With a strange mix of underground horror shock and existential atmosphere, Calvin Lee Reeder made a name for himself with short films like Piledriver and Little Farm. His features films The Rambler (Anchor Bay Films) and The Oregonian (Factory 25) divided and excited Sundance audiences just as his shorts had before them. Reeder specializes in turning lo-fi splatter pics into art films by meshing high-concept thought and design with genre storylines. Follow him here.
Zombie-human relations broke down some time ago because of competing agendas that are just too different to coexist. I didn’t choose this conflict, I was born into it. Naturally, I tend to sympathize with the human perspective; it’s what I know. But I wonder… is there a way to bring these opposing cultures together so that we might find a diplomatic solution and finally start to move forward as a society? This movie has nothing to with that stuff.
I don’t watch very many zombie movies but, as far as I can tell, we are in Year 12 of a severe outbreak that I can trace back to the release of 28 Days Later in June of 2003. Sure, zombie movies existed for at least 60 years before that and throughout that brief time period there have been plenty of uprisings and near takeovers. We have the data. This plague is bad, though, it’s been full-tilt zombie for more than a decade and there’s no letting up. Vampires and found footage came and went, but the zombies remain. Why zombies? Why still? This genre has been picked over more thoroughly than the Silverlake Goodwill. Can we leave this shit alone already?
Arnold is pretty good. I bet he’s got the most famous and most imitated voice of the last 30 years. Hearing him talk conjures a pile of childhood memories. Predator was a big one for me, and everyone has their Schwarzenegger connection; he burrowed in deep if you grew up in the ’80s or ’90s. Aside from a handful of comedic performances, he’s mostly been an action hero and a politician, duh, so it’s easy to see why he’d want to do a quiet little zombie drama like Maggie. It’s also very American and Arnold is a patriot so it was probably cool for him to play a Middle American wheat farmer who had a really simple life until his kid became zombie. By the way, that’s what the whole movie is about.
It starts out a little disorienting. Arnold, or “Wade,” picks up his daughter Maggie (Abigail Breslin) from Disease Control after we learn she’s been bitten and infected. Why do they let her out of quarantine? Isn’t she majorly dangerous?! Because that’s the new way. We learn the infection comes on incrementally over roughly a two-week period. The government now allows kids to leave in their parents’ custody so they can live out their final human days in a sort of zombie hospice situation. But when they “turn,” the government wants ’em back and it’s curtains for junior. This is an incredible burden for Wade Schwarzenegger. Although that sounds flip, his struggle is actually pretty darn engaging. His performance is real, save for a few forced father-daughter moments. But even those are mostly good.
Maggie’s got it rough. She’s going fast but everyone around keeps telling her “it’s OK.” She knows they’re full of shit, and all she can do is hang around the farm while her dad and stepmom monitor her slow demise. Doesn’t seem like this experiment in home zombie care is bringing her any comfort or closure. In fact, it appears she’d already accepted her fate even before Daddy sprung her from quarantine. She’s pretty hardcore, and there’s an excellent finger injury sequence to back that up. I like her character and the film explores some interesting narrative territory with her. The problem for me was that I never felt anything for her. I don’t think I could ever take her affliction seriously. It’s a fantasy disease. One could argue there’s a parallel here with cancer or Ebola or whatever, but no one’s ever gonna be a zombie. They chose an uphill battle for a heartstring narrative, in my opinion.
Zombie movies aren’t my thing, but I applaud the effort here. Cinematographer Lukas Ettlin does a great job of capturing the environment. That’s part of the story as well: we learn the crops have stopped growing because something’s infected them too. I like that kind of thing. Pastoral beauty with a dark twist. It’s almost like looking at pictures of modern-day Chernobyl: thriving forest and wildlife, but something you can’t see could be really fucked up in there. Director Henry Hobson goes “indie Malick” — hand held, wide lens, natural light. It works here and zombie lovers who haven’t been inundated with that stylistic form as much as some of us have will probably appreciate it.
It’s pretty cool to see Arnold operate in a movie like this, which allows the characters to breathe a little and breaks some of the old zombie movie statutes. There’s very little bureaucracy in their rural town, so Arnold can fudge the rules a bit when it’s time to return Lil’ Miss Sunshine to quarantine. He knows the cops and the doctors, who sympathize even though they probably shouldn’t. A lot of Maggie lives in those margins. It’s a moral dilemma, albeit a crazy one. But ya know, every zombie movie I’ve seen usually comes down to some sort of mercy killing. That’s what makes the zombie such a cinematic disease: you can see it and it’s trying to get you. It’s motivated. And in the end, someone who you know has to get blasted.
Don’t worry, I didn’t just give the movie away — or did I? No, I didn’t. Speaking of giving it away, one thing we all know is that Schwarzenegger won’t be in any real danger until at least the climax of the third act, so any early attempt to build tension around him dies pretty quick. The perils of having a megastar in a little movie, a high-class problem if there ever was one. Maggie is just kind of a slow movie that gives the audience plenty of time to ponder how it will all end up. Depending on the experience you’re having, you might end up a step or two ahead of this one. I think it’s worth seeing, and if you grew up watching Arnold this is a nice change. His performance is as nuanced as advertised, though it’s no JCVD. I mentioned the zombies, right?