There are no one-liners or knowing winks in this Arnold Schwarzenegger zombie movie; it’s a bleakly plodding, quietly affecting drama that’s not so much interested in moments of terror, but what happens when they subside.
On the face of it, the premise is familiar: a “necroambulist” virus that turns people into the flesh-hungry walking dead has crippled America. The infected are being rounded-up in quarantine zones and – ahem – terminated. Major cities are under martial law, while rural areas, where most of the story is set, have been cut loose to fend for themselves. The virus, however, bears a striking difference from your common-or-garden zombie outbreak: victims decline over weeks or months before they “turn”, making goodbyes drawn-out and desperate.
This is the situation in which Wade – a starkly against-type Arnold Schwarzenegger – and his recently-infected daughter Maggie find themselves. They try to find comfort in their final days, which are lived out in a ravaged, bucolic dystopia where reminders of death lie around every decaying corner.
The tone is one of wistful inevitability: recurring shots of dusty, bleak landscapes are paired with a sad strings and synths soundtrack (it appears to borrow heavily from award-winning video game The Last of Us). Maggie spends much of the movie sadly picking at the growing, jet-black wound on her arm.
The balance between allegory and narrative is a little skewed, with the infection a very thinly veiled metaphor for degenerative disease and the protracted loss of a loved one, but director Henry Hobson’s debut film is well-shot and well-acted enough to resist getting bogged down in sentimentality.
Schwarzenegger’s very presence is initially jarring – something Hobson seems happy to play up to, never explaining Wade’s mangled Austrian vowels – but he proves himself more than capable of portraying a father’s attempts to hold it together in the face of impossible grief. Maggie, though, isn’t worth seeing just as “the serious Arnie movie” – it’s a poignant, nuanced piece of filmmaking that’s the most interesting entry to the zombie canon since 28 Days Later.