“There’s a lot we don’t know about this thing,” asserts the doctor (John L. Armijo). Like so many doctors in so many films set in so many small towns, this one has known his patient since she was born, and her dad longer than that. Also like so many doctors in such circumstances, he’s trying to soothe fears of apparent catastrophe, offering hope in what’s unknown. Still, what he does profess to know about “this thing” doesn’t seem quite reassuring: “Your arm,” he says, “is not going to fall off.”
That Maggie (Abigail Breslin) and her dad, Wade (Arnold Schwarzenegger), are even worried that her arm might fall off has to do with the particulars of her infection: namely, she’s a zombie.
Or, actually, not quite yet. Maggie traces the difficulties of her transformation, imagining her infection as if it is much like any other outbreak. Background TV reports refer to it as the “necroambulist epidemic,” and suggest the incubation can take six to eight weeks. The symptoms sound familiar to anyone who’s seen a zombie movie: loss of appetite for regular food, craving for flesh and blood, eyes turning ghastly white, heavy wheezing). But here they are framed in a way to make the outbreak strange, as a terminal disease to be managed until it cannot be, at which point, all kinds of unknowns become terrifying.
Maggie‘s excavation of this process is emotionally complicated and for that, remarkable. The film cuts back and forth in time and across memories and nightmares, sometimes suggesting what Wade sees, including the practical concerns of his current wife Caroline (Joely Richardson), aware that Maggie being home as she transitions puts their two young, frighteningly perfect blond children at risk. “She’s not her anymore,” Caroline observes, from a doorway, heartbroken.
Maggie also intimates, more subtly, Wade’s own sense of guilt and dismay and the impossible mix they make for him, a dad who couldn’t protect his child and now contemplates her death. Who knew that Schwarzenegger’s face, old and ravaged and weighted with pains unspeakable, might be so brilliant, so evocative, so suitable to convey grief and unease. When you’re not peering into his face as he looks off screen, toward his daughter receding, you’re seeing close mobile frames of his actions, his hand on a doorknob or holding his shotgun, his gloomy focus on a road ahead as he presses his ancient pickup truck into service one more time.
At other times, the film follows Maggie’s recollections, a night she spent with an infected, wise, apprehensive boyfriend named Trent (Bryce Romero), a last embrace with a best friend, or a brief, so brightly lit glimpse of her mother, many years gone, now angelic, sentimentalized, mesmerizing. Maggie and her dad share some moments, certainly, but as much as they try to share their last days together, they also live inside separate shells of dread, each knowing that the most unknown unknown is coming, not just death but death that will be deadly. They’ve both heard stories of what happens if those infected follow protocol, if they give themselves over to Quarantine; one especially horrific tale has it that promises of compassionate institutional care will be broken, that indeed, patients at “all phases are bunched together, people eating people.” It can’t be true, you might think, and yet you know it is.
Maggie doesn’t confirm this horror, but does indicate that kind-and-gentle protocols have been disseminated as a kind of PR for those afflicted, a population growing by definition. Even as the infected are allowed to stay home for a time, when word is out that a turn is coming — whether that word comes from family or a worried neighbor — SWAT teams descend and people are carried away. Infection here is growing old, but it’s monstrous. It’s any sort of disease “management” that no agency or institution or government can possibly make better, only more apparently organized, easier for those not yet old, not yet afflicted. Wade and Maggie look into this void differently, but also with shared knowledge as well as shared ignorance. No one can know and still, everyone must.
If Maggie is imperfect, it is also, sometimes, inspired. If its music soundtrack leans on sad piano cues, its most haunting audio is thunder, low and distant but persistent, a dog barking, Maggie breathing. If its images can be repetitive, tight, mobile frames on people looking lost and vulnerable, they can also be absolutely resonant, Maggie’s eyes turned zombieish but also, self-aware, seeing what’s ahead and also, what’s still, for now, as far as she might guess, inside.
This idea of what’s inside, of what’s lost in death, and for whom, is not typically the focus of a zombie movie or of the post-apocalyptic scenarios with which Schwarzenegger is so famously associated. But Maggie is less interested in dying as a crisis, an occasion for violence, or even as an end. It posits death as process, as part of life, as transformative for those not yet “infected” as those who are. While Maggie’s and Wade can’t share experience or perspective, they do share loss, profound and fearsome and inevitable. for them, as for all of us, death changes everything and nothing.