Schwarzenegger, Breslin shine in fatalistic arthouse zombie film ‘Maggie’ (Movie review)

“Fear the Walking Dead” hits the small screen later this month and it’s being labeled by some critics as too similar to “The Walking Dead.” One might think the zombie genre is tapped out. But “Maggie,” now available from Redbox, shows there’s a lot of – ahem – life left in the genre. Serious fans of zombie fiction can correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe this is the first arthouse film to focus on an individual’s transition from human to zombie.

“The Walking Dead,” the most famous character drama to feature zombies, has lightly touched on this concept. In Season 1, we see Andrea’s pain as her sister dies and in less than a minute wakes up as a walker. Later in the series, Andrea shoots herself in the head rather than turn into a walker. It’s not a criticism of “Walking Dead” to say it hasn’t done anything as emotionally riveting as “Maggie,” because its rules don’t allow for it: A person gets bitten, then clearly dies, then clearly is resurrected as an undead creature that has taken over the corpse.

“Maggie’s” rules are different, and writer John Scott 3 deftly peppers them into the narrative in this remarkable calling card of a screenplay. As farmer Wade (Arnold Schwarzenegger) drives across a bleak becoming-apocalyptic Midwestern landscape – I think it’s Kansas, as teens reference road-tripping to KC – to pick up his daughter, Maggie (Abigail Breslin), from the hospital in town, the radio man tells us the turn is marked by the person’s increased sense of smell. And so the stage is set for Maggie’s slooooooooow transition.

In more unsettling moments, Wade’s doctor friend Vern – who is the reason Wade can take Maggie back to the farmhouse rather than put her in quarantine right away – tells Wade the experimental medicine being administered in the quarantine causes extreme pain right until the end. Zombism is not real, but cancer and AIDS are, so a viewer can bring their own subtext. Due to the “transitioning” nature of this disease, an Alzheimer’s parallel also works.

It’s a deft script by Scott, but “Maggie” is ultimately director Henry Hobson’s film, and I have no doubt we’ll hear more from him in the years ahead. (Interestingly, one of his biggest credits before this was directing the opening titles for “The Walking Dead,” the artistry of which I’ve always admired.)

First, Hobson – with cinematographer Lukas Ettlin – captures the mood with a muted color palette as Wade makes the drive. “Maggie” requires patience for the first 45 minutes, but then we get the first great character scene: Maggie and Wade reminisce about their deceased mother/wife while Maggie reads a book and Wade fixes his old truck. The film goes on to feature scenes that get under your skin as you reflect back on them: The doctor’s tender bedside manner, Maggie’s friends taking her out for a bonfire, another victim being taken into quarantine. And then it hits us with a tearjerker of a final sequence that – despite the film’s unerring fatalism – is still surprising.

Schwarzenegger and Breslin have great father-daughter chemistry even though he could be her grandfather and the thick Austrian accent doesn’t really make sense. Whereas Breslin burst onto the scene as the delightfully upbeat kid in “Little Miss Sunshine,” we’ve seen Arnold learn how to act before our eyes over the course of four decades. It has been a slow process, but I’m not surprised that he’s good here in his first straight-up dramatic role without comedy or action sequences. While he’ll never be an actor who disappears into roles, his grizzled, lived-in performance in “Maggie” is hardly robotic.

“Maggie” is being hyped for Schwarzenegger’s breakthrough, but it’s a great film overall. While the first half is not for an impatient viewer, “Maggie” is a beautiful 90-minute sketch of arthouse fatalism that jumps on the zombie bandwagon not to cash in, but rather because it has something new to say.