I think that one of the reasons that people find the zombie genre is so popular is because it’s so relatable. In every point of history, there has been a very legitimate fear of infection, and of becoming part of a huge mass of the unidentified/unnamed/unclaimed waste left in its aftermath. It’s a terrifying thought to have to watch your body rot and decay into something inhuman before your own eyed. Just as there’s a complex horror of being swallowed into an unmarked mass grave, full of other rotting husks of unknown strangers.
And of course, the more bureaucratic nightmare of quarantine – the loss of control over one’s freedom, autonomy and body. The isolation of being a number in a system, a statistic to be glossed over in news reports, or worse, totally neglected by the system built to serve and protect you as a citizen.
At the time of this review, the world is rocked by the Corona virus. Clips of videos and pictures on the internet show people being removed in hazmat protection, portions of cities blocked off for quarantine, and countless people reacting to fake or real bouts of public sickness. Borders have been closed. PPE has been sold out completely online.
Before that was Ebola, H1N1, SARS, Bird Flu, Hantavirus, The Spanish Flu, Tuberculosis, Rabies, Leprosy, The Black Death…
And, something more akin to this movie – the HIV/AIDS epidemic. But before we get into all that…
Maggie, played by Abigail Breslin, has just been given a death sentence – she’s been bitten by an infected person and is now positive for a disease that’s been ravaging the entire US. After trying to run away, she is picked up by her father and taken back to their house in the quiet countryside to await her fate. She’s given only a few weeks to spend with her family before being forced to suffer her final days isolated in quarantine.
During her time at home, she must come to accept her mother’s past death, learn to forgive, and face her mortality while losing her agency and body in the process as she becomes sicker. She experiences the fear and ignorance of even her closest loved ones as she becomes less and less of Maggie and more of something else entirely…
The non-spoiler reveal:
There’s no way around this: Arnold Schwarzenegger plays her dad.
It’s…unfortunate and, frankly, jarring to see older Arnold play a Midwestern farmer and father to a young twenty-something (and father to even younger children). And it’s not to say that he doesn’t try in this film, because he does.
And he does a good job at acting, but what probably drew a lot of people to watch this movie (me included) was what ended up hurting it – it’s an Arnold Schwarzenegger zombie movie at the end of the day. No matter how it’s packaged, that’s what’s going to stick in people’s minds and when this slow-burn drama starts unfolding, it’s…well…
(snob glasses affixed) In “Genre And The Invention Of The Writer”, especially when examining Foucault’s “author-function”, Anis S. Bawarshi said:
“The author-function does not refer to the ‘real’ writer, the individual with the proper name who precedes and exists independently of the work. Instead, it refers to the author’s name, which, in addition to being a proper name, is also a literary name, a name that exists only in relation to the work associated with it. The author-function, then, endows a work with a certain cultural status and value. At the same time, the author-function also endows the idea of ‘author’ with a certain cultural status and value.”https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt46nxp6.5
“The author-function delimits what works we recognize as valuable and how we interpret them at the same time as it accords the status of author to certain writers”https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt46nxp6.5
I know, you’re thinking, ‘But Brannyk, doesn’t that work in favor of the movie? The reason that we’re talking about the movie right now is because of Arnold “Put That Cookie Down” Schwarzenegger? And also, what happened with the HIV/AIDS talk?’
We’ll get to HIV/AIDS in a minute. First, yes, Arnold and Abigail Breslin’s (but we know it’s Arnold) capital is what drew people in. In fact, that reliance on his capital was incredibly faulty direction that the marketing took – relying on (and exaggerating) the scarce action scenes of the movie. They even went as far as to hype the movie with the most ridiculous tagline: “Don’t Get Bitten” as a way to sell Action-Arnold, and not Midwestern old-dad Arnold.
It’s no wonder that, while it fared well with critics, it bombed hard, not even making back its budget (which probably mostly went to the salaries for the actors, as there was limited effects and locations).
And it’s a shame because “Maggie” is a fresh take on an old trope. And so, patient reader, we get to HIV/AIDS.
Brain Roll Juice:
“Maggie” is not the total chaos and calamity of most zombie outbreak movies. It’s an epidemic, yes, but as we see government-issued brochures given to Maggie, as we hear NPR news reports, and boring, routine doctor visits – this is not a collapsing society situation. Yet, there’s fear and prejudice against those infected. There’s ignorance. Some of it is rational – they are living in the country, where everyone knows everyone and resources are reserved for the larger cities. Maggie is seen as a victim, a carrier, a ticking time-bomb, a troublemaker, and an innocent child.
During her own time of accepting her virus and fate, friends and loved ones try understand how this change will affect them – some say goodbye, some turn away, and some give into prejudice and ignorance.
Throughout the movie (whether intentional or not) the interactions with the community, the government’s awkward involvements, and the sickness itself (not the cannibalistic part, though, duh) is reminiscent of the HIV/AIDS epidemic of the 80’s-90’s. Maggie as a “carrier” of a deadly and mysteriously disease that is clumsily handled by government officials and little understood by the general public pulls a lot from history. We see Maggie losing agency, little by little, with her choices and her own body as she is slowly succumbing to the virus. We see more government intervention by way of law enforcement and medical staff, even when trying to help her. We see her own friends misunderstand her and the community at the brink of hysteria.
In fact, when questioned about the school re-opening and asked whether he would send his child to school with a child with the disease, the mayor of the town had this to say,
“I’m glad I’m not faced with that problem today, and I can well understand the plight of the parents and how they feel about it. I also have compassion, as I think we all do, for the child that has this and doesn’t know and can’t have it explained to him why somehow he is now an outcast and can no longer associate with his playmates and schoolmates. On the other hand, I can understand the problem of the parents. It is true that some medical sources had said that this cannot be communicated in any way other than the ones we already know and which would not involve a child being in the school. And yet medicine has not come forth unequivocally and said, ‘This we know for a fact, that it is safe.’ And until they do, I think we just have to do the best we can with this problem. I can understand both sides of it.”
Just kidding. That was Reagan in ’85. A full two years before forming the President’s Commission on the HIV Epidemic in ’87. And that was after AIDS was named in ’82 and HIV identified in ’82.
Any who, what I’m getting at is that there are similarities that make this a familiar ride in an old trope that I found refreshing, surprisingly rewarding and genuine. While I hope this nod was deliberate, the zombie virus itself pays homage to very real and very deadly diseases in our world as I stated before and while the scary zombie move is fun, this was a good stroll into what other facets the zombie genre could tell. Familiar stories. Heartbreaking stories. Vulnerable stories of communities trying to recover and survive; families learning how to deal with loss and say goodbye; and victims finding agency (in small or big ways) within their suffering and their final moments.
A slow drama with Arnold Schwarzenegger and zombies. If you feel like you’re up to that, give it a go.(3 / 5)