Director: Ben Howling, Yolanda Ramke
Cast: Martin Freeman, Anthony Hayes, Caren Pistorius
Watch Cargo online in the UK: Netflix UK
Zombies. Can’t live with ’em, can’t have films or TV shows without ’em. The walking dead have overrun our screens in the last decade, from big-budget actioners to low-budget horror. The idea of a new indie zombie drama, then, isn’t necessarily one to make you froth at the mouth – even when it’s based on a hit 2013 short film, the intervening five years have seen the genre done to undeath. But Cargo is a moving addition to the hordes that’s worth digging up on Netflix.
Cargo’s greatest strength is its lack of the usual baggage: it jettisons the typical tropes of Z-horror to focus on a more intimate tale of one man’s survival. Or, more specifically, one man’s efforts to ensure his daughter’s survival. We first meet Andy (Martin Freeman) as he and his wife, Kay, are on a boat by a river, sheltering from the apocalypse that has already taken place. But when she’s attacked and bitten, and Andy is possibly infected with the pandemic that has wiped out the population, he and his young daughter must search for a new safe haven within 48 hours.
Ben Howling and Yolanda Ramke strip everything down to that core drive: the movie is virtually a two-hander, between Martin Freeman’s desperate dad and the innocent strapped to his back, played by four different babies with a heart-wrenching obliviousness to what’s going on around her. Freeman has rarely been better; the familiar everyman has increasingly relished the chance to expand his range, from the villainous Richard III on the London stage to a calculating corrupt FBI agent in StartUp, and Cargo once again sees him sink his teeth into new material. His prim and proper exterior becomes a mask of courage to put on in front of his daughter, while his eyes tremble with the fading hope that he can barely conceal. (One moment where she kisses him on the nose feels tear-jerkingly sincere.)
The script, which is largely free of dialogue, doesn’t shy away from the crushingly mundane cycle of survival during a zombie plague: the film’s 105-minute runtime largely consists of moments that are repetitive, as Andy’s optimism is reignited and snuffed out over and over. The situation just keeps getting worse with every new person he meets, particularly thanks to the violent Vic (Anthony Hayes) – everything from cages, chains and guns prove nasty obstacles in Andy’s journey to a hospital, family house or any kind of sanctuary.
The simplicity reinforces the film’s central focus on the way humans retreat to their essential values in an emergency. For Andy, that’s a commitment to his daughter. For Thoomi (Simone Landers), it’s a similar loyalty to a loved one; the young Indigenous girl flees her community to try and cure her infected father, trusting in ancient philosophy to restore his soul. Her tribe, though, are forced to be far more ruthless in their attitude towards the undead. Nonetheless, they represent another kind of strength, as they pull together – a striking, almost upbeat contrast to Vic, who responds to the outbreak by withdrawing into xenophobic cruelty.
That political undertone brings a much-needed edge to the recognisable guts and gore, recalling the similarly minded TV series Cleverman, which blended superhero sci-fi and Indigenous alienation to thought-provoking effect. Ramke and Howling bring an interesting twist to zombie lore, as the creatures prefer darkness to light, so they can hibernate, and the raw, blunt nature of the world they’ve built (suicide is a matter-of-fact solution presented by the government) is matched by the beautiful, but bare landscapes of Australia’s outback. But most of all, this is Freeman’s show, and Cargo works best as a showcase for an actor at the top of his game, turning a gruelling quest against the clock into a melancholic search for a future.
Cargo is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.