Take Hunt for the Wilderpeople. Add a touch of Logan. Mix it together with the French-Canadian art-house zombie horror of The Ravenous. Drop Martin Freeman into the middle of it. That’s how you get Cargo, Netflix’s excellent Australian zombie flick from co-directors Ben Howling and Yolanda Ramke.
Freeman stars as Andy Rose, an avuncular Brit living on a houseboat with his wife Kay (Susie Porter) and chubby-cheeked one-year-old daughter Rosie (played by two sets of twins) in rural Australia. Some unexplained pandemic has already caused the majority of the world’s population to turn into zombies within 48 hours of being infected, yet Andy continues to put a brave face on everything, even when Kay worries over their dwindling food supply. His happiness is soon put to the test when Kay not only gets infected herself but also later infects him, leaving him just 2 days to find someone in the ravaged Australian Outback to take care of Rosie after he turns.
It’s an old trick, really, adding a ticking clock element to a story, but it’s just enough to lend Cargo a surprising vitality. Thanks to George Romero’s body of work and the Walking Dead franchise, it feels as if every possible zombie trope has already been done and done again, and Cargo certainly falls prey to several of them, such as Walking Dead’s beloved “every new group they meet turns out to be even more dangerous than the actual zombies.” However, the focus on a father who knows he is dying and only has 48 hours to find a new home for his daughter is a compelling enough hook to help you forgive any of Cargo’s more expected moments.
Because this is a zombie movie there is eventually a larger metaphorical meaning behind it all. This comes with the introduction of Thoomi (Simone Landers), a young Aboriginal girl who has broken away from her tribe to search the Outback for her zombified father. Andy and Rose eventually become her traveling companions, and Freeman’s innate likability lends their bond a certain sweetness. However, through Thoomi Cargo tees up an outsider vs. native commentary, ultimately arguing we are bringing this on ourselves through a disrespect for both Earth and our fellow humans.
That’s there to be chewed over and analyzed however you like, but it can also be ignored in preference for simply getting caught up in Freeman’s quiet intensity as well as Howling and Ramke’s air of hopeless fatigue. On two separate occasions, Freeman lets out an eardrum-shattering scream, venting his pent-up despair in a truly gripping fashion. In moments like that, Cargo shines as a character-driven survival story, less concerned with scaring you and more determined to earn your tears as you root for a father stuck in an impossible situation and surrounded by death.
THE BOTTOM LINE
A more emotional than usual zombie flick with a stellar star turn from Martin Freeman, Cargo tweaks zombie tropes just enough to feel fresh and truly gripping.
RANDOM PARTING THOUGHTS
- The backstory, from theyoungfolks.com: “Back in 2013, two Australian directors named Yolanda Ramke and Ben Howling submitted their short film Cargo to the Tropfest film festival. The short went viral online and has over 14 million views. Because of the success of their short, Yolanda and Ben adapted it into a feature-length film starring Martin Freeman.”
- Consistently throughout we see white characters suffering physically and emotionally in the face of the zombie outbreak whereas the Aboriginals are better prepared for survival.
- The directors have regularly cited Children of Men and District 9 as inspirations for how to weave social commentary through a genre film, and that certainly shows.
What about you? Did Cargo work for you? Or do you think it loses steam in its final third? Let me know in the comments.