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Maggie

Year: 2015
Production Co: Silver Reel
Director: Henry Hobson
Writer: John Scott
Cast: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Abigail Breslin, Joely Richardson

Even if you imagined the results of a creative mash-up between two of modern cinema's most successful prominent institutions (Arnold Schwarzenegger and zombies), you still won't have dreamed up anything like Maggie. It's a distinctive and singular piece of filmmaking that's far from the best movie of the year, but it's one you'll remember.

We meet grizzled farm owner Wade (Schwarzenegger) collecting his teenage daughter Maggie (Abigail Breslin) from the hospital. Because the doctor is a friend, he lets Wade take Maggie home instead of quarantine where she really belongs.

Quarantine, we learn later, is a horrible place to be despite the authorities' assurances that it's humane and safe. You're crammed in with hundreds of other people, huddled together awaiting a very inhumane extermination.

Inmates are exterminated because there's no cure for the virus Maggie's afflicted with and which is sweeping America. It's delivered by bite from someone who's already succumbed and prompts a gradual decline in appetite, skin tone and eye shade before the sufferer appears to lose their mind and attack others to further spread the virus in turn.

We know it as zombieism, but in the world of the film the term is never mentioned. It treats the genre trappings with deadly seriousness and constructs a moody family drama as much as a horror movie.

Wade's wife (and Maggie's stepmother) Caroline (Joely Richardson) puts on as brave a face as she can, but the mood in the house is prickly. She understands Wade can't stand to subject his daughter to her inevitable fate, but everybody knows as long as she's under the same roof they'll be waiting for the moment she turns.

A series of scenes and asides do as much to convey the world of the story as they do to tell the story itself, filling in what could have been a frankly slow film and making everything move at just the right pace. We see Maggie make some sort of peace with her fate together with understanding friends, and in the closest scene the movie comes to outright horror, Wade has to deal with the neighbouring farmer and his little girl after they've turned and escaped from confinement.

Stylistically Maggie borrows a lot from The Walking Dead. It's set in similarly rural areas and everything is dark, grey, broken down and dusty. It's a world literally and figuratively leached of colour as crops have died, power is hard to come by and director Henry Hobson (a titles and graphics designer who worked on the beloved videogame The Last of Us) dresses everything in chilly greys and faded autumnal hues.

It's also about melancholy dread more than horror. There's almost no blood and we don't get scenes of zombies tearing a victim to shreds. There isn't even any real onscreen violence apart from snippets of a flashback to the incident that led to Maggie's bite.

Hobson also manages to put Schwarzenegger to the best use we've seen since The Terminator. Never on track to win an Oscar, Arnie plays Wade as a quiet, simple man. Despite the accent seeming a bit out of place (as always) there's no bulging muscles or heroics, and he emotes just as much as the role calls for to make Wade a frightened but loving man.

Breslin is great as Maggie, playing the character with a minimum of the tics of modern teens that are usually overplayed until they're irritating in other movies. She has a real heart and soul, loves her father and the scene where she finds a temporary reprieve from her lot with her friends at a camping trip is as real and heartfelt as the rest of the film.

Make-up effects make her gradual transformation very creepy – more so than ripped off jaws or severed limbs. Her eye milks over, black veins spread across her body, and she does her best to eat even though she can't stomach it – along with the rest of her family, Maggie's waiting until her sense of smell turns particularly acute and attuned to human flesh.

It's just of one of the many nods to zombie mythology that saves the film from having to show or overtly reference the hallmarks of the genre and gets to treat them with an unusually grown-up viewpoint that really works.

The word 'zombie' doesn't appear anywhere in the script or the marketing, but its use in any chatter about the film might bring in Dawn of the Dead and The Walking Dead fans. Whether they'll be disappointed or not depends on how much of a gorefest they're expecting and whether they can appreciate a little bit of nuance and a very new way of looking at zombie lore.

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