people suffering from the “necroambulist virus”—are mostly under control. Centering on a single family, the film opens with Wade (Arnold Schwarzenegger) bringing his daughter Maggie (Abigail Breslin) back to their farm in the Midwest after she left for a reason we don’t learn. While she was in the city she was bitten, and the film is about her slow death on the dying family farm. The elegiac tone of Maggie suffuses everything—the slowness of the film’s movement, its music, the sepia tone, the thunder that rumbles continuously in the background, the storm that threatens. Death always looms, but in this film it’s gotten significantly closer, more imminent. It’s palpable.
There are one or two moments when Maggie resembles what you might expect of a zombie film: a zombie lurches at Wade when he opens a bathroom door in a gas station; two zombies stagger out of the woods, threatening Maggie; we see a flashback of the attack that infected her. Most of the time, though, this film is a distinct departure from the typical zombie story. It is most akin, I think, to In the Flesh (2013-2014), a BBC drama that depicts a world in which the zombie disease has been checked and its sufferers struggle to integrate into their former lives. In Maggie, though, there is no cure: those bitten will inevitably decay and then “turn” (an expert estimates the process usually takes 6-8 weeks). They will lose their interest in food and eventually become driven by the sole urge to eat human flesh. They will suffer the catastrophic loss of everything they once were.
The slowness with which people succumb to the necroambulist virus is one of the reasons this film is so interesting. It’s doing something new with the zombie narrative—showing characters who have the time to struggle against their loss of self, to resist the slowly-building urge to devour even those they love. In the typical zombie drama, even the best of them (like The Walking Dead), you are either human or zombie; there is no middle ground, no grey area, and no struggle.
The slowness of the transformation also raises ethical questions about killing zombies that in the typical zombie drama are moot: you slaughter zombies with impunity because they are no longer who they once were. In Maggie, Wade’s wife, Caroline (Joely Richardson), voices the conventional view. After Wade is forced to kill his neighbor and their small daughter, Caroline reassures him: “They were already gone, Wade.” But he isn’t so sure: “There was something in their eyes,” he tells her. And later, as Maggie’s condition worsens, Caroline eventually tells Wade he has to take her to quarantine (where she’ll live out her last days): “She’s not her anymore,” Caroline says. But Wade knows Maggie is still with them—and when the inevitable moment comes when she tries to bite her father, he doesn’t kill her but talks her back to being “Maggie,” helping her to fight off the relentless urge to feed.
In one way, Maggie does stay firmly within the zombie tradition, though. Zombie narratives have always offered up social-political meanings, and the meanings of this film seemed not far beneath the surface. In its contemplation of what it means to face losing yourself, and to try not to, as well as in its depiction of agonized parents who know that killing their child, or letting them go, may be the best thing for them but can’t face doing it, Maggie seems to be about the ravages of drug addiction. It is about how teens can lose themselves to drugs, how parents lose their children, about how drugs can literally (embodied as the zombie virus) destroy families.
It’s telling that Maggie becomes infected, for instance, after she leaves her family’s farm and goes to the city (the inner cities are the hardest hit by the virus, we’re told). The absolute loss of appetite for normal food is telling—as is the desire for substances that are forbidden. After Maggie eats a fox she sobs out her agonizing struggle not to: “I couldn’t stop. I couldn’t stop. I couldn’t stop.” She sounds just like an addict.
In some ways, the film might also simply be about becoming a teenager, drugs or not. Abigail Breslin plays Maggie’s alienation from her family perfectly—her sense of separation from them, her desire to be the little girl she once was but whom she has utterly lost. At the film’s ending, we see what the tragedy of teenage alienation can sometimes become, and then the last shot of the film takes us back to when Maggie was a young girl, innocent, happy, needing only her mother.
In the end, Maggie is a film filled with the abiding sense that the things we once had are vanishing—innocence, childhood, the family, the small farm, rural life. As fields burn and thunder rumbles, the film suggests global environmental catastrophe and binds it up with drug use and the often banal bereavement of becoming a teenager (and having a teenager). The film doesn’t flinch from looking at these losses, and it doesn’t sentimentalize them. The film ends how you’d expect and there’s little redemption, except for the fact of having struggled to stay true to yourself.
I loved this film, but I’m a fan of zombie drama and was interested by how Maggie was doing something new. Some might find it slow—certainly you will if you were expecting some kind of “Zombie meets Terminator” cataclysm. It’s a much better film, though, for not having given us that.
Maggie had a limited theatrical release on May 8, 2015, as well as being released to VOD (services such as Amazon and Vudu).