They may be dead-eyed, gray-skinned and determinedly brain-hungry, but zombies have feelings too in “Maggie,” an improbably bred but surprisingly humane hybrid of flesh-eater horror and young-adult weepie. Though Henry Hobson’s hugely promising debut feature is generating buzz from the casting of a fine, low-key Arnold Schwarzenegger as the anguished father of a semi-zombified teen, it’s Abigail Breslin’s gutsy, nuanced turn as the reluctantly undead title character — at once a heroine to be protected and a mutant threat to be destroyed — that makes the film unique within its grisly canon, lending this Roadside Attractions release potential crossover appeal beyond the genre crowd. “Let’s enjoy the time we have with her” is perhaps the most ironic line in a nervy, relentlessly solemn exercise; formula-resistant auds, however, should gladly spend 90-odd minutes in “Maggie’s” company.
Having been amply covered by A-list studio productions and bargain-basement exploitation fare alike, there may not seem to be much left to explore in the area of human-zombie conflict — but comparatively few films have focused on the transitional space between these rival breeds. The dystopian universe of Hobson’s film might be familiar, but in concentrating its narrative around a gradual process referred to as “the turn” — by which infected humans slowly and painfully join the walking dead over a period of six to eight weeks — “Maggie” offers a thoughtful corrective to cruder visions. British graphic designer Hobson, best known for the title sequences of films including “Snow White and the Huntsman” and “The Lone Ranger,” marks the metamorphosis with close attention to subtle visual cues: The gore may be kept at a PG-13 level throughout, but Hobson milks ample terror from the shifting glaze on a cornea or the deepening mauve of scarification.
Screenwriter John Scott 3 — also making his feature-film debut — wisely keeps the backstory to a minimum in a story where difficult interpersonal relationships take precedence over the bigger picture. A viral epidemic is sweeping the nation, but the film holds back on political statements from voices of authority. As in Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar,” a world-threatening plague is viewed primarily in the context of its threat to the American family, with a father’s love for his daughter that cherished institution’s least breakable bond. In circumstances detailed only in choppy, nightmarish flashbacks, Breslin’s 16-year-old Maggie is the only member of her family to be infected; after running away, she is consigned to a governmental quarantine ward, where zombies-in-waiting are executed once their transformation is complete.
Unable to accept this clinical fate for his daughter, taciturn Austro-Midwestern farmer Wade Vogel (Schwarzenegger) retrieves her from the authorities, determined that she see out her human days in comfort. Her stepmother Caroline (a Southern-accented Joely Richardson) is sympathetic but skeptical that this is a responsible course of action, as are the local cops; neighboring tales abound in the community of infected individuals killing family members once overwhelmed by their appetite.
As Maggie’s condition begins visibly worsening, then, Wade faces a particularly grotesque twist on every parent’s greatest fear: not only that they will live to see their child die, but that they will be the ones forced to call time on the young life in question. Zombiedom is thus presented here not as a monstrous or uncanny phenomenon, but as a wasteful terminal disease, leaving grievous heartache in its violent wake. Maggie’s sensitive b.f., Trent (Bryce Romero), is another victim of the epidemic; those who found “The Fault in Our Stars” lacking in cannibalistic menace, or even those who didn’t, will be left moist-eyed by the kids’ mutual resignation to a hideous fate.
While the publicity material for “Maggie” seems likely to take the line that the film offers viewers Schwarzenegger as they’ve never seen him before, it’s more a case of him showing up where he’s never been seen before. This kind of modest independent terrain is new for him, and the film gains significant swagger from his blockbuster-sized presence alone. But stoic, tight-jawed integrity comes naturally to the action icon, and he’s affectingly cast as a hulking protector figure compressing his own unruly emotions for the benefit of his family. (Moreover, if any actor can cut an empathetic figure as a man dealing with semi-human outsiders, it’s the Terminator himself.) He’s generous and responsive in his scenes with Breslin, who has much of the heaviest dramatic lifting to do: Like the anti-heroine of “Carrie,” Maggie turns from victim to aggressor with involuntary fluidity, though Breslin bridges these identities with a regular teenager’s insecurities and occasional petulance. It’s the most impressive assignment of her maturing career.
With limited resources and no obviously elaborate effects work, Hobson and his production team have convincingly constructed a Middle America that appears to be decaying in sympathy with Maggie and everyone else experiencing “the turn.” The pic’s images of splintering farmhouses and laid-to-waste convenience stores represent no great departure from the post-apocalyptic story worlds of, say, “The Road” or “The Walking Dead,” but they’re vividly realized all the same by production designer Gabor Norman and d.p. Lukas Ettlin, whose initial bleached-out aesthetic gradually gives way to subtler, mood-dictated shades of dust and coal. The score by David Wingo, favored composer of David Gordon Green and Jeff Nichols, adds rustic folk notes to an overall sonic palette of swarming dread. Lest things get a little too tasteful, however, suitably stomach-churning makeup designs by Karri Farris serve to remind viewers that “Maggie” is still, at its very tender heart, a zombie movie after all.