There was a time when broken down civilizations populated by mindless, blood-thirsty creatures could play host to a fresh and frightening experience. That was fifty years ago when George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead forever changed the landscape of the horror genre. Since then, swarms of half-rate films, TV shows, and video games have run the idea dry. Everyone knows how to survive World War Z, and that the only way to divert Nazi Zombies from your tail is to throw an exploding monkey doll.
John Krasinski’s A Quiet Place proved that there’s still room for post-apocalyptic survival stories as long as there’s an intriguing distinction in the film’s roaming predators. Cargo, Ben Howling and Yolanda Ramke’s Netflix production based on their sensationally original short, takes a step in the wrong direction, relying heavily on the tropes of the genre that the 7-minute film played on so well in order to create a full-length feature. The mindless beings are back; the only thing making them more “threatening” is the lack of monkey bombs.
Dispersed care packages are all that’s left of whatever “help” the people stuck in Cargo’s apocalyptic Australia are going to get. In them are maps pinpointing the more infected areas across the continent, 48-hour timers to monitor the gruesome transformation, and a quick execution device to be used when that clock winds down. Andy (Martin Freeman) fishes one of these packages out of a river and brings it onto his boat, where he, his wife Kay (Susie Porter), and their one-year-old daughter have taken refuge.
The plan is to continue downriver to an army base, but a severe lack of food makes the riskier route – going inland in search of survivors and supplies – a more viable option. The directors wait a while before they show off any of their horrific creatures and the violence they can inflict, but hints of their presence, whether they’re visible – as with a riverside family where the father immediately presents his firearm to an innocent onlooker – or just out of sight, are everywhere. Soon enough, the family is separated, and with a gaping bite mark of his own to tend to and little Rosie on his back – the titular “cargo” – Andy attempts to beat the clock and get his daughter somewhere safe before he becomes her predator.
It’s here that Cargo becomes all too recognizable, with packs of scrambled survivors, depleting rations, and senseless mistakes – for most of the film, the zombies plainly sit and moan, letting their human feasts make their own mistakes before exploiting their blunders and chowing down – completing the perishing genre’s checklist.
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As if the threats of contamination and horrific metamorphosis were not enough, Andy’s venture is tainted by not only the living dead, but the living as well. It seems that the majority of those who find themselves this deep into the final contenders had to play a little dirty at one point or another. One man Andy comes across, Vic (Anthony Hayes), is particularly problematic, as it seems that his violent nature does not derive entirely from survival instinct, but rather his disgustingly assertive mindset. The most prominent example being his capturing, imprisoning, and use of aboriginals as zombie bait.
Among these natives is Thoomi (Simone Landers), a young girl dedicated to protecting her turned father from her sister and the hunting party she’s assimilated. Andy and Thoomi’s pursuits, even before they meet, mirror each other quite well. With Thoomi, Ramke’s expanded screenplay does an excellent job showing the power behind the father-daughter relationship from both sides, first with Thoomi and her own father, and then eventually with Andy.
It’s needless to say that kinship plays an important role in this film, showing that in grave circumstances such as these, the slightest display of trust and apathy can make a world of difference; and that the partnerships that derive from them are humanity’s greatest weapons.
Ramke and Howling beautifully portray their Australian battleground, the Netflix-budget allotting for long overhead shots of the vast wilderness and blistering waters. From the air, it would be impossible to predict the chaos occurring down below. To both directors’ credit, this outback arena is a better look and a fresher approach than the metropolitan areas that have for so long fostered these undead showdowns.
And in terms of performance, Freeman generates about all the emotion this nearly one-man show puts out. At first, Andy’s mission is protection and self-reservation, but Freeman captures the process of shifting priorities marvelously, making Andy’s transition from worried improviser to adapted martyr all the more pleasing to experience.
As for the ending itself, which is nearly identical in its idea to that of its predecessor, it’s as endearing as it is in the short film, and is also what differentiates Cargo from the genre trap it placed itself in.
While its Australian setting is a bit of a deviation, Cargo adds little more to the formula concocted by Romero back in the ‘60s and ‘70s.