Anxious new parents be warned: Netflix’s new thriller Cargo will probably stay with you longer than you would like.
The film sees Martin Freeman’s Andy fighting to protect his one-year-old daughter Rosie in zombie-ravaged outback Australia. Watching it is akin to watching a clip of a toddler ambling towards the edge of a flight of stairs, on a loop.
Poor Rosie (who is portrayed by no less than four impressive actor babies) is constantly in danger – and as the movie progresses her future becomes all the more bleak. It’s panic-inducing stuff.
But, amidst nearly relentless peril, directors Ben Howling and Yolanda Ramke manage to carve out some deeply tender moments, putting an intriguing spin on the zombie genre at the same time.
The film, which was borne out of a short film of the same name, opens with Andy and his wife Kay (Susie Porter) as they make their way down a bushland river on a houseboat. They’re running out of food, but the land on either side is inhospitable, dominated by zombies and paranoid survivors – a father on the banks of the river responds to Andy’s greeting by indicating towards a gun in his waistband.
Things go from bad to worse when Kay ends up with the undefined virus that induces mindless bloodlust, and, a couple of silly errors later, Andy contracts the disease too. This leaves him with 48 hours – before full zombification sets in – to find a new home for Rosie.
From here we’re swept up in a seemingly endless tailwind of anxiety, heightened by Freeman’s heartbreaking performance as a father who must forgo his own grief and fear to safeguard his daughter’s passage. Dwarfed by the landscape around him – and with a toddler strapped to his back – he manages to convey the desperation of the situation with a much needed hint of optimism. It’s an achingly human performance amidst a plethora of undead beings.
Over the course of the film Andy encounters other survivors: a former army cook who has been taken hostage by a man with a gun; a teacher who has holed herself up in an abandoned hospital; and an indigenous teenager who has fled her zombie-slaying community to protect her recently-turned father in the vain hope that he will be revived. Each one has a devastating story to tell, which drives home the depressing reality of the situation and provides grim speculation on what it means to be human.
Zombie films have been known to carry socio-political undercurrents – George A Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978), which saw survivors holed up in a shopping mall, is a satire of American consumerism – and the filmmakers have a stab at this here, too. The indigenous community, by working together, seem to be the most likely to make it through the epidemic, while the white people, divided, fall.
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But, while there’s little invention here with the zombies themselves – they move slowly and mindlessly in search of human flesh, and spew a gloopy, honey-like substance from their eyes and mouth – Cargo does manage to distinguish itself from many of its forebears by successfully localising the threat of a viral outbreak to Andy’s traumatic predicament.
In a harrowing scene near the climax, one of the actor babies affectionately brushes Freeman’s face with her hand; it’s incredibly moving, and quite difficult to imagine how this came about without the two having developed a strong bond. It’s small moments like this that make all of the stress worth it.
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