'Cargo' Review: A Zombie Movie That Retains Its Humanity Through Grit and Ingenuity

Martin Freeman in Cargo

The politics of our moment are strongly evident in this grimy zombie epic.

The 2018 Tribeca Film Festival offered me a satisfying palette of zombie films that bypassed my non-zombie genre preferences. Before viewing the charmingly subversive juvenile-zombie film The Dark, I experienced the straightforward grimy epic Cargo.

A man, a woman, and a baby are on river road trip, er, or boat-trip. They sail across a river in a wherever part of Australia. The small, sustainable ship is the home of Andy Rose (Martin Freeman) and wife Kay (Susan Porter) and their baby girl. The ship is their moving space spot from the zombies that wander the savannahs. At the rear of the ship, pink-flowered laundry is hung up as blithely it could be in suburbia. Traces of civility exists in this apocalypse and Andy waves at a trailer family at the shores, relieved to see human survivors like him. But then he notices that the father flashes a gun at him, protective of his territory. Human faces can be hard to trust in these times.

As mortality lurks at every corner, the Rose couple undertake the charades of sorta-normalcy in their houseboat. When husband and wife strategize over a map and debate going to shore or warn of fading rations, it’s akin to a discussion over taxes and bills. Despite cautions, such suburban complacency lowers their guard down enough for imprudent decisions that aflame the conflict as they do in any zombie flick.

An ill-fated scavenging trip on a capsized boat leaves Kay afflicted from a wound. The 48-hours process of her “death”, or transformation into one of the blood-lusting walking dead, are not pretty, complete with the skin excretion of gunk. During her decaying human lucidity, she insists on being left behind and plots her suicide, knowing her impending zombie instincts will consume her husband and child. However, she infects her husband during his unwise attempt to take her to safety. Thus, the hubris would cost him his life. With an essential death sentence, he must deposit his infant daughter into the arms of new guardian in 48 hours before he’d start craving her.

Directed by Ben Howling and Yolanda Ramke, Cargo is a straightforward run-from-the-monsters film with a twist: the hero is becoming a zombie himself. Born from a 2013 hit short film, its feature-length namesake seeks to expand the journey of widowed Andy and the other survivors that may be his friends or foe. The feature-length version introduces the stray aboriginal adolescent Thoomi (Simone Landers) who feeds animal carcasses to a zombie. We learn this zombie is—or was—her father and she devised her method of keeping her lost loved one with her. Rather than accepting him as “long gone”, she negotiates his hunger reflexes. Her method is ingenious though requires some gruesomeness: Rub her blood against a tree for her father to feast on so he won’t feast on her or other poor souls. She’s also the key to Andy’s survival.

Cargo is self-assured in its brazen political undertones. The film dispenses info of the plague’s origin story through hints of the land poisoned by the modern colonialist greed—No Fracking stickers haunt the background. The political shades grow conspicuous by the second-half, as Andy comes across a human face in the form of the round-faced Vic (Anthony Hayes) with his gun aimed at the zombies. He seems like a hospitable ally and he recruits Andy into his little-gated domain. But Andy finds something amiss when he meets Vic’s “housewife” Lorraine (memorably played by Caren Pistorius), who wears a catatonic disposition and a floral gown that screams stay-in-the-kitchen, insinuating that Vic enforced a pseudo-domestic fantasy. Andy also discovers that Vic exploits the indigenous people as caged zombie bait to reach oil reserves. Vic is a coded-conservative, a walking textbook example of someone who would agree with Donald Trump (even if the movie is set beyond American borders and never utters the current American President’s name) who rationalizes his them-before-me entitlement as instruments of pragmatism.

Just as it becomes clear Vic is less human than the zombies he shoots, Andy and Thoomi find themselves in the same bait cage. The widowed father and stray child combine their wits to work with the zombies’ reflexes and rigs of blood-soaked creatures’ innards to escape. The film finds a strength in how the father and child utilize zombies’ attributes and Andy’s burgeoning undead instincts as survival tools.

A few shortcomings: Think of the quote in Black Panther where Freeman’s character is playfully called a “colonizer” and when Freeman’s Andy is referred to as “white guy” in Thoomi’s language. In Cargo’s case, a white man’s narrative takes precedence and a person of color exists to serve his goals and story. I’m not saying the film isn’t purposeful with its optics—It’s no accident that the conservative-coded Vic preaches kinship with a white face like Andy’s—but some dynamics are left unexamined.  Although Freeman commands paternal sincerity to his infant and Thoomi who he accepts as an adopted daughter of sorts, Andy’s anti-heroism aspects, while not unacknowledged in his dying state, is underdeveloped. The sight of a child in Vic’s zombie-bait cage horrifies him, but he later tells Thoomi in a poor bid to earn her trust, “I don’t think it’s perfect, but he was keeping himself alive.” He’s no Trump supporter-esque fellow like Vic, but the narrative lets him off the hook. The plot paces forward before realizing it absolved Andy of his self-preservative enforced indifference without giving him space to meditate on it.

Through the apocalyptic grit, Cargo avoids the pit of cynicism. It insists that indifference should never be a last resort and to be human is to work toward alternatives with maximum altruism. Andy and Thoomi become collaborators in survival. The payoff stays true to the short film about transcending the inevitability of becoming the undead with shrewd contingents and resourcefulness. Cargo can be middling due to the optics shortcomings, but I recommend it anyway when it’s released on Netflix May 18th, even to non-fans of the zombie genre. It has plenty to offer even if I desired more.

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