Netflix’s Australian zombie drama sports some fascinating twists on the undead genre, and drips with as much atmosphere as it does infected blood.
Zombie movies can often be judged by the balance they strike between the expected rules of a well-traveled world and the twists each new film brings to the genre. Cargo is a film that succeeds spectacularly in new ways while standing on the undead shoulders of the great shambling movies that came before it.
Based on the viral short film of the same name (and directed by the very same duo, Ben Howling & Yolanda Ramke), Cargo follows a pair of converging stories set in the zombie infested outback of South Australia. In the first, Andy (Martin Freeman), Kay (Susie Porter), and their freaking adorable newborn daughter, Rosie, have taken refuge aboard a boat, slowly sailing down a river to potential safety. In the other, an adolescent Aboriginal Australian Thoomi (Simone Landers) hides her recently zombified father from the rest of her zombie-hunting community. She feeds him whatever animals she can find in the hopes that, one day, she will be able to “return his soul” and cure him. Their paths cross due to the common denominator of zombie movies: a single zombie bite.
After stopping at a half-capsized boat, Andy enters to find a treasure trove of canned goods and supplies. He also hears a sound deeper inside the boat and quickly gets the heck out of there with all the food they’ll need for three months. However, to keep his wife from worrying, he tells her that the capsized sailboat is perfectly safe. She takes his word for it, and while Andy is busy changing Rosie, Kay boards the abandoned boat. She returns with a Bic shaver and a zombie bite. This forces the family to the land to try and get Kay to the nearest doctor possible. While speeding along a back country road, Andy swerves to avoid hitting Thoomi’s dad, and crashes the car. He awakes to find Kay has turned and his arm bitten, giving him 48 hours to get Rosie to some kind of safety.
Much of what makes Cargo so absolutely compelling is the world that Howling & Ramke have created. There is a consistent sense of danger, but rarely are there ever more than three zombies on the screen at one time. Instead the danger comes from the stubbornness born of unyielding love. Andy and Thoomi share the bond of wanting to protect those they love so much that they’re willing to put themselves into constant danger, just for the slightest hope of retuning their lives back to normal. Whether it’s a miracle cure or knowledge of an elder, both are certain that their only hopes for happiness are the ones that are least likely to succeed. What makes that so terrifying is that their actions make perfect sense. It is often too easy to pick apart and judge the actions of characters within horror, but Andy & Thoomi operate entirely out of trauma. While their hope may be misguided, it is completely plausible that the majority of us would make the exact same decisions that they do.
Howling & Ramke’s twists on the zombies themselves are also wonderfully clever. They pick the qualities that best suit the slower pace of the movie (slow shambling, low moaning), while adding in details that lessen the number of the creatures. Unlike zombies of yore, The Virals need to hibernate. If they can’t find a cave or tunnel, then they dig a hole in the ground and bury their heads. While this may seem to lower the sense of danger, it really succeeds more in giving a false sense of safety and act as a creepy reminder of the unnatural state of this particular world. They also work as a subconscious parallel to Andy and Thoomi’s refusal to accept the reality around them.
Finally, much has to be said for the multiple babies that played Rosie. As unpredictable as babies can be, it speaks volumes to the direction of Rowling & Ramke that they found so many amazing moments of pure adorable wonder from those children. When so many films use children as nothing more than emotional props, it was so refreshing to see a baby treated not just as a tool, but as a genuine character with personality and emotion.
Overall, Cargo is a gem. There are some minor technical moments that may take some out of the film, but as a whole, it is an exciting feature debut for a pair of directors with a bright future ahead of them.
Cargo is currently available on Netflix.