We’re gonna keep doing this, you know.
Every now and then the collective pop culture unconscious latches onto an idea that it can’t let go of. In the mid-20th century that idea was the expansive West and the cowboys brave enough to lay claim to it. More recently superheroes comic book adaptations have dominated the cinematic landscape
It’s zombies, however, that are now among our most ubiquitous cultural touchstones and it’s not immediately evident why. Maybe something about the unnatural terror of a reanimated corpse has taken hold of our lizard brains. Perhaps as globalization increases and the world shrinks, we have become more mindful of the danger of global pandemic. Or maybe it’s just simply because zombie movies and TV shows have had this weird habit lately of being really good.
There tends to be a bias against such silly genre fare but if you throw a dart at a board of zombie movies you’re more likely to hit a good film than a bad one.
With that in mind, Netflix’s new Australian zombie drama, Cargo, isn’t necessarily revelatory. It’s another really good zombie flick in a long line of good zombie flicks.
Cargo, directed by Ben Howling and Yolanda Ramke (who also wrote the script) tells the story of a father in the expansive, desolate Australian outback trying to find safe haven for his family in a very unsafe place. The preternaturally likable Martin Freeman stars as Andy Rose. Andy and his wife Kay (Susie Porter) spend their days in a boat making its way up a lazy river in an attempt to outrun a violent pandemic. After tragedy befalls both of them (one quicker than the other), Andy has 48 hours to traverse the unfriendly landscape in search of a new life for his infant caught, Rosie.
Meanwhile, young Aboriginal tribe member Thoomi (Simond Landers) is trying to keep her infected father away from her tribe who is set on eliminating the zombie threat altogether. Andy and Thoomie’s journeys will coincide in equally uplifting and tragic ways.
The easiest part to pull off for any zombie movie or show is the first act in which the “rules” of this post-apocalyptic universe are established. Even with that lowered difficulty level in mind, Cargo well and truly flourishes in its first act.
The monsters in Cargo are infected humans a la 28 Days Later rather than reanimated corpses. In the world of Cargo, those bitten by the infected have 48 hours before the virus takes over. There are certain helpful physical markers along the way. After a few hours the infected will spit out disgusting bile that resembles raspberry jam. A day in they will start to secrete a sort of honey-like substance, develop a taste for raw meat, and feel an inescapable need to dig holes.
Cargo shows the entire life cycle of the disease early on so that viewers can better understand the concept. It’s a thoroughly logical take on a zombie infection. There are even helpful little pamphlets and tools scattered across the landscape by the Australian government that explain the process in airline emergency pamphlet-style sterility.
Aside from just excellent in zombie rule exposition, Cargo’s first act also presents something that is revelatory for this dark genre: a happily married couple with a good sense of humor.
Andy and Kay fundamentally disagree on what path they should take to safety. Andy wants to stay on the river until it leads them to a military base while Kay wants to hop off early to find a hospital. Still, despite the disagreements they are truly, believably in love. For even just 15-20 minutes of screen time, Andy and Kay are Cargo’s best asset because they establish a level of humanity and realism for a movie that is just purely by definition: ridiculous.
As many have rightly pointed out about The Walking Dead – a bleak, humorless world doesn’t always create bleak, humorless people. There are jokes to be mined out in them there fox holes. It, of course, helps that Freeman is aboard as the central character. Martin Freeman is not so much an actor as he is a cipher of an effortlessly likable everyman.
There are few characters of note in Cargo but the film nails the casting of its two most important in Andy and Thoomi. Plus, as weird as it may sound the movie also somehow found a great infant actor? This isn’t a case of a movie or TV show “aging up” a baby for production convenience’s sake. These madmen really put an infant “actress” out in the blistering Australian sun and the kid nails it. I know that sounds insane but there’s a scene late in the film where Freeman brings his daughter’s face close to his for a tender embrace and the baby responds in a spontaneous, breathtakingly touching way.
Cargo gets off to such a strong, intriguing start that at first it’s not immediately noticeable how much its second act drags. Cargo presents the obligatory zombie movie “it’s humans who are the real monsters, you know” turn shortly after Andy hits the road. It’s another important hallmark of any zombie film but this time it just feels a touch too perfunctory. Andy comes across Vic (Anthony Hayes) at a military installation and he is far too transparently evil far too quickly. Thankfully, Cargo then rescues itself with a satisfying, if predictable finish.
Due to its second act struggles, Cargo would have been better suited to a short film, which makes sense because Cargo was a short film. Howling and Ramke originally produced Cargo as a short film back in 2013. It was only seven minutes and went viral (hehe) shortly after being uploaded to YouTube. The short is superior to the feature because as we’re starting to increasingly discover: the shorts usually are.
YouTube and other new technologies have opened up new routes for young filmmakers to express themselves creatively. The thing is though: shorts don’t always pay the bills. Netflix doesn’t come fit a fat paycheck so that filmmakers can reproduce their seven-minute short and just plug in Martin Freeman.
Just as zombies as a genre have become an inevitably so too have feature-length adaptations of excellent self-contained shorts. And if those are inevitable, they may as well be as good as Cargo.
Cargo doesn’t even need to have indulged “humanity is the real villain” trope. The film’s best feature is a fundamental respect for humanity in all its gross forms.
Make no mistake: this is well produced but very visually gross movie. It’s hard not to imagine the level of hell it must have been to film in the hot Australian outback with flies swirling around the blood and honeycomb-like pus caked to the actors’ faces. Amid all that ugliness is a lovely, reassuring notion that the human need for connection and relationships will survive the apocalypse…even if most humans won’t.