Cargo *** / *****
Directed by: Yolanda Ramke & Ben Howling.
Written by: Yolanda Ramke.
Starring: Martin Freeman (Andy), Anthony Hayes (Vic), Susie Porter (Kay), Caren Pistorius (Lorraine), Kris McQuade (Etta), Natasha Wanganeen (Josie), Bruce R. Carter (Willie), Simone Landers (Thoomi), David Gulpilil (Daku).
It is not easy to do something new with the zombie genre – which in the wake of the huge hit that is The Walking Dead – has become perhaps the most overplayed of all horror genres in recent years. Really, no one has done anything all that original since George A. Romero eventually invented the genre as we know with Night of the Living Dead (1968) and perfected it with Dawn of the Dead (1979). But many filmmakers have followed Romero’s lead in using the genre to comment on larger social issues and humanity in general. Yolanda Ramke and Ben Howling’s Cargo is an outback zombie film that, like most of the others, follows Romero’s playbook. For the most part though, what it lacks in originality, it makes up for with emotion. Yes, you can argue that using a baby in peril for the whole film is a cheap ploy – but it’s one that works.
The story in a nutshell is that Andy (Martin Freeman) and Kay (Susie Porter) and their baby daughter Rosie are cruising down a river on a houseboat, just trying to get away from whatever has happened on land – which is a zombie outbreak. When they come across a down yacht, first Andy and then later Kay go on board in search of supplies. Andy makes it out okay – Kay isn’t so lucky. We learn that in this world, if you’re infected you have 48 hours before you turn (but if you’re infected, and die, you turn right away). To try and save his wife’s life the family gets off the boat and heads out in a truck. Things go wrong – of course – and Kay ends up dead, and Andy infected. He now has 48 hours to find someone to take care of Rosie, or doom her to an early death.
The zombies in Cargo are the classic Romero zombies – slow and stupid, and for the most part, they seem not to gather in large groups – you can dodge them unless you’re dumb or unlucky. The movie doesn’t really try to scare you that much – there are no cheap scare moments (hardly any scare moments at all really) – and oddly, the filmmakers prefer to keep their action in the daytime, not the night. In Vic (Anthony Hayes) Cargo finds a classic Romero like human villain – a man who is using this outbreak as an excuse to become a vile, violent monster. The film’s other major character is Thoomi – a young indigenous girl trying to keep her family together. In its portrait of indigenous culture, Cargo has found its most original element – while the rest of society falls apart, because enough of them remember the “old ways” – they seem to have things more together than anyone else – more able to hold things together largely because they have a better sense of community. You could argue that its view is a little simple, perhaps even condescending – but I think the film’s heart is in the right place. I also quite liked the way the film portrayed the almost silent, passive racism of Freeman’s character – he doesn’t see himself as racist, yet he also does everything he can to get Rosie to a white family, even when it becomes clear what his best option is. The film doesn’t hit you over the head with it – it’s just something that Freeman’s character doesn’t really consider
In the lead role, Martin Freeman is quite good – he has a lot of time where he is by himself with the baby, and he is more than capable of carrying the film with his quiet presence. The rest of the performances are fine, but Freeman really does carry the film. Freeman has been quietly doing great work for a while now – he was great in season 1 of Fargo for example – and here, he’s doing some of his best film work.
While I appreciate the directors avoiding the kind of horror movie clichés of many zombie movies – avoiding too much blood and gore, and jump scares. The problem is they don’t really replace that with much else. They do a good job with the sun burnt outback, yet that also hurts them with building atmosphere. There are a few good scenes – particularly one inside a tunnel – but for the most part, the film doesn’t work as well as it could as horror movie. I liked how they had bigger issues on their mind – but the best horror movies work as horror and on the larger issues – not just one of them.
Overall, Cargo is a decent zombie film – one that doesn’t reinvent the genre, but does a few things I had not seen in the same way before in the genre. As a debut feature, it’s good. Now it’s time for Ramke and Howling to up the ante for their next film.