By Maria Mackenzie

Maggie: the Arnold Schwarzenegger film where the zombie daughter is the hero.

It’s the near future and a virus is spreading which transforms people into flesh eating zombies in six to eight weeks. The pandemic which started in the cities is now raging through middle America where it affects the small farming community which is home to Wade Vogel (Arnold Schwarzenegger) and his family.

Vogel’s 16-year-old daughter, Maggie (Abigail Breslin – Oscar nominated for Little Miss Sunshine) is one of the infected. Vogel takes her from the city to their isolated farm with the intention of caring for her as she embarks upon her decline into madness and cannibalism. He has no plan, but he knows there will be some very difficult decisions to make.

Although Arnold Schwarzenegger is in this film it is no run of the mill zombie apocalypse movie. In most movies of this genre victims turn into zombies very quickly. In ‘Maggie’ people are turning slowly from beloved family members and good friends into monsters. We get to know them and witness the futile attempts of mothers and fathers to provide dignified deaths for themselves and/or their children. Pretty early on you realise that this is a film about the choices to be made as someone you love approaches the end of their life (with the added menace of knowing that the person may sniff your skin longingly then try to eat you in return).  While the community struggles with this dilemma, the health and law enforcement agencies try to contain the disease in a clinical way, by sending the sick to special quarantine facilities where they will die by lethal injection.

From Maggie’s doctor we find out that her case is hopeless and the disease is taking hold quickly. Stage one is loss of appetite; stage two a strong sense of smell with return of appetite. At Stage three, the final stage, human skin smells like a really good BBQ and the change has occurred.  Wade and Maggie discover the truths about the disease together but he keeps this information, along with his grief and fear private, even from his wife and the rest of the family.

Abigail Breslin gives a truly grown up and dignified performance and the father-daughter relationship is completely convincing. The casting misfire in the film is the pairing of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Joely Richardson who plays Vogel’s second wife, stepmother to Maggie and mother to Maggie’s half brother and sister.  Their joint scenes are awkward and we’re fortunate that the storyline requires the rest of the family to leave the house fairly early on.   There is also an irksome police officer whose occasional presence gets in the way of the good storytelling.

Maggie is the first feature film of commercials director Henry Hobson who made the film on a budget of just eight million dollars. The film is perfectly paced and packed with documentary style visual metaphor; a storm is always brewing in the distance and houses are isolated from each other as if families had built walls around themselves to live or die away from the gaze of the authorities. The ground is scorched as crops are being burned due to the virus having worked its way into the water supply. The decimation of the landscape combined with periods of silence gives the film a sense of isolation. And in this film isolation is disconcerting and comforting at the same time.

Like the characters of Wade and Maggie, the viewer is drawn into quiet observation.  We watch the disease take Maggie’s friends and neighbours. We observe her reaction to the illness as it takes her. We witness her father struggling with the decisions he needs to make around her death.

And these elements make the ending so powerful; the quiet, the dilemma, the transformation, the smelling of skin, the internal panic which never expresses itself, and the tough decisions to be made.

And Arnold Schwarzenegger? It’s extraordinary that he took on this role given the place in the public consciousness that Terminator still holds.  What makes this a great choice of film for him is that it is the complete antidote to the Terminator role. It displays his acting skills. His face is haggard and despairing as if the knowledge of his daughter’s future is crushing him. His pain is palpable though he is the model of self-control. He relinquishes his normal role as the saviour of mankind.  In fact, in this film, the hero is Maggie. How many zombies can say that?

Maggie goes on general release 17 July.

Maria Mackenzie is a fundraiser and former documentary filmmaker, originally from London now living in Edinburgh.  She was until quite recently working with researchers and academics at University of Edinburgh.  Now she mainly supports arts, heritage and digital fundraising campaigns.  Feel free to follow Maria on Twitter (@angribird) or to steal the list of organisations that she is following in order to be informed of arts and science funding opportunities.