In a world ravaged by the overabundance of zombie media, Cargo is a refreshing take on the shambling sub-genre. The sun-scorched setting with a focus on family ties and traumas have created a film that is equal parts visceral horror and emotional drama.
Stranded in rural Australia in the aftermath of a violent pandemic, an infected father desperately seeks a new home for his infant child, and a means to protect her from his own changing nature.
Cargo was originally a 7-minute short of the same name in 2013 that deeply resonated with audiences. The simple concept of a living, human baby strapped to the back of her recently turned zombie father was purely original and delivered the idea of a parent’s undying love with beautifully poignant imagery.
The short film’s directors, Ben Howling and Yolanda Ramke, have returned for the feature-length version with a script penned by Ramke. In their decision to make a feature, the casting of Martin Freeman (Sherlock, Ghost Stories) as the paternal figure, Andy, was frankly a stroke of genius.
Freeman is the perfect “everyman” who can communicate an intense range of (seemingly) authentic emotion with just a subtle glance. He holds the aura of someone who is at once anxious and flawed, yet thoroughly capable. Clever and observant, but extremely charming.
As an audience, you want nothing but good things for him at all times, while knowing that this is certainly impossible.
Cargo wisely blurs the timeline of the outbreak. It’s clear that the action takes place well beyond the early stages of contagion; there are procedures in place. It’s shown as a very real disease, complete with a variety of symptoms and a strictly defined incubation period.
Survivors are relatively equipped to handle their own containment, which means that rational decisions are made with an understanding of the consequences.
That being said, the stakes are unquestionably high for Andy, his wife Kay (Susie Porter, Hounds of Love), and their baby daughter Rosie. The focus of the film, through and through, is family and sacrifice.
There’s a great deal of importance on the visual storytelling here, too. They use a subdued, natural color palette which makes the film feel very real and tactile. The blood of the undead comes in thick, oily globs.
It creates a sense of prolonged exposure to the threat of the zombies by dialling back that typically bright and vibrantly satisfying splatter. The violence isn’t flashy, it’s fact.
The noxious zombie design has an almost alien effect. Once the survivors turn, it’s an instant switch from the person you once knew. Parents and spouses become unrecognizable – there’s a finality to it that is deeply upsetting.
To truly distinguish the original 7-minute short from the 100-minute feature, Howling and Ramke fleshed out the story and broadened the scope of the film. As Australian filmmakers, it was important to them that they incorporate Indigenous voices to the plot to reflect their collective national history.
Representation of the Indigenous community is not often seen in mainstream media, so this decision to prominently feature Indigenous elements is an important one. In the process, Cargo also provides a sharp critique of Australian racial history.
In Cargo, zombies are certainly the catalyst, but they are not the primary focus. Ramke deftly uses horror as a tool to tell a more complex story. She folds zombies into the crossing narratives without compromising the themes of loss and cultural traditions. The direction weaves moments of horrific tension with exposition.
Cargo lands on Netflix on May 18th.