So even the ‘living dead‘ are vulnerable to the cyclical nature of popular culture. All the rage for over a decade, zombie entertainment has been seemingly waning over the last year or so. The Walking Dead’s Season 8 finale was the zombie juggernaut’s second least watched finale (Adalian, 2018, April 17). It may seem strange then that Netflix’s latest horror offering goes back to the zombie well. Directed by Ben Howling and Yolanda Ramke, Cargo is a post-apocalyptic Australian zombie thriller starring Martin Freeman. Based on early rave reviews, it would appear as though the rumors of the zombie genre’s demise were premature.
In a post-apocalyptic Australia, a pandemic has left the country decimated by the living dead. In this world, Andy and Kay, with their infant daughter Rose, struggle to find safety in a boathouse. Following a tragic turn of events, Kay is killed and Andy infected. Now Andy has 48 hours to find safety for his daughter before he turns. On his travels, Andy finds Thoomi, an Indigenous girl who lost her father to the virus. Together Andy and Thoomi struggle to find some hope and a chance for survival.
Themes of Hope and Survival Give Cargo an Emotional Center
Cargo is less a horror film and more a human drama and thriller with horror concepts and imagery. In addition to serving as one of the two directors, Yolanda Ramke also penned the screenplay. If zombies feel stale, Cargo succeeds in part because Ramke’s story keeps the zombie pandemic in the background. Instead, Cargo focuses on the emotions that arise out of characters’ relationships. It’s the relationships between characters and their losses that drive the film. Later in Cargo, it is the friendship that builds between Andy and Thoomi that holds your attention. Even the losses experienced by secondary characters – former teacher Etta and Lorraine – give Cargo a weighty emotional heart.
One reason the zombie has endured is that it functions as a blank slate onto which filmmakers can project a range of themes.
One reason the zombie has endured is that it functions as a blank slate onto which filmmakers can project a range of themes. Like most exceptional films, Cargo can likely be read in a variety of ways. One theme that seems to emerge from Ramke’s story is hope. Characters lose and regain hope over the course of Cargo. Building upon this theme, the final act and closing moments serve to provide the film with an emotionally satisfying arc. This is the kind of storytelling that has set the zombie subgenre apart from other horror avenues for the better part of a decade.
Cargo Has More Than Enough Bite
While Cargo may not be best described as horror, that’s not to say that it has no ‘bite’. Directors Howling and Ramke give Cargo an overall haunting tone. There are several moments of well-executed tension that punctuate the movie when necessary. An early scene where Andy calls to a family only to have the father flash a revolver contributes to a forebodding mood. Zombies may be slow, but Howling and Ramke also find several ways to make their plodding threat frightening. While a little reminiscent of 28 Days Later, one scene involving a walk through a darkened tunnel is an example of one of several white-knuckle moments in Cargo.
…it is Andy’s slow transition from infection and the impending threat it poses to his infant daughter that gives Cargo a constant sense of urgency.
Arguably, it’s Andy’s slow transition from infection and the impending threat it poses to his infant daughter that gives Cargo urgency. Those scenes where Andy slowly begins succumbing to the virus create genuine moments of fear. Not jump scares but genuine terror. The inclusion of the watch with its running timer is a clever tool serving to maintain that urgency from scene to scene.
Cargo Boasts First Rate Horror Production
From the cinematography to the performances, Cargo stands out as a first rate horror film production. Cinematographer Geoffrey Simpson makes brilliant use of the desolate Australian landscape to enhance the film’s mood. Several gorgeous wide-angle shots of wilderness contrast nicely with the post-apocalyptic reality of Cargo’s world.
It’s a performance that should continue to remind critics that horror movies matter during awards season.
One of the more underrated actors in film and television, Martin Freeman delivers an incredible performance. It doesn’t matter if it’s a scene with no dialogue, Freeman is utterly convincing as a father desperately trying to find some hope for his child. It’s a performance that should continue to remind critics that horror movies matter during awards season. Child actor Simone Landers is a revelation as Thoomi; she is not overshadowed in any way by Freeman’s fantastic performance. She capably conveys childlike naivete with an adult’s seriousness in her role.
Cargo Gives Netflix A Much Needed Win
To date, Netflix has struggled with some of their full film releases. Fortunately, Cargo can be slotted in the ‘win’ column for the streaming giant. It’s a quiet, restrained, and thoughtful zombie thriller that boasts strong acting performances and strong production values. In fact, this is the best kind of horror movie – one that engrosses not because it shocks but because it emotionally engages. Cargo joins The Ritual as another Netflix candidate for ‘Best Horror Film of 2018’.