Cargo: Putting family before zombie in a refreshingly human take

Andy (Martin Freeman) and Kay (Susie Porter) are traversing the zombie-plagued Australian Outback in search of safety when disaster strikes. Facing a ticking clock, the pair must find safety for their infant daughter Rosie before it’s too late.

Nearly 20 minutes. That’s how long Cargo runs for until we get any sort of glimpse of a zombie. While the hinge point of the plot within the first 15 minutes relies on an attack from a member of the undead, the assailant is never seen. Instead, the focus is entirely on Andy, Kay and Rosie. A family struggling in the face of disaster, but a family nonetheless. It’s this intimate following, time spent with people before they are no longer people, that gives the film its heart. It’s why we root for Andy unthinkingly throughout his struggles to find a safe place for Rosie in an Outback laid bare as beautifully savage.

This emotional core saves the film from it’s few flaws. Yes, Andy seems to go along with some very dark actions from other characters that could distance you from him. Yes, where he’s going or what he’s aiming for isn’t always clear. And yes, the movie does tend to wander too long in the bush and fails to heighten the time-sensitive set up of tension. But it’s hard to begrudge debuting short-filmmakers-turned-bigtime-duo Yolanda Ramke and Ben Howling as they deliver a film full of believable characters broken by the end of civilisation as we know it but maintaining their humanity as much as possible.

The acting is wonderful. Freeman delivers a subtle performance to a tee, while Susie Porter takes the little given to her and delivers. Anthony Hayes is given a large role as the enterprising Vic, bellowing greed and hatred that is far more threatening than any zombie attacks. His antagonistic portrayal reminds us that humans are still the real thing to fear, even surrounded by the undead. Simone Landers delights as Thoomi, showing the perfect blend of strength and vulnerability that comes with loneliness.

Choosing to adapt this film from their earlier eponymous short, Ramke and Howling take a simple concept and expand on it to explore more complex issues like Australian race relations and gender constructions. This is a fine line to tread but it’s done well. The local Indigenous people are praised in dialogue as ‘doing better than the rest of us’ – and in embracing their traditional lifestyle and tribal bonds, show the strength in unity that other characters fail to find. Similarly, in Cargo’s world, women are in control of their own fate while men blindly follow their destructive instincts from danger to danger – a refreshing twist on zombie film stereotypes. The humans are dead – long live humanity.

A zombie movie that never even utters the word, Cargo puts slow burning drama before fast paced action. What we get is slightly flawed but wonderful – ultimately, human. 6.5/10.

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