Reviewed by GREG KING
Directors: Ben Howling, Yolande Ramke
Stars: Martin Freeman, Susie Porter, Anthony Hayes, Simone Landers, Kris McQuade, David Gulpilil, Caren Pistorious, Natasha Wanganeen, Bruce R Carter.
A strange virus has wiped out most of the population, leaving behind hordes of the walking dead. When someone is bitten by these “zombies” they have 48 hours before they are turned into one of these undead.
Set in a post-apocalyptic remote outback Australia, Cargo follows Andy (Martin Freeman, from The Hobbit trilogy) and his wife Kay (Susie Porter) and their young one-year old daughter Rosie as they make their way down a river in the relative safety of their houseboat. But with food rations running low the situation is growing desperate and Andy is on the lookout for a town where they might be able to restock their supplies. When he stumbles upon a seemingly abandoned sailboat he ventures aboard to fetch supplies. He returns to the houseboat, but while he sleeps Kay ventures out to check out the boat as well. However, she is bitten by a zombie hiding in the boat. She has 48 hours before she turns.
Desperately Andy and Kay leave their houseboat and head off across the remote desert in search of a hospital where they may find treatment. But then Andy is also bitten and has just 48 hours in which to find someone to care for Rosie and keep her safe. He stumbles across Thoomi (newcomer Simone Landers), a young aboriginal girl who is looking after her father who was also turned into a zombie a long time ago.
This Australian survival drama is best described as Walkabout with zombies. However, the word “zombie” is never used in the film; rather here the walking dead are referred to as virals. The virals are symbolic of the corruption and pollution of western society and its reliance of manufactured and processed food. It seems that the indigenous population with its ability to live off the land will likely survive this plague and they offer the best hope for surviving the outbreak and rebuilding a better future.
Cargo is driven by a simple premise, but the film explores some potent themes about the environment, Australia’s dark history, indigenous culture and traditions, sacrifice, survival and parental responsibility. And like Peter Weir’s The Last Wave the film uses the thriller format to explore the deep disconnect between the modern western world and the traditional indigenous culture. The filmmakers pay respect to aboriginal traditions and culture. The image of many of the “virals” with their head stuck in the sand is a powerful allegory for Australia ignoring aboriginal issues and the events of our colonial past.
Cargo is actually an extension of a seven-minute short film that screened at Tropfest in 2013. The short also garnered over 13 million views on You Tube. The creators of that short film Ben Howling and Yolande Ramke have transformed the idea into this feature length film. The pair are obviously fans of the sci-fi and horror genres, but here they subvert the usual tropes of the genre – films like 28 Days Later and the popular tv series The Walking Dead, etc – for a fresher perspective.
Freeman, who previously appeared in Edgar Wright’s superb 2004 zombie comedy Shaun Of The Dead, delivers a nicely understated performance here. He has an everyman quality and does well as the flawed hero who is not equipped to deal with the situation in which he finds himself. It is a fairly physical performance for Freeman, but he also taps into the intense emotional journey of the character as well. In her film debut Landers is impressive and has a natural screen presence, and she develops a strong rapport with Freeman. Anthony Hayes (The Boys, etc) brings his usual air of menace to his role as Vic, a redneck survivalist who is something of a violent psychotic.
With its dangerous journey through a bleak post-apocalyptic environment, Cargo is also reminiscent of other survival stories like The Road, etc. Cargo has been beautifully shot on location in South Australia by veteran cinematographer Geoffrey Simpson (Satellite Boy, etc), who captures the harsh landscapes and gives us some stunning imagery. This is a very visceral cinematic experience. And the haunting music score from Daniel Rankine and the late Gurrumul draws heavily on indigenous influences and adds to the atmosphere.