“This country is sick. We all got sick too.” Aboriginal elder Daku (veteran actor David Gulpilil) doesn’t waste his words in describing the premise of the post-apocalyptic Cargo, which launches on Netflix next month. But this is an antipodean take on an all-too-familiar setting, one with abundant eucalyptus trees and vast panoramas punctuated by clumps of vegetation. And one, of course, where the survivors are desperately trying to hold out against a menace slowly and surely wiping out mankind.
This time the menace is a disease, one that takes hold quickly and needs just 48 hours to turn a human being into a staggering cannibal with goo for blood. In other words, Cargo is a zombie movie, but one where the Z word is never uttered. That two day timescale immediately gives the film a constraint and a discipline to pile on the pressure. Not that Andy (Martin Freeman) lacks for it in the first place. His main concern is his infant daughter, Rosie, who he carries on his back through the never-ending landscape to find somebody to look after her. The disease has killed his wife, he’s contracted it and now his time is steadily ticking away. Help comes in the form of aboriginal teenager Thoomi (Simone Landers), who is trying to save her own father from the ravages of the sickness.
The priority, right from the outset, is the child. Even the idyllic family, with mother Kay (Susie Porter), from the early scenes has a sense of foreboding hanging over it. They’re on the river in a houseboat: the people they come across on the riverbank are less than hospitable and they have little to eat. It’s that search for food that proves to be Kay’s, and Andy’s, undoing. Little Rosie adds a strong note of vulnerability to the story: she can’t do anything for herself, so has to be carried, fed and generally looked after. Impressively, though, she’s never surrounded by soft focus sentiment, just her father’s powerful protective instinct.
Andy’s odyssey across the Australian outback – which cries out for a bigger screen to fully appreciate its majesty – brings him into contact with others who, like him, are desperately trying to survive. But their methods differ dramatically, from sympathetic teacher Etta (Kris McQuade) to the memorably nasty Vic (Anthony Hayes) and his “every man for himself” approach of making money out of the plague. He uses human, uninfected bait to attract the zombies, then kills them and steals all their effects. The Australian equivalent of a redneck, he’s grubby, sweaty, hardly ever without a gun in his hand and a bigger menace to little Rosie than the victims of the disease.
That the disaster is the result of interference with the environment is made apparent by a fracking site, complete with a sign proclaiming “Frack Off”. We don’t really need to be told more, and the aboriginals are shown as not only being closer to the land than the white fellas, but also being its best chance for coming through the catastrophe. The film, however, struggles sometimes to integrate their story into the main narrative – apart, however, from Thoomi’s involvement, and that’s thanks to a luminous performance from Simone Landers. With her wonderfully expressive eyes, she makes the absolute most of her minimal dialogue.
While Cargo doesn’t work on every level, it’s an impressive debut from co-directors Ben Howling and Yolanda Ramke. This outback apocalypse may look like a mixture of Walkabout (Gulpilil’s big screen debut) and The Road, but its characters and performances give it plenty of empathy and pathos. Ultimately, it’s still a zombie movie, but one with more than just horror and gore on its mind.
Freda Cooper | [rating=3]
Horror, Thriller | Global, 18 May (2018) | Netflix Original | Dir. Ben Howling, Yolanda Ramke| Martin Freeman, Simone Landers, Anthony Hayes, Kris McQuade, Susie Porter and David Gulpilil.