United States/Switzerland. Directed by Henry Hobson, 2015. Starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, Abigail Breslin, Joely Richardson. 95 minutes.

It seems that most of the publicity photos on Maggie’s official website are of people hugging each other. That might not strike you as weird if you didn’t know what Maggie is about. Only one of the pictures betrays the film’s subject matter: Arnold Schwarzenegger, swinging an ax, his trademark expression of steely, grim determination etched on his face more intensely than usual. The photo doesn’t show what Arnold is swinging the ax at, but I’m guessing it’s not firewood he’s splitting, but a zombie’s face.

Yes, Maggie is a zombie movie. (Actually, it’s a zombie/plague movie, where the zombies aren’t actually dead, but rabid with a viral infection–just in case it matters to you.) But it’s a highly unusual one. Only a handful of zombies appear throughout the film. One of them is the titular Maggie Vogel (Abigail Breslin). The disease incubates over the course of a couple of weeks, so the authorities allow the infected to live with their families until the disease progresses to a certain point. Arnold plays Maggie’s dad Wade, a grizzled farmer determined to spare his daughter the horror of the quarantine camps. Instead, he and his second wife/Maggie’s stepmother Caroline (Joely Richardson) will take care of her until she’s too far gone…then dispatch her quickly when the time comes. At least, that’s the plan.

Sure, it’s a set-up that lacks credibility–remember the panic surrounding the asymptomatic doctors exposed to Ebola last year–but the film j-u-u-u-st about gets away with it by vaguely implying that Wade has some pull with small-town lawmen and big-city doctors. (Now, why tracking and collection of local infected is the task of local law enforcement, not the National Guard…that I don’t have an answer for.) But for the most part I could forgive that, since it’s mostly there to frame the poignant and occasionally heartstring-tugging family drama.

As with any such drama, performances are the key to success. I expect Schwarzenegger to shock many audiences with the subtlety and depth of his performance. While the script smartly avoids his limitations as an actor while playing to his strengths, it’s quite clear that “Ah-Nuld” has come a long way from the hulking action and broad comedy of his ’80s and ’90s work. Physically, he looks a bit younger than his sixty-seven years, but you can see every one of those years in his body language and hear them in his voice. He’s old, he’s tired, the world is going to Hell, and he’s going to get a last few good days in with his daughter before her time–and his–is done.

Breslin is also excellent, with fantastic daughter-father rapport with Arnold and a few great scenes that highlight her relationship with her stepmother, half-siblings and friends. (Interesting, this isn’t the first time she’s played the victim of a zombie bite: see also Zombieland.) Bryce Romero gets a couple of fantastic scenes as Maggie’s friend (boyfriend?) Trent, also infected. An occasionally wavering accent marks Richardson’s otherwise fine performance.

Hobson proves well suited to the material; this probably shouldn’t surprise, considering how much emphasis promo copy puts on his experience as the creator for The Walking Dead’s title sequence. (The name of the offending virus–“necroambulist”–vaguely means “walking dead” and I can’t imagine it’s not a deliberate reference.) The film’s visual aesthetic is appropriately somber, subdued and grim, matched by David Wingo’s score. Incidentally, don’t let the PG-13 rating fool you: Hobson provides several icky scenes.

Imagine the sort of film the words “zombie movie starring Arnold Schwarzenegger” might describe. Whatever kind of film you imagined, it wasn’t anything like Maggie. And that’s a good thing, even if overall the film has a few problems.

MAGGIE poster

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