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Cargo (15)

Director: Ben HowlingYolanda Ramke

Screenplay: Yolanda Ramke

Starring: Martin FreemanAnthony HayesSusie Porter

Review: David Stephens

If there’s one thing that will be most people’s primary concern during the (apparently inevitable) zombie apocalypse, it will be the fate of their loved ones. Just like any responsible human with natural feelings, you’ll want to ensure the safety of your immediate family. And that’s a plot device that has been possibly the most familiar trope in popular stories of the undead. It could be Rick and/or Lori endlessly looking for “Carrrrrlllll!!” in the early seasons of “The Walking Dead” (and look how THAT turned out for everybody concerned), and the heart-breaking sight of zombie-Sophia in Season 2. Or it could be Helen Cooper’s unfortunate demise by her daughter’s hand in the original “Night of the Living Dead”. Or Arnie Schwarzenegger watching Abigail Breslin slowly turn flesh-eater in “Maggie”. Each moment plays off the fear of the lead character trying to protect their offspring from a zombie plague, or just being unable to accept the inevitable. Now here’s good old Martin Freeman in the new horror film “Cargo”, which also threatens to mess with your tear-ducts in a similar way and is set during another corpse-reviving end-of-days. It’s the first Australian theatrical feature film to be released globally as a Netflix Original, and is based on a 2013 short of the same name. But yeah… it’s a zombie apocalypse film in the Outback. It’s now streaming on both the UK and US territories; So YGROY puts a shrimp on the zombie and takes a look…

We meet Andy (Freeman, in fine form) and Kay (Susie Porter from “Hounds of Love”), as they travel through the sparsely populated Australian outback in a houseboat on a river. They have their young baby Rosie with them and are running worryingly low on rations. It soon becomes obvious that Australia (and the world?) has become victim to a ferocious pandemic that kills the infected within 48 hours and turns them into the living dead (or “virals” as the promos have it). Companionship is rare in this new world, so Andy treasures his family and his two loved ones. Unfortunately a series of mishaps turns their world upside down, and leaves him in a heart-breaking situation. He has only a limited amount of time to find someone he can place his trust in and allow them to become his daughter’s protector for the future. 

We won’t go into any more detail than that (the trailer does though obviously *deep sigh*). Suffice to say that this isn’t your average zombie apocalypse movie. You’ll have to go elsewhere for your hordes of ravenous entrails-chewing corpses on steroids or fountains of gore (although it doesn’t shy away from that when it needs to show it). But neither is it the blub-fest or cynical tear-jerker that you might think it is. Instead it’s a thoughtful and emotional journey that explores the strength of familial love, along with some other appropriate metaphors, that just happens to combine it with flesh-eating antagonists and the occasional human bastard. It provides just enough differences and incidental details to make it feel a somewhat fresh (if that’s the right word) take on the genre.

And of course it has Freeman as the film’s MVP. To be honest if it was another actor in the role, it may well have not worked. It’s not Freeman’s first rodeo with the undead of course, as he cameoed in “Shaun of the Dead” and recently played a lead part in “Ghost Stories”. But it’s his sheer likeability and earnestness that raises the game here. He doesn’t get much of a chance to riff any deadpan one-liners or put-downs (although he manages to slip a couple of crackers in), as the subject matter obviously doesn’t give much scope for that. But he owns the screen and manages to convey as much meaning with a wistful look or cuss-word, than some actors could with a page of dialogue. The investment he gives the character (and thus the audience) is essential for the film to work. The last act could have been ridiculous, but becomes poignant because of his performance. It also helps that he has great chemistry and rapport with the child actors in the narrative, not just with the baby (played by several “actors” and are all amazingly good… they even ad-lib goddamnit!), but with the young actress Simone Landers (in her first role). Landers is also worthy of note, playing a character who has her own complicated family issues with undead-ness.

The film looks great with some gorgeous and lyrical cinematography. Of course setting the story in the deserted Aussie Outback removes the need for clearing city streets and complicated urban shoots, but more importantly it gives the story a unique and atypical setting for a familiar scenario. It also allows for some other themes to be cleverly incorporated and ties into some indigenous beliefs. It’s hinted that the pandemic has been expected by those of Aboriginal descent for some time, as punishment for disrespecting the Earth and nature. It sees a common post-apocalyptic trope being brought into the mix as those who survive (or wish to survive) return to the “Old Ways”. The way the infected/zombies are depicted is also slightly away from the norm, with the wrist-band that ticks down the 48 hrs as a commendable plot device, along with the believable first-aid contents (including a murder-spike). The undead also ooze sap-like goo from their eyes and mouth as they go full flesh-chomper, which is a neat little twist. In certain respects, the film also has a maturity and confidence to not throw the obvious at the screen. A pivotal attack happens off-screen and a major death is performed in the blurry background. 

Some of the metaphors are a bit in-your-face though. “Hibernating” zombies literally burying their heads in the sand to avoid the sun is the most obvious one, and there’s the “Frack Off” flag at an oil-line to consider. Also there’s not a huge amount of surprise along the way, with plenty of situations pretty much playing out the way you expect. It’s a very simple story at the end of the day really. But it IS played out well, and never dips into misery-porn. Freeman’s character is driven by his need to protect, and is more positive and relatable than some of the other humans he encounters despite his predicament. This is especially true for one supporting character which elevates them into prime uber-bastard territory. It’s never going to hit the mark for gore-hounds anticipating sprinting cadavers shredding skin, but if you’re in the mood for a more thoughtful approach to the Apocalypse with some pathos, then this isn’t a blunder from down under and something of an off-beat treat. 

Freeman shines and provides the (un)beating heart in this well-crafted and atypical zombie film. It works well because it centres on pure emotions and reactions, and provides some hope and optimism along with the pathos. The metaphors are laid on a bit thick at some points and it’s more about gut-feeling than gut-peeling. But it remains a meaty treat for those that like their horror with some substance and feels.  
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