Martin Freeman stars in Netflix’s latest Australian-set zombie thriller, as he attempts to find his infant daughter a home before infection takes hold.
Another day, another culturally-specific zombie movie being given the “original” treatment by Netflix. This time it’s Cargo, an Australian offering starring your favourite greying everyman, Martin Freeman. You might remember him from his traipses across other ruined and foreboding landscapes, like Middle-earth in those ill-advised Hobbit movies and Slough in The Office.
This time he’s in the sprawling outback at the behest of first-time feature director duo Ben Howling and Yolanda Ramke, who, with Cargo, have turned in a smart and thoughtful bit of work. There’s a zombie pandemic, of course, which in Australia is about the seventh most dangerous thing happening within a three-foot radius. But there’s also musings to be had on the plundering of natural resources and the racial discord between Indigenous people and their colonisers; Freeman’s bumbling hero might be infected with the local zombification virus, but he’s also coming down with a nasty case of white guilt.
Oops, I forgot to mention that. Cargo’s unique ticking-clock suspense device is that Freeman – his character’s name is Andy – gets chomped on about ten minutes in. You don’t learn much about the specific flavour of undead in Cargo, but what you are told is that after being bitten, it takes 48 hours for the victim to turn. Hey, look at that – automatic suspense. It helps that Andy is ferrying around his infant daughter, Rosie. Can he find her some surrogate parents before gobbling her up like a dingo? You’ll have to wait and see.
A lot of Cargo plays like a series of auditions, as Andy and Rosie tour the bleak dystopia meeting various local personalities. Some of these people have incredibly on-the-nose ecological messages to deliver, or pointed criticisms of local government, like ex-teacher Etta (Kris McQuade), who would like you to know that the plug was pulled on community funding a long time prior. It’s probably no surprise either that sweaty, gun-toting hick Vic (Anthony Hayes) is a former fracking worker.
More important to the film’s overall viewpoint is Indigenous youngster Thoomi (Simone Landers). She believes that when people turn into monsters they lose their souls, which doesn’t stop her from trying to save her already-zombified papa (Bruce R Carter), leading him around by smearing her blood on trees. The rest of her community – which is spiritually guided by David Gulpilil – believes, perhaps unsurprisingly, that the sickness is linked to the exploitation of natural resources.
Indigenous folklore and ceremonial culture plays a pivotal part in Cargo, and the parallels it draws between Australia’s glib dismissal of its native inhabitants and its current all-encompassing infection are non-too-subtle. It’ll matter to some more than others, but it’s there nonetheless; a prominent reminder that in order to survive, it’s important to recognise and redress division – a lesson that you don’t necessarily need an apocalypse to see the merit in.
An apocalypse is what Cargo offers, though. And if we’ve seen far too many of such things for this film’s more obvious elements to be as effective as intended, the film’s sumptuous capturing of the South Australian landscape helps to lend Cargo a certain parched novelty. Freeman is key to the film’s emotional impact and showcases his usual persona with enthusiasm, but the standout is young Simone Landers, who impresses in her screen debut. Their relationship – initially testy, eventually warm – forms the emotional backbone of the feature, and it’s a fitting enough cooperative cultural metaphor.
Despite possessing all the requisite gruesome mauling, hair-raising altercations and pointed examples of how human beings are the worst monsters of all, Howling and Ramke’s approach is geared less towards the Walking Dead crowd and more at a mature, thoughtful audience – a bit like Netflix’s own The Ravenous, which was another “original” foreign zombie movie that treated the genre with a bit more seriousness. Cargo has a broader appeal, but is a similarly strong and stirring achievement, a zombie film with, ironically enough, plenty of brains to chew on.