Plague

A dark and grim entry in the zombie-apocalypse canon, but aficionados may find it a bit too light on the shambling flesh-eaters

Australia. Directed by Kosta Ouzas & Nick Kozakis, 2015. Starring Tegan Crowley, Scott Marcus, Steven Kennedy. 84 minutes.

Another zombie apocalypse. (Okay, if you insist: another plague-that-makes-people-behave-like-zombies apocalypse.) Evie (Tegan Crowley) hides out with a small group of survivors at a rural farmhouse. Days earlier, they became separated from Evie’s husband John (Scott Marcus), and have been waiting for him to arrive at this prearranged rendezvous point. The others feel it’s time to move on, but Evie doesn’t agree. Can she make it on her own until John finally arrives? And can she trust her fellow survivors?

In terms of plotting and thematics, Plague doesn’t offer any bold twists on the zombie-apocalypse template; if you’ve watched your fair share of zombie movies, you will find very little to surprise you here. The one exception: writer/co-director Kosta Ouzas and co-director Nick Kozakis keep the zombies on the sidelines as much as possible, only appearing in a couple of scenes.

By doing so, Ouzas and Kozakis intensify the focus on the conflicts between the survivors, a staple of the formula since Night of the Living Dead. Not satisfied following the human-conflict tropes, the filmmakers put them under a microscope and examine them in detail. The grossest scene in the film–a film that deploys gore minimally but graphically–comes at the climax of a conflict between two uninfected characters, with nary a shambling flesh-eater in sight. That single fact, more than any other, defines the film. I can’t think of another zombie movie with so few zombies in it. They are almost incidental to the story.

As a character study, then, Plague largely succeeds. Ouzas paints the characters in spare but broad strokes, leaving the main actors–Crowley, Marcus, and later, Steven Kennedy as Charlie, a survivor who comes upon the farm later in the film–space to embody their roles. This particular tactic doesn’t always work, but Crowley has the skill to carry the picture, and Kennedy plays his part so well that even though you should notice straight off that Charlie’s a total creep, the reveal contains a good deal of shock value.

As for Marcus, he doesn’t seem entirely able to keep up with his co-stars, but that could just be the nature of John as a character–the eternal beta-male, forever overpowered by the stronger personalities that surround him. It’s at the point when John finally decides to assert himself that Plague jumps the tracks somewhat, taking its focus off Evie for too long. From there, events progress to an ending I didn’t quite understand, from a dramatic point of view. (Or: I get what happened, but I don’t get why it had to happen.)

Even in its weaker moments, Ouzas and Kozakis keep the tension pegged at high levels, with enchanting yet lonely cinematography of stark rural Australian vistas underlining the desperation of the situation. I can readily believe that these might very well be the last people on Earth.

Plague is a particularly dark and grim entry in the zombie-apocalypse canon; while zombie aficionados may find it a bit too light on the shambling flesh-eaters, its unflinching depiction of emotional violence makes it worth seeking out, even with its uneven final act.

PLAGUE poster

Maggie

Imagine a zombie movie starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. Whatever you imagined, it wasn’t anything like Maggie.

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