Released on Netflix back in May, Yolande Ramke and Ben Howling’s extraordinary, cripplingly tragic and strangely dignified post-apocalypse thriller is finally being rolled out on Blu-ray in some territories (UK yet to be confirmed). Cargo, alongside fellow 2018 releases such as The Cured and The Night Eats the World, suggests that zombie/undead films are mutating into something altogether more interesting and less tediously visceral. There’s life in the undead dog yet.
We’re in the aftermath of some unimaginable apocalypse, and Andy and Kay are attempting to sit out the end of the world with their baby daughter Rosie on a houseboat in rural Australia. Their supplies are running low but going ashore clearly isn’t a good idea; they find another family on the shoreline, but the father threateningly waves a gun in their direction. Andy spots an abandoned sailboat and rows over to investigate, liberating supplies which will keep them going for a few more months. Despite noticing a secure inner door rattling, Andy assures Kay that the sailboat is safe. Kay returns on her own to collect even more supplies, and sets off a catastrophic chain of events.
Cargo is a devastating, powerful movie, a story of familial devotion and survival in the face of absolute despair and hopelessness. Andy and his family are forced to abandon their houseboat in search of a hospital. Elsewhere young Aboriginal girl Thoomi (Landers) is struggling to protect her father, already turned into a ghastly infected carnivorous creature by a virus which, we can only assume, has swept across the world. She’s keeping away from her tribespeople who are trying to cleanse the land with fire, but fate decrees that Thoomi and Andy’s family will connect in ways which change their lives forever.
Not for nothing has Cargo been compared to John Hillcoat’s The Road (2009) with its driving narrative of a desperate father determined to find a better life for his child. Cargo makes full cinematic use of the beautiful, stark Australian landscape and benefits from a terrific and typically-everyman performance from Martin Freeman as Andy who will stop at nothing to locate a safe haven for Rosie. It’s probably Freeman’s best, least-mannered performance and at times it’s genuinely heartbreaking to watch him struggle across a hostile landscape whilst navigating his way around threats such as the self-serving, violent Vic (Hayes).This is an uncompromisingly fresh take on an exhausted genre and Ramke and Howling have given their ‘undead’ – never the main threat throughout the film – a new spin by virtue of the effects of the virus. The infected turn into flesh-eating monsters but its visual hallmarks are hideous and stomach-churning. Once bitten, the infected start to leak a sticky, glue-like substance and, when fully transformed, their mouths and eyes gauze over with a web of sickly caramel-like gunk. Gore hounds might be frustrated by the film’s measured pace and relative lack of violent zombie-dispatchings but there are a few scenes where the creatures – their predilection to literally bury their heads in sand until they become ’activated’ is truly unnerving - are sliced and diced which might satisfy those looking for something more akin to a routine episode of The Walking Dead.
But Cargo really isn’t that sort of film. It’s a movie about humanity, humility and determination when all is truly lost. It’s a tragic road movie with a wonderfully optimistic finale which will uplift you even as it tears you apart. Wonderful.
Special features: Featurettes, cast and crew interviews, Melbourne Q&A, short film, trailer.
CARGO / DIRECTOR: YOLANDE RAMKE, BEN HOWLING / SCREENPLAY: YOLANDE RAMKE / STARRING MARTIN FREEMAN, ANTHONY HAYES, SUSIE PORTER, CAREN PISTORIUS, SIMONE LANDERS, DAVID GULPILIL / OUT NOW (AUS)