Henry Hobson, a former main title design director on The Walking Dead, probably understands more than most that the zombie scenario has long reached critical mass—that most zombie stories are all the same: they come, we get the fuck out. In between there’s much biting and dying, but the living almost always run toward wherever, whoever, promises them another day. In Maggie, though, people stay put. The film begins with a farmer, Wade (Arnold Schwarzenegger), picking up his daughter, Maggie (Abigail Breslin), from a hospital, where she was taken after being bitten on the arm. Dead but not yet zombified, she rides shotgun on the way back home, picking at her wound as if it were nothing out of the ordinary. At the farm, she says goodbye to her two half-brothers, who—just in case—are carted away to an aunt’s house, while Wade and Maggie’s stepmother, Caroline (Joely Richardson), wait for her to turn. And wait. At least, then, in its prioritizing of the girl’s drifting toward the unknown known, and in her parents’ coping with its inevitability, the film reveals itself as its own band apart.
Maggie flirts with suspense throughout, most memorably in a scene where Breslin strikingly articulates Maggie’s refusal to succumb to the base instincts of her encroaching zombism, but the film prioritizes an earnest depiction of death as mundane. So it’s a pity that, because of the filmmakers’ stock or featherweight sense of interpersonal experience, the depiction too often feels mundane itself. Richardson, dully tasked with playing the prototypically aloof stepmother, is unceremoniously carted off screen once Maggie’s disease has reached the sort of point of no return the filmmakers seemingly believe only a real parent is capable of enduring. Schwarzenegger, meanwhile, gets to chop wood, whack a few zombies, and etch out Wade’s desperation in trying to prevent Maggie from being quarantined. But besides a scene wherein Wade plays a cassette of a song that makes mention of Maggie’s name, there’s no sense of what makes this father-daughter relationship so unique. Only a get-together between friends amid the detritus of this slice of Middle America achieves an illuminating poignancy, mostly for so perfectly flipping coming-of-age story conventions by having Maggie and a boy, Trent (Bryce Romero), who’s also coming of death, share what’s understood to be their last kiss.
Whether Maggie was bit before or after police pick her up on the streets isn’t something the film makes clear—and how she was bit remains the stuff of nightmares, and hers only. But those outright omissions are Hobson’s means of drawing a line in the sand, as his interest isn’t in the grue this sort of premise almost always guarantees. Unforgivable, though, is his insipid artistry, so abundant in erratically deployed visual and aural shorthand to convey a world agonizingly going to seed. The land suggests as if it’s endured more than just the walking dead, but the ravages of nuclear warfare; the frequent handheld camera predictably forces us to relinquish our role as distanced voyeur; and the constant dropping out of audio from the soundtrack superficially articulates Maggie’s encroaching physical deterioration without ever feeling truly keyed to her point of view. The film, in lockstep with its preciously diddering score, so desperately and catastrophically plods into unearned sentimentality that its only claim to uniqueness becomes running the standard zombie narrative through a Hallmark-card filter.