Since my local DVD shop went out of business I haven’t bothered much with new movies, but the other day I was walking along when I saw, peeking at me from the front of one of those DVD rental ATM thingies that cause your local DVD shop to go out of business, this thing…
Given that I hate the way workers are being replaced by machines – this particular kiosk is actually outside one of those big supermarkets full of “Self Serve Checkouts,” which is to say, “Give Us Your Labor For Free Checkouts” – I have avoided using the evil things. But, given the human-run shop’s demise, there seems to be no alternative left. So, as this clearly was not the usual dumbass Arnie actioner, I was curious to see if the old man has finally learned how to act. Out came the MasterCard, and home I went with a weird little metal container – how appropriate in an increasingly mechanized world – containing the DVD and a warning to make sure the metal container faced the right side up when returned to the toaster.
From the film’s poster – the focus on the individual’s faces, the somber colors, the cloudy sky, the look on Arnie’s face that says “My hemorrhoids are really killing me!” – and the fact that the movie is named after a person, it seemed that what we have here is that rare thing ; a zombie movie focusing on the psychological and emotional aspects of turning into an ambulant pile of putrescent flesh. As it turns out, that is exactly what we have here. And while I can’t say it’s a full-on classic, it is a hell of a lot better than most movies Arnie has been in and a very good horror drama. Is Arnold “superb” as claimed by the blurb on the poster? No, of course not, that’s just another case of some obscure guy trying to get his name on a movie poster by kissing keister. Arnold is, however, pretty good, at least compared to his usual performances, and while he doesn’t exactly walk away with the movie he does give us an effective portrayal of quiet, stoic suffering. If nothing else, Arnold’s performance proves that if you try long enough, you too can go from dreadful to adequate. And, hey, that’s not as much a dig at the guy as it sounds – some people got it and some people don’t. At least he finally seems to be making the most of what acting talent he does have.
But what about the movie itself?
WARINING – MASSIVE SPOILERS AHEAD. ALSO, BAD SPELLING.
“Maggie,” a.k.a “My Daughter The Flesh-Eating Zombie,” a.k.a “You Think YOUR Daughter’s Bat Mitzvah Was A Disaster!” is a somber, melancholy horror drama set in the aftermath of one of those mysterious zombie epidemics that seem to strike America so frequently, the difference being that this time the apocalypse seems to be under control, though no cure has been found so all the infected are as good as dead. This post-apocalyptic setting seems highly appropriate to me, as most of the civilized world has long regarded the idea of Arnold Schwarzenegger starring in a good drama as one of the Seven Signs Of The Apocalypse. Next come the locusts.
The gist of the movie is this. Arnie’s teenage daughter Maggie briefly runs away from her rural home and ends up in the big city where she is bitten by a soul-less, flesh-devouring monstrosity. Yes, the poor kid gets bitten by a hipster. This results in Maggie being contaminated with the Necroambulist virus, and sent home with her dad and a lugubrious little pamphlet entitled “So You’re Going To Become A Flesh-Eating Zombie.” As it turns out this particular strain of zombie-ism takes weeks to kill and turn you, so the government allows the afflicted to leave the hospital and stay with their families till they are too far gone, after which they need to be returned to the hospital for disposal. This conveniently gives us plenty of time to see how Arnie and his daughter cope with the impending tragedy. As Maggie’s disease progresses, it becomes more and more obvious that not only will daddy’s little monster soon be proving a threat to her own dad and stepmother (Arnie has had the sense to send the younger kids away so that only the main course is still hanging around) but that the old man won’t be able to bring himself to turn her into the authorities when the rot really sets in.
As the end approaches, Arnie finds out that the method by which the government puts down the zombies once they are turned over is slow and horribly painful. Why that would be the case is hard to see, as Arnold himself kills a couple of zombies by whacking them on the head, so here we have one of the movie’s few weaknesses – an uncomfortable contrivance that seems to exist merely to make sure Arnie doesn’t take the kid in. This leaves Arnold in the horrible position of possibly having to kill his own daughter with the same rifle he used to put down a fox mortally wounded by a peckish Maggie, something which we soon realize he is probably not going to be able to bring himself to do. But he is determined to at least try, so he hangs around till Maggie is virtually zombiefied, even being so silly as to not lock her in her room, instead letting her wander downstairs while he, like some gigantic Austrian ham, dozes in an armchair, rifle across his lap. What precisely Arnie is up to we are not told, but he is only pretending to sleep so he may have decided that death is a preferable alternative to killing his own child. So Maggie comes down the stairs, black eyed and marble skinned and looking pretty messed up, pauses by her “sleeping” father, kisses him tenderly on the forehead, and then walks away, climbs onto the roof and jumps head-first to her death, thereby saving her dad from having to kill her, and explaining the trailer voiceover in which she says that her father has protected her all her life, and now it’s time for her to protect him. The last thing she sees is herself as a child, playing with her long-dead, biological mother. Fade to black. Shortly before the fade, Arnold had “woken up” and put a shell in his previously empty shotgun, so it looks as if the kiss changed his mind and he is now willing to do what needs to be done. So the film gets to have it both ways – Maggie proves her love for dad by killing herself, and dad proves his love for Maggie by being willing to put her out of her misery. Either way, the whole sequence is very impressive, and has only one flaw – the absence of her father in Maggie’s last vision. The movie is, after all, about her and dad, not her and mom, and since the vision is set only about ten years before her death they wouldn’t even have needed to find a young Arnie look-alike. But other than that, it is a genuinely moving if downbeat ending. Sniff, sniff. I get choked up just thinking about it, and I am not easily moved.
Along the way the movie has several predictable scenes that could have been howlingly atrocious but which are handled with such restraint by everyone involved that they come across as genuinely poignant rather than emotionally manipulative : Maggie saying what they both know is probably a final farewell to her best friend; Maggie and her teenage friends, one of whom is also infected, sitting around a campfire talking about life and death; and, above all, a scene in which Arnie takes Maggie to see a daisy garden that used to be her mother’s and which he has just re-planted for her. Sniff, sniff, again.
As you can probably tell from the serious sparsity of zombie-killing scenes in my synopsis, this movie is really about how Maggie and her dad cope with terminal illness. In fact, I dare say director Henry Hobson probably just wanted to make a drama about a young woman with a terminal illness, but who the hell wants to see that unless it’s a big budget Hollywood thingie with lots of emotional manipulation and “feel good” moments? Nobody, so you throw in a zombie theme and bang! You have yourself something genre fans will pick up. Of course, it’s also possible Hobson wanted to take a look at the emotional impact such an epidemic would have on people. I guess only time will tell. Will he make more intelligent, horror-themed movies, thereby providing the genre with a thoughtful voice, or will he move into the mainstream and make Hollywood pap? I can only hope it’s the former. And make no mistake, Hobson is a very big part of why this movie works. Even though the acting is fine, it’s the stylistic elements that really make this thing worth watching. The entire piece has a slow, moody feel, like an old man laying flowers at his daughter’s grave on an overcast winter’s day. The photography is full of slow tracking shots, uses a palate of muted, somewhat desaturated, colors and subdued lighting, as well as some slightly wobbly camerawork for that “verite” feel. The score is filled with somber string and piano chords, long and low-pitched. This is not a happy movie, or even an exciting movie, it is a cinematic dirge for a dying character, and that’s exactly how it feels.
As you may suspect by now, I really liked this thing. So much so that I watched it in one sitting, something my restless butt rarely does with movies. Alas, I seem to be amongst the minority, as neither the public nor the critics seem to have taken a liking to Maggie and her old man. The box office was especially bad, coming in at less than $200k for the US takings, with foreign figures not available, but you can bet they wouldn’t have been much more than the domestic. Given the budget was $1.4 million, it was a definite flop. But then, the public probably only wants Arnie as a geriatric gunslinger, and when you want your burger to taste like chocolate you are sure to be disappointed. Mmmm…chocolate burger…As for the critics, they are a bunch of buffoons who make a living attacking their artistic betters, so who cares? Obviously, I do or I wouldn’t be mentioning it! It wouldn’t surprise me, though, if in time “Maggie” becomes a minor cult movie, the kind of thing that the more discerning genre fans miss on its initial low-key release but finally bump into years later and decide it deserves more attention than it got. I don’t recall anyone going crazy over Messiah of Evil when it came out, but nowadays it is a very well regarded piece, and one can only hope something similar happens with “Maggie.”