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The zombie apocalypse genre is a dead one – no apologies for the pun. Thanks to The Walking Dead large-scale stories of such an apocalypse have been pretty much negated. A remake of Dawn of the Dead would be met with derision. Everybody knows that. Zombie and apocalypse films in general suit smaller stories. Cargo understands this and seeks to make its story as tight as possible. Thankfully it works.
Andy (Martin Freeman), his wife Kay (Susie Porter) and their infant daughter Rosie are travelling on a houseboat down a river in search of the remains of civilisation. A simple but tragic mistake leads to Kay becoming infected. She in turn infects Andy leaving him with 48 hours to find someone to take care of Rosie before he succumbs to the virus. Salvation may lie with Thoomi (newcomer Simone Landers) an Aboriginal girl looking for her infected father.
The thing about the apocalypse is that even when society has collapsed, the same old problems remain. Cargo maintains a rich world full of characters that feel real and alive. A nurse untouched by the zombies due to cancer, a racist opportunist that imprisons Aborigines as bait for zombies, a family holding a birthday party as a last supper: it’s the little details in the script by Yolanda Ramke (who co-directed with Ben Howling) that elevates Cargo above its grisly trappings.
I wouldn’t call Cargo a gory film but it’s not for the faint-hearted either. The bites inflicted by the zombies look suitably nasty as do the brief sprays of blood from headshots and impalements on spears. A really gross detail is the leaking of mucus from the zombies’ eyes causing them to crust over like sap around a tree branch.
Meanwhile, even the zombies feel unique. Sure, they shuffle and twitch as much as the next shambling corpse. Yet, they also dig holes and bury their heads in the sand. There’s something more human about these creatures than in recent zombie fare.
If there is one issue with Cargo and this is an issue with many modern zombie films, even the masterful Train to Busan, it’s that it’s not very scary. Admittedly zombie films have never been that scary. They can manage the occasional jump-scare quite well but those only work so long as they’re earned. As for the creeping dread and blistering unease of the likes of The Babadook and The Witch, forget it. Still as a character driven zombie film Cargo works on the levels it chooses to.
One of these levels is its representation of the Aboriginal population. Considering how poorly treated they were in the past, it’s pleasant to see them become the potential saviours of a world that has been so poorly treated – one possible explanation of the virus is fracking. The film’s final scenes hammer home a shift in power dynamics. To say anymore would be spoiling it but now you’ll watch to the end of the film.
Cargo knows what it is and it works with it. It can stand comfortably alongside other Australian apocalyptic films such as These Final Hours and the granddaddy of them all: Mad Max. That said it is still a zombie film and it will need a great deal of pushing to make it stand out among the lurching, groaning hoard that is the undead genre.