Zombies don’t change. The infected bodies deteriorate grotesquely, their bites are fatal and the remaining humans do stupid things to make matters worse. That’s how “The Walking Dead” thrives and survives on AMC — even adding an upcoming spinoff, “Fear the Walking Dead” (an unfortunate title) to the dystopian lineup.
Then at more than $500 million worldwide, “World War Z” proved the undead niche could bite its way to mass appeal. But your average diehard fan might note the biteless attributes of these viral creatures chasing Brad Pitt around. Honestly, they were zombies in name only. Perhaps that’s the problem. Zombie fans don’t like change. It’s a repetitive premise. Keep it going.
So what happens when something different comes around? We get variations like “Warm Bodies” and “iZombie”, depicting walking corpses in need of beating hearts, not just the brains on which they dine. And then we meet “Maggie”, an art house zombie flick about a father, Wade (Arnold Schwarzenegger), who cares for his daughter, Maggie (Abigail Breslin), while she slowly turns.
We’re ready for this film. We need this film. They don’t always have to tell the same story. And besides the extended transition time, “Maggie” stays true to many genre tropes: the bite, the slow decomposition and fear of the infected. But it mainly capitalizes on the challenge of putting down a loved one when the time comes. Can the Governator do it?
This isn’t exactly weathered territory though. Society remains intact. Major cities might be in shambles — most crops need to be destroyed — but small town America continues on. Once diagnosed, the soon-to-be reanimated are allowed to remain with family before checking into quarantine zones. Police forces maintain the peace, often forcing the noncompliant bitten out of their homes.
These brain lovers undergo a grueling transition that slowly worsens: their bodies numb, they lose their appetite, they smell food when nothing’s cooking and eventually smell anything moving. Awkward, but a refreshing take on genre.
It’s all quite clever. And formidable performances by Schwarzenegger (I know, I’m just as shocked as everyone else) and Breslin concoct a competent story cleanly directed by newbie Henry Hobson. And somehow it provides a conclusion that’s abrupt, satisfying and trite at once. Now you’re interested. You know you are.
If you love the zombie concept, “Maggie” is worth a glance, but it moves about as slow as the titular character’s impending doom. You might dig that. It is still a zombie film.
I’ve remained a true believer even since a fateful spring when I fractured my ankle hopping out of an attic while filming a zombie mockumentary (you might even find it on YouTube). Pain is art, and a snail’s pace shouldn’t completely detour you.
I even found myself emotionally involved as Maggie tries so hard to stall what we all know is coming. And then there’s dad. He might be played by a one-note star, but the sparsity of dialogue (like any avant-garde piece, the camera fetishistically favors inanimate objects rather than extended discourse) works in everyone’s favor.
But the themes don’t all take root. A broken quarantine system, public prejudice, etc. make cameos, but they’re all secondary to the father/daughter relationship. They love each other and spend ample time wallowing. Perhaps too much. Though I have to wonder if things would’ve been different if daddy dearest had more hear-to-hearts than wood chopping sessions.
During grad school, my roommate recalled a dream.
“We were in a zombie wasteland killing it,” my roommate said. “We had bats and samurai swords, riding on the back of a pickup truck, making Costco runs for supplies. But I had to mercy kill my fiancé. That sucked, but otherwise a great dream.”
We’re kindred spirits. Zombie 5K runs, an undead Waldo costume, in-depth debates about the best ways to barricade the living room — this is my turf. Romero’s disciple until the end, and maybe after if I’m cursed to walk again, if I die and then I wake.
But “Maggie” isn’t that kind of film. At first, the premise seems like it might be more of a road movie.
Pops helps the teen reunite with loved ones before the big curtains, encountering challenges on the treacherous path home. In actuality, it’s more about end-of-life care than your average horror tale. Nothing wrong with that; I just want to see myself more in this universe, and farmland will never cut it.
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