Directed by Yolanda Ramke, Ben Howling
Starring Martin Freeman, Susie Porter, Anthony Hayes, David Gulpilil
It’s great to see the Australian landscape used as territory for a zombie (or infected persons, as they prefer to be called) outbreak, which may instil a sense of pride in local horror fans. Unfortunately, Cargo only has the promise of a truly involving and enjoyable infected persons film, as it missteps early on and becomes an aimless wander towards its inevitable ending, missing a much needed sense of urgency.
Cargo starts off trickling out its post-outbreak world – when we first meet father/husband Andy (Martin Freeman), his wife Kay (Susie Porter), and their baby Rosie, they are travelling down a river in a boat with nothing but Australian serenity around them. It gradually becomes clear that they are living in a post-apocalyptic scenario, as evidenced by the hostility of the few other people around them, not to mention the family’s preoccupation with scavenging and rationing.
The grisly infection takes over Kay and ultimately kills her, but not before Andy also becomes infected, who then must travel throughout the Australian landscape in search of a suitable new guardian for Rosie, as the infection will inevitably overtake him after 48 hours.
The world of Cargo is excellently established, as is how the infection works and how this family has become somewhat accustomed to this new simplistic hunter-gatherer way of living. Seeing Kay go through the horrific transformation sets up a lot for what could happen to Andy during his travel. There are also plenty of good scares and effective tension-building during these moments, with directors Yolanda Ramke and Ben Howling knowing what to do with the revelation of both what’s on screen and in the sound design to really give the audience a start.
However, once Cargo has its objective, it becomes more and more aimless and less and less urgent as Andy searches around in an array of post-apocalypse clichés to find Rosie’s new caretakers. There’s of course the villainous crazed go-getter Vic (Anthony Hayes), whose inhumanity is shown through keeping Indigenous Australians in cages to allure the infected towards them so that he can kill them with ease – this adds up to a pretty on-the-nose and coarsely executed social parable that doesn’t make the film any cleverer just for its inclusion.
As Andy bounces from one character of this motley crew to the next, including young helper Thoomi (Simone Landers), it becomes apparent that he is in no hurry, despite his time constraint, which alleviates a lot of the film’s tension. And young Rosie seems like more of a plot-point than an actual character herself (a similar problem to the far superior horror film A Quiet Place), which nullifies many of Andy and Rosie’s supposed emotional scenes together.
And not to give away the big climatic denouement, but although it is a visually intriguing and smartly filmed moment, it seems tonally misguided as the super serious slow-mo and maudlin “weepy” music make it all the more unintentionally hilarious – this zombie moment looks more like it would fit in a trashy Romero rip-off rather than a horror film with arthouse ambitions like this.
Cargo initially has a compelling set-up, and although that moment feels perfectly paced, perhaps it should’ve lasted half instead of a third of the film, as it’s more engaging than the plodding around that occurs throughout the rest of the film’s run-time.