Martin Freeman and Susie Porter.

Photo: Umbrella Entertainment

(MA) Selected cinemas (107 minutes)

Much of the advance word on Cargo, a first feature from Australian team Yolanda Ramke and Ben Howling, has hinged on the insistence that it's not a zombie movie. Obviously, this can mean only one thing: it's a zombie movie.

Still, the avoidance of the term is a sign the film leans towards the respectable side of the genre ― unlike, say, Kiah Roache-Turner's splatterific Wyrmwood: Road of the Dead, another recent homegrown production which shares some themes.

Despite the subject matter, its vibe is more moody indie drama than horror


At any rate, Cargo pictures a near-future Australia besieged by hordes of cannibalistic walking dead bringing about a collapse of society. The cause is some kind of virus, although the details aren't too crucial.

Among the survivors are an “ordinary” couple, Andy (Martin Freeman) and Kay (Susie Porter), who have taken refuge on a houseboat with their baby daughter Rosie (“played” over the course of the film by two different sets of twins). Drifting down a river in the middle of nowhere, they're safe as long as they stay on board. How long, though, can they last without going ashore to look for supplies?

Tensions rise between the couple, but a drastic turn of events puts an end to their squabbling. Soon Andy finds himself alone in the bush with Rosie in his backpack, looking for what remains of civilisation before time runs out ― and crossing paths with others who may prove either friend or foe.

Andy and Kay become separated.

Photo: Transmission Films

Cargo poses the question: What would a “realistic” zombie film actually look like? And despite the subject matter, its vibe is more moody indie drama than horror ― complete with contemplative landscape shots and editing to emphasise emotion over action.

The story has an unusual shape, not quite in line with conventional wisdom about the three-act structure. Characters come and go in the course of Andy's journey, some of them vanishing quicker than we anticipate. There are no guarantees about who will survive to the end.

All this boosts the impression of reality in one sense, although the mood is often less urgent than one might expect under the circumstances. Freeman, usually cast as a “straight man” to more vivid personalities, is an odd and not entirely successful casting choice: a specialist in worried British decency, he often looks tempted to give the zombies a stern telling-off.

Freeman is an odd and not entirely successful casting choice … he often looks tempted to give the zombies a stern telling-off.

That said, a number of scenes are sufficiently horrific ― like those which show victims succumbing to the viral outbreak, their faces coated with a toffee-like substance which flows from their eyes and congeals.

Simone Landers as Thoon.

Photo: Umbrella Enterainment

More disturbing still are the images of Indigenous characters caged like animals: prisoners of the ruthless survivalist Vic (Anthony Hayes), whose matey exterior offers Andy a false glimpse of hope.

In themselves, the zombies, or “virals”, are less than fully imagined monsters. They're threatening in a distant, abstract way, like the “Indians” who lurk on the horizon in classic Westerns. Indeed, it seems possible that Ramke and Howling are deliberately inverting this racist trope – especially once Andy reluctantly becomes a surrogate parent to Thoon (Simone Landers), a young Indigenous girl on a quest of her own.

What emerges is a suggestive, allegorical notion: that in the wake of catastrophe, the traditional knowledge retained by Australia's Indigenous cultures might hold the key to a viable future.

David Gulpilil.

Photo: Umbrella Entertainment

By the final stretch of the film, this theme becomes dominant, with authority shifting away from Andy and towards other characters ― including the Cleverman whom Thoon is seeking, played in a brief but crucial appearance by David Gulpilil.

While less than fully realised in spots, Cargo can be described as a positive example of what film marketers nowadays call “elevated genre” ― a term understandably resented by long-term genre fans who see it as drawing a spurious line between quality work and supposedly lowbrow fare.

To put it another way, Cargo is a zombie movie made for viewers who don't like zombie movies. This is no bad thing: the question of how to deal with impending apocalypse, after all, is one which all sorts of people might be thinking about, one way or another.

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