Who will we be at the end of the world? This is the nerve-gnawing question at the heart of Cargo, a post-apocalyptic zombie thriller that feels like the lovechild of Pat Frank’s nuclear war novel Alas, Babylon and George Romero’s Living Dead films. Zombies are a threat on the fringe of its Australian Outback setting, while at its core Cargo is the story of a father trying to find a viable future for his infant daughter.
Martin Freeman stars as Andy, a British family man used to modern conveniences who is forced to learn new skills, like boating, backpacking, and shooting, to make his way across the Outback in safety. But a brutal zombie bite puts a ticking clock on his efforts to find a home for his child. He has only 48 hours from the point of infection before he’ll turn into a merciless, flesh-craving creature, and his daughter would turn from loved-one to lunch.
In his journey he meets white characters who hang on desperately to any semblance of the world they knew. Too near open graves, a family of four throws a birthday party complete with cake and balloons. A teacher haunts the school where she used to work, playing nurse to any who come seeking help. A poacher stalks and hunts the undead, not for safety but to pick their pockets for “shiny things” in hopes of getting rich when the world gets back on track. Andy looks at each with varying degrees of shock and pity. Like Randy Bragg, the hero of Alas, Babylon, he realizes before those around him there is no coming back from the destruction wrought, not in their lifetime anyway. So each time he is driven to march on looking for something better for Rosie. He may have found it in Thoomi (newcomer Simone Landers), a brave indigenous girl who is on a quest of her own.
Based on their short film of the same name, Cargo marks the feature debut of directing duo Yolanda Ramke and Ben Howling. Which is shocking considering the confidence and trust in the audience the film displays. There are no long expositional monologues or voiceover to swiftly explain the setup of their particular apocalyptic landscape or the rules of their zombies. Instead, Ramke’s script relies on visual cues, a map marked with quarantined zones, the glimpse of a gun in a waistband to suggest visitors are not welcomed, a caustic yellow sap that hints at infection, and a uniquely crusted zombie design that instantly suggests rank death. Ramke and Howling encourage their viewers to piece together the puzzle of their world, which makes Cargo daring and engaging
Beyond that, Ramke and Howling trust in their cast to deliver emotional beats through close-ups and quiet moments. Landers is a true find as Thoomi. Her eyes flash with a sharp intelligence and barbed defiance, but soften to a mournful vulnerability that’s positively heartbreaking. The supporting cast is all around stellar, delivering brief but powerful turns that range from fragile to frightening. But it’s Freeman that shoulders Cargo, and with aplomb. Whether arguing with Thoomi, facing off with a hostile hunter, or mutely walking through the wilderness, he smoothly layers in shock, grief, love, and hope, all without garish pronouncements that would feel out of place in a less nuanced horror film. Andy will never curse the skies with a powerful speech about his pain and his plight. Just once he will scream out like a wounded animal. Then he will cuddle his child. And he will carry on, showing us with each step who he is at world’s end.
There’s an easy sophistication to this film not often seen in the zombie subgenre that equally relishes graphic violence and political subtext. Howling and Ramke shy away from onscreen violence, yet that doesn’t detract from the film’s most gutting moments. By keeping the focus on character—specifically the emerging bond between Andy and Thoomi—Cargo constructs its tension through emotional stakes rather than the threat of graphic violence. But the filmmakers do not shy away from politics. The contrasting of white and indigenous peoples’ responses to this outbreak introduces a clear condemnation of colonization that overrides a native culture. A shaman called the Clever Man declares the colonizers had poisoned the land, suggesting the unspoken cause for this infection. And it is his tribe who are reclaiming the land by burning out the ghosts and the disease they harbor. Wisely, Cargo avoids the white savior trope by having Thoomi be a hero in her own right, who uses the wisdom of her tribe and her own hard-won lessons to keep Rosie safe.
Ramke and Howling have created a distinctive vision of the zombie genre that’s true to its Romero-cemented history of subversion, yet resists his thirst for onscreen carnage. But thanks to strong visual storytelling paired with grounded performances, this never feels like a deficit. All in all, Cargo is a uniquely exhilarating thriller that’s alive with tension and tenderness, and declares Ramke and Howling as directors to watch.
Cargo made its US premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival. It will hit Netflix on May 18th.
Kristy Puchko (@KristyPuchko) is a New York-based film critic and entertainment journalist, her work has appeared in Vanity Fair, IndieWire, Nerdist, and Pajiba (to name a few). Ms. Puchko is a regular contributor on the Slashfilmcast, and teaches a course on film criticism at FIT. To see more of her work, visit DecadentCriminals.com