Well worth your time, Cargo finds a gentle humanity in the zombie apocalypse.
Everyone knows that zombie films aren’t actually about the zombies. After all, what’s interesting about zombies? They’re mindless, slobbering drones. No, the zombie genre is about how humankind responds to the breakdown of civilisation, with most of these films subtly concerned with exposing the ills of the society that remains – the one that we retreat back to once the film is over. Night of the Living Dead is about racism. Dawn of the Dead is about consumer culture. Even comedy effort Shaun of the Dead has a through-line on masculinity, with Shaun and Ed representing the disillusioned man-child of the new millennium. At this point, you expect the zombie film to say more than bitey-bite, chompy-chomp.
In this regard, Cargo doesn’t disappoint. A low-budget Australian production, the film reflects on the tensions between the aboriginal population and the interests of large corporations (here communicated through the debate over fracking). This underlying discourse provides the backdrop for a humane and heartfelt tale that places the zombies in the periphery, with a real sense of emotional depth and a fantastic central performance from Martin Freeman.
Freeman plays Andy, who finds himself in a desperate situation when infected by a disease that has seemingly turned most of the planet into irrational creatures with an insatiable taste for human flesh. He has 48 hours (the known time for the disease to fully take hold) to find someone capable of looking after his baby daughter Rosie, fearing that unless he does her fate will also be sealed. The British actor, best known for his sardonic every-man roles, is rarely given the opportunity to display such despairing emotion. Andy becomes friends with young indigenous girl Thoomi (Simone Landers) and, though the bond they share is a brief one, Freeman really delivers in a graceful portrayal of compassion in the midst of tragedy. He’s a warm, reliable presence. Thoomi, who doesn’t quite grasp the gravity of the situation, makes for a touching foil to Andy. Newcomer Landers plays the whole range of feelings with a natural talent.
Cargo is not a horror movie per se, but it does produce some chilling, inventive imagery when it wants to. The infected of this world have a compulsion to bury their heads into the ground before they fully turn, which is super creepy to see, and the gradual evolution of the disease finds those unlucky ones discharge a wax-like substance from their mouth and eyes. The cinematography makes good use of the stunning outback setting, which holds an evocative power that is perfectly fitting for these sort of desperate, life-threatening scenarios – Wolf Creek being a previous example.
Considering the sheer quantity of zombie movies that have been made to date, for what is essentially a limited subject matter, it’s hard to fault the film for falling into cliché on occasion. Rather, the most frustrating flaw is the unnecessary inclusion of a hostile human character. The antagonism, whilst the type of move that may work for The Walking Dead, feels incompatible with the mostly subdued tone of this particular apocalypse. These are minor criticisms, however, for what is a pleasantly small-scale, character-driven take on a well-worn genre. Cargo lands on its feet, delivering an ending that is sure to bring a tear to the eye yet inspire hope too.
Cargo (2018), directed by Ben Howling and Yolanda Ramke, is available to stream via Netflix now, certificate 15.